In Georgia, due to safety concerns around the COVID-19 crisis, many veteran poll workers understandably decided not to work during the primary elections. Poll workers are exposed to thousands of people on Election Day with inadequate provisions made for their health and safety; just one reason that many people don’t want to do this job. But the virus only exacerbated a staffing issue that has existed for years. One of the primary reasons that there are outrageous lines at polling stations is because there are often not enough poll workers, especially in Black and Brown communities. When we see the 4-hour wait times on the news, and the extended poll hours, we never think of the humans who have to work those hours, often with no break, for $200 to $300 for the day’s work.
Between May 26 through June 9, I worked several 13-hour shifts, and on Election Day, my duties ended at 1:15 a.m. On the last day of early voting, my team of 8 processed 800 voters. Because of the lack of staffing and the sheer number of people waiting in line to vote, there wasn’t even time for us to take breaks. Sometimes there were power outages that affected our ability to process votes or receive information from the State Election Board. On Election Day, we found out that our polling station hours were extended to 9 p.m. from Twitter, not from the state or the county.
There are many contributing factors to the extended wait times at the polls. In my experience, processing one vote can take 30 minutes because most voters struggle to understand our complicated political system. The average person doesn’t have easy access to information on the complexities of the various types of ballots, despite their impact on our lives beyond the election. These are concepts that many meet for the first time as they are casting their votes. Aside from this challenge, I find that many people aren’t aware of all the issues or candidates on their ballot.
We need to institutionalize civic and voter education in our school systems to inform students on how to fulfill their civic duty. The Andrew Goodman Foundation is educating millions of college students about their right to vote and the best ways to execute their civic responsibilities even in the middle of a pandemic. We don’t need more voting rights organizations; we need to invest more deeply in the ones we have — those that understand how to educate people around their rights.
What is truly concerning is that many poll workers do not have this information either, and can only do so much to answer voters’ questions. I only know all of this because of my interest in our political process, which inspired my work in college as an Andrew Goodman Ambassador.
What is needed is a national program that trains poll workers and ensures adequate staffing and resource management for every polling site in the country. We need to invest in acceptable working conditions for the people at the front lines of upholding the very fabric of our democracy — free and fair elections. We never question the impact of overworked, under-trained poll workers on our elections. In this time of raised awareness, it is up to us to ask those questions.
We need to employ adaptive learning technologies to train poll workers effectively and efficiently. We need to diversify our staffing so that polls are accessible to those with language barriers and disabilities. Finally, we need to make Election Day a federal holiday so that more people will be available to work the polls and to vote.
I fully understand that these changes will take time and money — luxuries we do not have as we race towards November. But I am calling on the Georgia State Election Board to put measures in place for better recruitment, training, and working conditions for our poll workers, especially those in Black and Brown communities. We have long struggled for transparency around our elections, and this would be one way to help combat the voter suppression and gerrymandering that have long plagued our elections in this state.
As Americans, we tend to disassociate the product and services from the human capital used to render them. Poll workers are on the front line of our democracy, but we leave them to fail. We need to fundamentally change how we staff our elections and how we train our election workers. We need to respect their labor and improve the conditions under which they do these critical jobs. Until we do that, no election will be fair or free.
Evan Malbrough is a 2020 graduate of Georgia State University and an Andrew Goodman Foundation Ambassador who spent time this year as a poll worker.
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