Rep. Levin, city election officials call for higher wages for election workers

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

Madison Heights — U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, a Democrat from Bloomfield Township, made his case Friday for creating a federal grant program that would help the state raise pay for election workers.

At a Friday event, Levin said he introduced with colleagues on Thursday the Enhanced Pay for Election Workers Act, which would amend the Help America Vote Act to create the grant program. Election workers are chronically underpaid and typically older Americans, said Levin, who is in an Aug. 2 primary race with U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Waterford. 

Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., speaks about the resolution he introduced on the rights of congressional workers to unionize during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

Under the proposal, the program would distribute grants to individual states for a proportional basis with a minimum floor amount of funding guaranteed to each state no matter its size, he said.

Levin's pitch came the day after the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol laid the blame firmly on former President Donald Trump, saying the assault was an “attempted coup” and a direct result of the defeated Republican''s effort to overturn the 2020 election.

"The project to undermine our democracy has made the workplace of elections incredibly challenging for election workers," Levin said at the Madison Heights clerk's office. "Despite perpetuation of the Big Lie, these brave public servants continued to ensure that all Americans can vote safely and securely."

Levin emphasized the proposal is not partisan, despite the bill having no Republican co-sponsors. 

"This has nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans — this is our democracy, just carrying out the functions of it so that it can work," Levin said. 

Madison Heights Clerk Cheryl Rottmann and Ferndale Clerk Anthony Essmaker both emphasized the importance of recruiting new election workers, a task that would be made easier by increased funding and wages.

"Our election work poll workforce is aging," Rottmann said. "This legislation will also enable clerks such as myself to recruit the next generation of poll workers and create sustainability in staffing elections."

Rottmann said in her eight years as City Clerk in Madison Heights, recruitment and retention of election workers has always been a problem and was exacerbated by the pandemic. 

"Election workers must be compensated adequately for their services and sacrifice," Levin said. "Until that happens, we'll have trouble retaining and attracting enough workers to run our elections properly."

Rottmann added that election workers in Michigan typically receive the minimum wage, which is not enough compensation for overseeing the right to vote. Michigan's minimum wage is $9.87 an hour. 

"These individuals take time away from their lives and often their careers to help their community vote and ensure each vote is carefully counted," Essmaker said. "They are a force for election integrity, election security and bipartisanship."

Madison Heights Mayor Roslyn Grafstein emphasized that one of election workers' most important roles is to ensure citizens feel safe when voting. 

From left to right: Ferndale City Clerk Anthony Essmaker, Rep. Andy Levin, Madison Heights Mayor Roslyn Grafstein, Madison Heights City Clerk Cheryl Rottmann.

"Voting is your right as an American," Grafstein said. "But if you don't feel safe doing that, you may not do that. You may decide to stay home or just step out completely. And in order for you to feel comfortable, we need to make sure that our workers are going to be there."

Earlier this year Levin introduced the Election Worker and Polling Place Protection Act in response to increased threats of violence against election workers and officials. Essmaker said both issues, underpayment and safety concerns, need to be addressed. 

"When you're asking somebody to take time out of their day and get away from their job and their family to serve in this amazing way, to really not offer to pay them hardly anything is difficult as it is," Essmaker said. "But then you add the safety concerns on as well, it's a hard sell for sure."

Rottman said her office has started preparations for the Michigan primary elections in August, and recruitment of election workers is already posing a challenge. She encouraged interested individuals to reach out to their city clerk's office. 

"We are legally required to maintain a partisan balance between two different parties or more," Essmaker said. "To also recruit different parties and people that are from different backgrounds to be inspectors is really important."

hmackay@detroitnews.com