With older poll workers sidelined, young Americans step up

Why We Wrote This

When the pandemic threatened to keep older poll workers away, young people rose to fill the void. It’s an emergency measure, but one that is kindling civic engagement in a generation that has often been called apathetic.

Jonathan Drake/Reuters
Poll workers prepare absentee ballots at the Wake County Board of Elections in Raleigh, North Carolina, on the first day that the state started mailing them out, Sept. 4, 2020.

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Leo Kamin is just 20 days too young to vote this year, but that was no excuse to sit out the election. He became a poll worker in March and has since helped recruit 30,000 poll workers, many of them high schoolers like himself, through Poll Hero Project.

Even in a good year, the small army of election officials needed each November is hard to rally. Add in a pandemic, which disproportionately affects the older Americans who make up the majority of poll workers, and many feared a crisis.

Yet even if some shortages still remain, the deluge of young people stepping up to take their place has been enormous – and may ripple into a new generation of poll workers civically engaged for years to come.

“There are a lot of stereotypes about my generation: We’re lazier, not connecting to the real world. We’re zombies to social media and our phones and stuff,” Mr. Kamin says. “But this has truly shown me that is just not at all true. There are so many people my age who are just looking for any opportunity to get involved.”

The air was freezing, the sun had yet to rise, and Leo Kamin had just arrived at the church for his 6 a.m. shift – which meant he only had 15 hours to go.

Out came the tents and tables, mercifully arranged around heating lamps in the gusty parking lot. Inside, he and a team of poll workers puzzled together dividers, printers, tables, tablets, computers, and their all-
important voting machines. 

All that was left was the voters. And at Mr. Kamin’s polling station in Denver on March 3, they would soon arrive in hundreds. By the time he left at 9 in the evening, Mr. Kamin had used so much hand sanitizer his skin was beginning to crack.

But among the many ballots he saw cast that day, not one was his own. A high school junior, Mr. Kamin is 17 and just 20 days too young to vote this year. For him, that wasn’t an excuse to sit out the election. Mr. Kamin turned to poll working and first pitched in during the primaries in March. This November he’ll return, and likely send thousands of other young poll workers to voting stations.  

Partly motivated by his experience in March, Mr. Kamin helped found the Poll Hero Project, a nationwide drive to register poll workers for this year’s election. Their initial goal, says Ryan Schwieger, a senior at Princeton University and another co-founder, was to recruit 1,000 poll workers in the first month. They hit that number in a week, and have since added almost 30,000 more – mostly still in high school, and like Mr. Kamin, unable to vote themselves. 

Poll Hero’s work is at the vanguard of a countrywide call to action for young people to help run this year’s election. Even in a good year, the small army of election officials needed each November is hard to rally. Add in a pandemic, which disproportionately affects the older Americans who make up the majority of poll workers, and many feared a crisis. 

Yet even if some shortages still remain, the deluge of young people stepping up to take their place has been enormous – and may ripple into a new generation of poll workers civically engaged for years to come.

“There are a lot of stereotypes about my generation: We’re lazier, not connecting to the real world. We’re zombies to social media and our phones and stuff,” Mr. Kamin says. “But this has truly shown me that is just not at all true. There are so many people my age who are just looking for any opportunity to get involved.”

The heart of democracy

If there ever was a time to get involved in elections, it’s this year, says Quentin Palfrey, chairman of the Voter Protection Corps (VPC).

A national election requires about 115,000 polling places and 900,000 poll workers, he says. But since in a typical season some 60% of poll workers are age 60 or older, the people most likely to work the polls are also those most threatened by COVID-19. 

During the primaries, the pandemic led to mass shortages of poll workers in states like Georgia and Wisconsin – shuttering more than 90% of polling places in some locales. These closures forced tight bottlenecks and hourslong waits to vote. The result, says Andrea Hailey, CEO of Vote.org,
was logistical disenfranchisement of voters who didn’t know where to vote or have the time to wait. 

There is no comprehensive data for American election officials, but research from the VPC and Carnegie Mellon University suggests that 485 counties in eight battleground states are still at a high risk for poll worker shortages. 

While absentee voting and voting by mail are now more available than ever, not everyone has or prefers that option, says Mr. Palfrey. Particularly for long-disenfranchised groups, he says, there’s a certain comfort in casting a ballot in person. 

And to do that, people need poll workers, says Rachael Cobb, chair of political science and legal studies at Suffolk University in Boston.

From answering questions to keeping records to reporting votes, these front-line election workers manage American democracy’s most important day from start to finish.

“The whole health and wellness of our democracy at the end of the day comes down to people filling out their ballots,” says Ms. Hailey. “When you go in person, poll workers are the people who are going to guide that experience.”

Answering the call of duty

A desire to experience that other side of elections brought Bree Baccaglini, a law student at Stanford University, to a four-hour poll worker training in 2018. In that informational monsoon, she learned how to troubleshoot the voting machines, handle ballots, and manage the human error bound to come. 

When she arrived at the polling place weeks later at 6 a.m., she entered one of the most rigorous civic educations of her life. 

“Elections are mammoth national events run by bajillions of individuals,” she says. “We view it as a rarefied process, but it’s really just a lot of normal people showing up to do their jobs.”

Ms. Baccaglini will return to work the polls this November, freshly motivated to play her part during the pandemic. Her sense of purpose – shared by thousands of other young people working the polls this November – hints at a rise in collective spirit among a group often viewed as civically apathetic. 

Of the more than 600,000 poll workers that the nationwide campaign Power the Polls has attracted this year, around 40% are under 35 and 65% are under 50, says Robert Brandon, president and CEO of Fair Elections Center, one of the campaign’s founding organizations.

Each of the many young poll workers interviewed for this story mentioned a desire to protect voting rights and more at-risk Americans who may need to stay at home. 

“Older and more immuno-vulnerable people should definitely not have to bear this burden,” says Ms. Baccaglini. 

The upshot is a new sense of collective engagement among some, brought to light by the pandemic and tense election. To steal a phrase, says Ms. Hailey of Vote.org, many younger Americans are not asking what the election can do for them. They’re asking what they can do for their election. 

Emily Luan, an adjunct professor who lives in Brooklyn, plans to work the polls for the first time this November. She doesn’t feel particularly inspired by the candidates this year, but she wants to be sure that anyone around her who wants to vote can vote. 

Anika Rice, who will work the polls even while working on her Ph.D. in geology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, hopes to engage with her community and help protect voting rights. 

Leah Rocketto, an editor at Woman’s Day in New York, is stepping up on Election Day just because she can. She feels privileged to be young, healthy, and employed during the pandemic. Why not use that privilege to help people vote? 

And then there’s Mr. Kamin, who will return to the polling place hoping for better weather this November. 

His first foray into election work let him witness some heartwarming moments: applause for first-time voters, civic excitement from new citizens, the grace of the older poll workers who remind him of his grandmother. He hopes for more such moments in the fall, and another chance to participate in the collective effort of Election Day.

“For people like me especially who cannot vote, it just feels good to make an impact,” he says. “And you’re making an impact on hundreds of people instead of just casting one ballot.”

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