This Is A Crucial Way To Help Protect Our Democracy In November — Even If You Can’t Vote
With just 40 days left until the presidential election, this country is facing a critical poll worker shortage. More than half of the roughly 1 million poll workers who worked during the 2016 election were over 60 years old according to the Election Assistance Commission. This year, due to being one of the most vulnerable groups to contracting the coronavirus, thousands of older poll workers have decided to abandon their posts out of fear of contracting the virus.
The dire effects of having understaffed polling places played out during the primaries early this year. From Georgia to Wisconsin, voters were forced to wait in long lines and travel long distances to their polling places, making the process arduous for some and impossible for many.
One solution to address this shortage is to push for young people, who are at less risk of severe illness from COVID-19 than are their elderly counterparts, to sign up to work the polls. The majority of states allow those as young as 16 to sign up (in Missouri, the minimum age is 15) although many have different requirements for how to qualify, whether it’s maintaining a certain GPA or needing parental permission. Other states, like Alabama and New Mexico, require the workers to be at least 18.
Power the Polls is one initiative mobilizing to recruit poll workers, and Erika Soto Lamb, Vice President of Social Impact Strategy at Comedy Central/MTV and co-founder of Power the Polls, spoke to Supermajority News about their efforts, and particularly the role young people can play in protecting our democracy this November.
What is Power the Polls and what does it aim to accomplish?
Power the Polls is a first of its kind initiative to recruit the next generation of poll workers who are younger, healthy, and more diverse [than poll workers have previously typically been]. We want to ensure a safe and fair election for all who vote — in this election cycle and for elections to come. Because of COVID-19, we are in the midst of a nationwide poll worker shortage and that can lead to voter disenfranchisement. Signing up to be a poll worker is something you can do to help address this crisis and make this election safer and more accessible for all.
How many poll workers are you aiming to recruit?
In the beginning, we sought to recruit 250,000 people to sign up to be poll workers. Before National Poll Worker Recruitment Day, which took place on September 1, we had recruited about 150,000. By the end of the day, we had met and exceeded our 250,000 sign-up goal. So, in one day we recruited 100,000 people to sign up to be poll workers. We set a new goal the next day of 350,000, but we have since blown past that. We’ve exceeded 400,000 people, which is a great sign that we have so much momentum and interest.
But we know that we are not done. [Since this effort started] we have heard from election administrators in some parts of the country, who have said they have never seen such overwhelming interest in being a poll worker and they have waitlists — but we know that is not true everywhere, and we also know that signing up is just the first step. It’s our work at Power the Polls to connect people to their local election administrators to learn more about the requirements and the training involved. We know that a lot of people are going to fall off, so there is no cap on the number of people we need and want to recruit to be poll workers this year because we know we are going to need them come early vote and the November election.
Why is the poll worker shortage an issue?
We launched the Power the Polls campaign in early July, after having seen the consequence of the pandemic in recent primaries. We saw that the poll worker shortages were leading to long lines and voter disenfranchisement across the country — like in Georgia, where understaffed voting locations caused voters to have to choose between waiting several hours to vote or be[ing] disenfranchised. As we know, not everyone can afford to wait in a long line. Fewer voting locations and longer lines have a worse effect on marginalized communities of color and on low income folks. So we saw that in Georgia, [and] we also saw it in Kentucky where, because of the shortage of poll workers, election administrators consolidated in-person voting in each county to a single voting location. In Louisville, which is not a small town, having only one polling location meant hours long waits, and people not being able to cast their vote and participate in democracy and decisions that affect their lives. That was also true in Washington D.C. where we heard from the D.C. Board of Elections that 1,700 election workers did not show up during their primary voting period. We also saw that in Wisconsin and Alaska, there were so many reports of few polling locations and longer lines in those primaries that we knew we had to do something to address this crisis before the upcoming early vote and November election.
Poll worker[s] help ensure safe, fair, and smooth elections. In planning elections, election administrators decide how many polling locations or where they are going to be depending on how many poll workers are available to work the polls. So, not enough poll workers equals not enough polling locations, equals longer lines.
Who has typically worked the polls in the past?
I wasn’t surprised to find out when I started doing this work that 65% of poll workers are over 60. That was consistent with my experience, and the lovely people who helped me know which station to stand at and which direction to put my ballot in the machine. But I also assumed — and this is a common misconception — that they were volunteers. They aren’t volunteers. Poll working is a paid position. So this can be a really exciting opportunity for young people who have been affected by the economic consequences of the pandemic. Signing up to be a poll worker is your opportunity to save granny, protect our democracy, and get paid. In a year of activism, [with] people looking for ways to participate in our democracy, being a poll worker is one of those ways that you can really ensure we have safe and fair elections for as many people who want to cast their votes.
Is this a way people who are not yet old enough to vote can get involved?
We set out specifically to recruit the next generation of poll workers. The first step about learning about those requirements is singing up at PowerThePolls.org. What we do is connect people who sign up to learn more with the specific information about what the qualifications and requirements are. You won’t be surprised to hear, like everything related to voting, that it varies from state to state. We have some of that information on the site, but the way to learn how it relates to you is sign up and we will make sure that you get redirected to the information about requirements in your area. In most states, you need to be a U.S. citizen and potentially a registered voter. In some states you can be as young as 16 to work the polls.
How can young people who don’t meet the requirements get involved?
They can help us spread the word. One of the important parts of Power the Polls is, first, sounding the alarm bell. You can’t fix the problem if you don’t know about it. Even if you can’t sign up to be a poll worker, you can help us recruit people to sign up to be a poll worker by sharing the link with your network: that can direct people to sign up in their areas.
Are there any states that are in particular need of poll workers?
This has been a 50-state strategy. We are working with election administrators everywhere to make sure they have workers and don’t have to close any polling locations. Based on our data, we are expecting that Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin may be hardest hit in this election based on poll worker shortages. So we are doing everything we can to go wide and make sure people know that they are needed.