Another Potential Election Fiasco: Vanishing Volunteers at the Polls

Jocelyn Bush, a poll worker at the Edmondson Westside High School polling site, cleans each station after a ballot is cast during the special election for Maryland’s 7th congressional district seat in Baltimore, Md., April 28, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
Older poll workers fear catching the coronavirus, and younger Americans, many of whom have never taken a civics course, have scant interest in civic engagement.

The good news is that leading experts believe it will be safe for nearly all Americans to vote in person at the polls this November. Dr. Anthony Fauci told National Geographic that those who are medically compromised can vote by mail but that otherwise “there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to vote in person or otherwise.”

The bad news is that states are facing a shortage of thousands of poll workers as older volunteers at higher risk for coronavirus cancel plans to show up on Election Day.

America already faced a vanishing corps of volunteers before the virus, as existing ones retired or died. It’s become more and more difficult to convince younger generations to take on a job that involves twelve-hour days or longer and pays between $75 and $160 for the whole day.

According to the Election Assistance Commission, more than two-thirds of election boards reported that in 2018 it was either “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to obtain a sufficient amount of poll workers.

The nation’s 900,000 poll workers are responsible for everything from making sure voters get the right ballots to helping people with issues as they vote. Shortages of people could add confusion, long lines, and delays to an Election Day process that has already been taxed by coronavirus.

The Pew Research Center reports that 58 percent of poll workers in 2018 were 61 or older. That’s the age demographic that is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. The complexity of election laws has made the job increasingly stressful; plus, poll workers may face verbal or other abuse from angry voters.

So it’s no surprise that many have opted not to show up this year. Early in August, more than a third of election-judge positions were vacant in Maryland. Most worrying is that it’s older, more experienced judges who are dropping out — often after consulting with family and friends.

Other election officials are seeing early shortages and scrambling to recruit a new generation of poll workers for Election Day. With the increasing importance of technology in the election process, many are trying to harness the talents of tech-savvy young people. Some colleges and high schools are offering credit to students who help out by explaining new voting machines, assisting the disabled, and even serving as translators. Young people who work at the polls as understudies to older poll workers may become engaged enough to stay involved after they finish school.

The Poll Hero Project, founded by a group of students from Princeton University and Denver East High School, is recruiting poll workers and guiding them through the process. “We’re there to hold their hand through the sometimes complex, sometimes annoying, bureaucratic-form-type processes of getting connected to the people they need to be connected with,” Avi Stopper, a co-founder of Poll Hero, told NBC News. His group also points out that such service is “great on a résumé, and this is a really good way to demonstrate to colleges or graduate schools or employers that you are a participant in democracy.”

Some state election offices, such as those in Iowa and Michigan, have specific programs to recruit young people. The Leadership Institute, a group based in Arlington, Va., that has trained nearly 100,000 young people in how to run for office and work on campaigns, is planning its own outreach effort

Compounding the challenge of involving young people in elections is the sad fact that in many schools, civics is no longer any part of the curriculum. In his Farewell Address as he left office in 1989, Ronald Reagan warned of the consequences of not educating Americans in their history and civic duties:

If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I am warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.

Few would argue that since 1989 we have paid enough attention to Reagan’s warning. We may be paying part of the price for that neglect in the mindless protesting of so many young people for causes they don’t understand. We also pay a price when we find it so hard to recruit enough poll workers. A shorthanded election process would eventually become a process that shortchanged the people.


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