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National poll worker shortage due to pandemic calls for younger generations to take up the torch

National poll worker shortage due to pandemic calls for younger generations to take up the torch

National poll worker shortage due to pandemic calls for younger generations to take up the torch
October 01
12:30 2020

A nationwide shortage of poll workers due to the pandemic could mean less access to polling locations and longer wait times at the polls, but the non-partisan organization, the Poll Workers Project, believes younger generations are the solution.

In the 2018 election,  58 percent of poll workers were over the age of 61. But with no end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic before the Nov. 3 election, fewer older adults — who are most at risk for the virus — are choosing to volunteer.

Poll Workers Project founder Noah Goldstein said while a shortage of poll workers was not unheard of in many areas in previous elections, the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. 

“There [are] some studies done by the [U.S. Election Assistance Commission] and Pew [Research Center] that show about two-thirds of jurisdictions were struggling or were finding it either somewhat or very difficult to find poll workers before the pandemic,” Goldstein said. “But throw in the fact that it’s a pandemic [and the] issue obviously gets a lot worse. This is kind of an unprecedented shortage more than we’ve probably ever seen as a country.”

Polling locations required an average of eight workers in the 2016 election. If there are not enough poll workers for a polling location, it could lead to polling location closures and longer wait times to vote. 

Goldstein said for some people — such as caretakers, people without access to childcare, people with disabilities or people who cannot take time off work — longer wait times mean they will not be able to vote. 

“In Atlanta in the June primary, people were waiting in line for three hours, five hours or more, just to vote,” Goldstein said. “If that happened to me, I’d be pissed. But I could stand in line and be pissed all day. Whereas a lot of people would say ‘I have to feed my family, I’m going to get fired from my job if I don’t go.’ It’s just not an option for a lot of people.”

In a suit filed in Georgia against the Secretary of State, members of the Georgia State Election Board and the County Board of Registration and Elections, Plaintiffs cited a report that found polling location closures disproportionately impacted communities of color. 

The report found at polling places where minorities made up over 90 percent of registered voters, the average evening wait time was 51 minutes. At polling places where white people made up over 90 percent of registered voters, the average evening wait time was about six minutes.

Goldstein said adequate access to voting can have a significant impact on the outcome of elections, especially in close races.

“The 2016 election was razor-thin,” Goldstein said. “In some states, it was [a difference of] 10,000 votes, 40,000 votes. This is a very close election. So what we really want to happen is we want enough poll workers working so everybody who wants to vote — however they want to vote — has the opportunity to do so.”

Fellow Poll Workers Project member Jimmy Lengyel said there will always be a need for poll workers, so the organization wants to help fulfill a pipeline of younger poll workers. 

“I think youth feel like voting is important and the message has been centered around voting,” Lengyel said. “Even as early as the 2000s in the elections with Bush, [the message] is all on voting and not necessarily on the process. I think there’s a clear signal that people want change. [Poll working] is one of the ways that, being a young person, you’re going to be closer to how elections run, how they’re mandated and executed. This is something that can become part of our generation and make their voices heard in a more unique way.”

International security and diplomacy and political science sophomore Bella Armenta said she signed up to be a poll worker because of the shortage and because it pays well.

You don’t see a lot of students becoming poll workers when they honestly should,” Armenta said. “You choose your schedule, where you work, and it’s super easy to become a poll worker. I encourage all students to apply to work early voting and Election Day. You can sign up on the Denton County website.”

Goldstein said while older people might be retired and have more flexibility with their time to poll work, he thinks younger generations are still up for the task but might need guidance to start.

“There’s a lot of energy and everyone wants to do something,” Goldstein said. “[But] it’s just overwhelming. I think there’s a lot of ‘Where do I even dip a toe in in the noise of all these huge things happening?’”

Those looking to be a poll worker must work in the county they are registered to vote in and participate in an online training program. Powerthepolls.org allows people to search for their county’s requirements to be a poll worker. People registered in Denton can fill out an application to be a poll worker at votedenton.com

Denton County Election Administrator Frank Phillips said the county has 46 early voting locations and 156 election-day locations which need approximately four to six workers each. In Denton County, election judges receive $14 per hour, alternate judges receive $13 per hour and election clerks receive $12 per hour.

While Phillips said Denton County does not seem to have a shortage of poll workers, other counties, such as Dallas, have seen polling location closures due to a shortage of workers. Dallas County plans to close 281 of 750 polling locations, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Phillips said the county is taking various precautions to protect poll workers and voters from COVID-19. 

“All poll workers are supplied with masks, face shields, gloves and a variety of disinfecting supplies,” Phillips said in an email to the North Texas Daily. “ We have equipment that will disinfect any stylus and pens that voters use.  Being that we only use paper ballots in Denton County, we do not have an issue with voters repeatedly having to touch touch-screen voting equipment as voters have to do in other counties.”

Phillips said the county, however, cannot enforce the use of face coverings at polling locations as a result of Gove. Greg Abbott’s mask mandate.

“We highly recommend that all workers and voters wear face masks,” Phillips said in the email. “In the Governor’s statewide mask order, he listed several different classifications of groups/people that are exempt from the mask order. One of those exemptions to a mask requirement was election workers and voters.  So, even though we highly recommend masks, and provide them for our poll workers, we cannot mandate it.”

Because of the mandate’s exemption, accounting and business economics senior Avery Barthold said he would not be a poll worker in this election.

“I would love to be a poll worker during the upcoming election because I think it’s important to be politically active,” Barthold said. “However, the fact that masks are optional at polling places has completely deterred me from wanting to anymore.”

Armenta said while she is concerned about the pandemic, she still wants to work since many of the usual poll workers cannot. 

“I do have concerns about working during a pandemic,” Armenta said. “But I am confident in the procedures the county is putting in place. If students are scared about in-person voting, I recommend going during early voting to ensure shorter lines and less people in the area.”

Featured Illustration by Durga Bhavana

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Brooke Colombo

Brooke Colombo

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