Opinion: Meet a new generation of poll workers

09/29/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Fulton County Poll worker Dian Rodriguez-Harrison uses an electronic device to check a voter in at the polling site located at Fanplex in AtlantaÕs Summerhill community, Tuesday, September 29, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
09/29/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Fulton County Poll worker Dian Rodriguez-Harrison uses an electronic device to check a voter in at the polling site located at Fanplex in AtlantaÕs Summerhill community, Tuesday, September 29, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Groups mobilize to make sure polls are adequately staffed

In a few weeks, Ella Gantman will head to the polls for the first time — not only to vote, but also to be a poll worker.

“I’m expecting it to be really cool, in the fact that a lot of people are relying on you for help to cast their vote,” said Gantman, 19. “I’m really excited for those interpersonal connections and connecting with different voters.”

Gantman, a sophomore at Princeton University, said she’s always been passionate about democratic processes and civic engagement but hadn’t considered becoming a poll worker. That changed this summer when some of her fellow students met to brainstorm some ways they could help with the election process.

The result was the Poll Hero Project – a nonpartisan group co-founded by Gantman and other Princeton University students, as well as a group of high school students and a graduate of University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

The nonprofit group, with around 100 volunteers, is recruiting college and high school students to become poll workers. Their initial goal was 1,000 people; at last count more than 28,000 had signed up.

As fears mount over if there will be a safe and fair election in November, various national efforts are underway to ensure election integrity and maximize voter turnout. One area of particular concern is the country’s potential shortage of poll workers to help with in-person voting.

In response, new groups such as the Poll Hero Project are mobilizing, while existing groups are getting creative to fill this gap.

Challenges with recruiting poll workers are not new.

In 2018, around 70 percent of jurisdictions reported at least some difficulty in filling their poll worker jobs, according to a national survey by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. But the COVID-19 crisis is making the problem much worse.

“What is new this year is a real significant need,” said Ben Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. "We know that the majority of poll workers are over 60 years of age, and so likely in those higher-risk categories for complications of COVID.

“Coming out of the primaries, we saw real challenges that election administrators faced.”

In response, the Election Assistance Commission launched the first ever National Poll Worker Recruitment Day.

“At a time when people are looking to make a difference or be able to do something, here is an absolute concrete way to help our democracy,” Hovland said. “We know that people who serve as poll workers, particularly when it’s young people, they become more familiar and comfortable with the process and it leads to more long-term voting and engagement.”

The Poll Hero Project is using social media to reach young people, with a focus on cities especially at risk of poll worker shortages. Once someone signs up, one of the group’s volunteers guides them through the process.

So far, the majority of those who’ve signed up are high school students. In many states people younger than 18 can be poll workers even if they can’t vote.

“It’s so compelling to have students recruiting other students. That has been a huge part of our success,” Gantman said. “There’s a unified Gen Z pride, a little bit, in being that generation that’s going to create change this election.”

Another new poll worker recruitment group is Power the Polls. The nonpartisan coalition includes big brands like Comedy Central, MTV, Patagonia and Uber and civic engagement groups, such as the United Way, the YMCA and the League of Women Voters.

Erika Soto Lamb, a co-founder of Power the Polls and VP of social impact strategy at Comedy Central and MTV, said this diversity of organizations has allowed them to tackle the issue from many different angles simultaneously.

Not enough poll workers means not enough polling locations … It means long lines and all of that equals disenfranchisement, particularly for low-income voters and marginalized communities of color,” she said.

“Step one is sounding the alarm bell that this is a problem. Step two is letting people know they can do something right now to fix it.”

When Power the Polls launched in July, they set a recruiting goal of 250,000 people. Those who sign up are connected with their local board of elections to learn more about becoming a poll worker.

Through social media outreach, digital marketing and promotion by celebrities such as the comedian Trevor Noah, they have already signed up more than 530,000 people.

“I’ve worked on a lot of different social issue campaigns, but I am not sure I’ve seen something catch fire so quickly,” said Soto Lamb. “I think it helps a lot that it’s a rapid response project.”

While encouraging, it’s still too early to gauge the success of their recruitment efforts.

However, Soto Lamb said there are promising signs — such as in parts of Colorado, Madison, Wis., and Salt Lake City, Utah, where they’ve seen overwhelming interest.

“This moment has demanded that we find a new generation of poll workers and get people to step up, and I think we’re seeing that happen,” Hovland said.

“The impact of this will certainly be seen in 2020, but also beyond that.”

Juhie Bhatia writes for Ms. Magazine. These stories are part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

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