Young adults encouraged to become poll workers amid coronavirus-induced shortage

September 24, 2020 — by Preston Fu

Senior Leo Kamin at Denver East High School in Denver, Colo., was up long before sunrise on March 3; fumbling through wires and poles, he set up computers, printers and booths in preparation for 14 hours of greeting and helping voters, checking registration and handing out documents.

It was his first day as a poll worker.

The Poll Hero Project, founded by Kamin and seven other students from Princeton and Denver East High School this summer, aims to encourage high school and college students to become poll workers. But they’re only one part of an ongoing effort to recruit poll workers across the country for the Nov. 3 election.

In 2016, 60 percent poll workers — the people who make elections possible by setting up and managing voting centers — were over 60. Since this demographic is now at a higher risk of suffering severe COVID-19 symptoms, the number of available poll workers has decreased significantly. Notably, in Wisconsin’s April primaries, Milwaukee had just five voting sites compared to its usual 180, and in Anchorage, Ala., 95 percent of previous poll workers declined to serve this year due to the risk of COVID-19 exposure. 

The consolidation of voting sites combined with severe shortages in poll workers resulted in much longer lines. Wait times ranging from 1.5 to 4 hours led several Los Angeles residents to give up on voting in the March primaries.

These shortages have particularly hurt underrepresented minorities — an analysis by The Guardian revealed that the 50 Texas counties that gained the most Black and Latinx residents between 2012 and 2018 closed 542 polling sites, compared to just 34 closures in the 50 counties that have gained the fewest Black and Latinx residents.

To combat these issues, a wide variety of people and organizations have attempted to mitigate this ongoing shortage.

Old Navy, a clothing retail company based in the Bay Area, is a member of the Civic Alliance, a non-partisan group of businesses that pushes for full voter participation. They now pay employees to serve as poll workers in the upcoming election, and offer three hours of paid time off to vote on Election Day.

Several sports teams are also contributing to this effort. The Los Angeles Dodgers are converting Dodger Stadium into a polling site in collaboration with NBA star LeBron James’s nonprofit More Than a Vote that fights systemic voter suppression. The Golden State Warriors announced that their Oakland Facility and Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz would serve as polling stations as well.

The Poll Hero Project, however, is one of the few organizations focusing specifically on teenage volunteers. In July, they began recruiting volunteers on social media; within a few days, their team gradually increased to about 30 members. Soon, when their message went viral, the number shot up by 906 within a single day, and in a little over a month, they recruited a total of 8,200 students from across the U.S., far exceeding their original goal of 1,000.

“Seeing thousands of peers sign up has been super inspiring, especially because kids our age are often seen as lazy, selfish, or disconnected from the ‘real world,’” Kamin told The Falcon. “It is clear that so many of us are really looking for ways to make an impact.”

Although the turnout was significantly higher than expected, the November election still requires hundreds of thousands of poll workers across the country. The team hopes to continue increasing student participation.

“There is so much more to be done in such a short amount of time, so we need everyone who can help,” Princeton University sophomore and Poll Hero co-founder Kennedy Mattes said.

Michaela Fogarty, Palo Alto High School alumna and junior at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., plans on being a poll worker in Santa Clara County for the upcoming election. This past summer, she worked at Campus Compact, a coalition of colleges and universities, where she recruited students to be poll workers and promoted these organizations.

“These sites are great because they make signing up to be a poll worker very accessible,” Fogarty said. “It is vital that young people step up and make voting available to everyone to protect our democracy, especially in a time when people in power try to restrict [mail-in] voting.”

Mattes and Fogarty encourage students who aren’t comfortable with being a poll worker during the pandemic to spread awareness, get involved with voter registration efforts, participate in protests and vote if they can.

Despite the current lack of poll workers, Mattes remains optimistic. She has enjoyed the opportunity to start Poll Hero as both a learning experience and a chance to make a positive contribution to America’s democracy.

“Poll Hero has connected me with incredible people around the county who I would not have been able to meet otherwise,” Mattes said. “It gives me hope for our future knowing that these student leaders will one day be in positions to make decisions for the rest of us.”

 

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