/Next generation of poll workers: Young people are stepping up during the pandemic. It might avert a crisis

Next generation of poll workers: Young people are stepping up during the pandemic. It might avert a crisis

WASHINGTON — Like thousands of other teenagers, Abhinand Keshamouni’s introduction to working the polls came from watching “The Daily Show.”

Host Trevor Noah ends each episode with a pitch for Power the Polls, a national recruitment network working to ensure there are enough poll workers on Election Day. The message resonated with Keshamouni, a 17-year-old senior from Canton, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.

He signed up first for the Michigan state primary in August. And he will be back at a polling site Nov. 3, when he will take off a day from his high school that’s conducting classes online. Keshamouni will be among more 1 million poll workers braving a pandemic to ensure people can vote – and he got four of his buddies to do the same.

“I thought it was a really good way to help our democracy, especially because I can’t vote right now,” Keshamouni said, adding that he also got a little pressure from his parents, Indian immigrants who will be voting in their first presidential election. “My entire family can vote except for me, so they were like, ‘Go work the polls!’ “

Abhinand Keshamouni

Facing a drastic shortage of poll workers in November because of the coronavirus pandemic, an army of voting rights groups and other organizations this summer waged the most robust poll-worker recruitment campaign in modern election history. It has included high-profile allies, from Noah to NBA star LeBron James, whose recently formed More Than a Vote organization has worked to increase poll workers in predominantly Black districts. Companies like Starbucks, Warby Parker and Target are paying their employees who take a day off to work the polls.

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Senior citizens historically make up the bulk of the workforce at polling sites but hundreds opted out this year because they’re the most vulnerable to coronavirus. For months, voting rights advocates feared cities might not have the manpower to keep all in-person polling sites open – particularly in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan that could decide the presidential election.

But now election officials in cities such as Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Houston aren’t just confident they will be able to keep an expanded number of polling sites open. Fueled in part by a willingness of people in their 20s and 30s to step up, some cities said they have thousands more applications than they need. 

“We have way more than we can even use right now,” said Richard Barron, Fulton County director of registration and elections in Atlanta, which has added 91 new polling locations since the state’s June primary. Fulton County has nearly 7,000 applications for 2,900 poll-worker positions. “We’re in very good shape. A lot of people saw what happened in June and they decided they needed to get involved.”

Barron said that includes many poll workers in their late teens and early 20s, pointing to one early voting site during the state’s August’s primary runoff that was staffed by six people under 25 years old. 

“We’ve never had that before,” he said.

Lessons from recent state primaries

In some states, poll workers can be as young as 16 years old. Election officials hope the young recruits return for future elections, making it their new civic tradition and creating a “new generation of poll workers.”

Prompting much of the activism: the scenes of hours-long lines of voters during state primaries early on in the pandemic. Among the longest lines were in Milwaukee, where only five of 180 polling locations opened for Wisconsin’s April primary, and Atlanta, where voters – some who did not receive absentee ballots in the mail – packed the limited number of polling sites open during its June primary.

“We were really the poster-child across the country for what it looks like not to have enough poll workers,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission. “The only good thing to come out of that is that our voters really had a visual of what a poll-worker shortage looks like. Ever since April 7, we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people applying to be an election worker.”

Although an unprecedented number of Americans are expected to vote by mail in November, voting rights advocates have pushed for all in-person voting sites to remain open to avoid voter suppression, particularly in communities of color that are often the most likely to see polling locations closed and consolidated. 

To recruit younger poll workers, Milwaukee partnered with the local Service Employees International Union, which represents restaurant workers and others in the service industry who tend to be young. 

The Metro Atlanta Chamber launched an initiative to recruit “young, tech-savvy Georgians” in the region while the state of Georgia teamed with the ACLU. Drawing more attention, Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, home to the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, is one of several arenas and NFL stadiums nationally that will be used as voting sites.

In Houston, the Harris County Clerk’s Office has a young clerks program in which more than 4,500 high school students in the Houston area will work polls in November. Texas law allows two excused absences a year for election work. The students are among the 25,000 poll-worker applications received this year in Houston – far more than is needed to fill a record 11,000 positions. The city anticipates having 808 voting sites this year, around 60 more than 2016.

“There’s still more work to do, but we are in really good shape,” Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said. “We’re going to have more election workers than ever before – as many as 11,000 – but so far there’s been an outpouring of enthusiasm of folks wanting to be election workers. Certainly, there are many more young people and middle-aged folks who have applied than ever before.”

Some cities bump up pay during pandemic

Hollins said fewer senior poll workers backed out in Houston than expected, which combined with the thousands of more applicants, led to the large surplus.

Election officials are optimistic in Detroit, where widespread problems from the state’s August primary led Michigan Secretary of State Joceyln Benson, a Democrat, to help oversee the November election. Her office recruited 20,000 poll workers for the state, and with efforts ongoing, they believe there will be plenty to cover Detroit’s 6,000 election workers – one-third of whom are needed to count absentee ballots.

“It’s looking very, very promising,” Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said.

In Philadelphia, another city that will closely watched in the race between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, election officials said they’ve filled 5,660 of the city’s 8,515 poll worker positions – far ahead of the typical pace after receiving “thousands” of applications. The response has been so great they’ve been unable to contact everyone who has inquired. 

“Our poll-working endeavors have been largely focused on the millennials, trying to get them involved in the democratic process,” said Nakea Hurdle, chief deputy for Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir, who is overseeing the recruitment efforts. “We’ve seen an overwhelmingly large response.”

Part of attracting more poll workers in some cities during a pandemic is increasing pay. Houston is paying poll workers, including the 4,500 high school students, $17 an hour. Milwaukee, thanks to a grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, added an additional $100 daily stipend on top of its normal $130 daily pay. Fulton County, Georgia has $150 in “hazard pay” on top of flat rates that range between $175 and $275 based on responsibilities.  Philadelphia pays at least $200. 

The Center for Tech and Civic Life received a $250 million donation from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg to provide grants to cities to support the staffing and training of poll workers.

The flood of applicants doesn’t mean the work is done – recruitment efforts will continue up to the election – nor does it mean that Election Day will take place without problems, long lines or fewer in-person polling sites.

Some cities and states have already cut voting sites. Maryland, for example, will have 80% fewer polling locations in November, opting to instead adopt a limited number of “voting centers,” because of a sharp a decrease in people willing to be poll workers.

More:Maryland plans to open fewer polling places. What does that mean for rural voters?

Micheal Singleton, second left, and his wife Gladys wait in line to vote continued a few blocks south of the polling location at Riverside High School in Milwaukee on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

Complicating the outlook, some cities have prepared for a higher-than-usual 20% drop-off rate when it comes to showing up for work assignments because of the pandemic. 

An analysis from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Democracy Works in August found more than 1.1 million poll workers are needed for the Nov. 3 election. Typically, more than half are over the age of 60 years old. Researchers projected a shortage of more than 465,000 poll workers. Although that figure has been cut dramatically, a gap still remains.

A ‘bench’ of poll workers

Power the Polls, which formed in June to help recruit low-risk and diverse poll workers, surpassed its goal of signing up 250,000 people and is now nearing 500,000. But not all applicants will find available positions, making it complicated to say how many poll workers are still needed nationally.

More than 100,000 people alone signed up during the first three days of September, coinciding with National Poll Worker Recruitment Day. The nonprofit connects the applicants with local jurisdictions. The goal is to create a “bench” of prospective poll workers who can fill in as needs arise and avoid any voting sites shutting down.

“We’re really trying to emphasize young folks as sort of the next generation of poll workers,” said Scott Duncombe, co-director of Power the Polls. “Not only are they less at risk for the disease, they’re a little more tech-savvy. A lot of times, we’ve seen election technology causing lines and issues. Additionally, young folks tend to be a little more representative.”

Volunteer Kelly Grech slides a ballot underneath a plastic partition to protect her from transmission of COVID-19 while helping out at town election on Saturday, June 27, 2020. Normally there would be two volunteers to check in residents but the town clerk applied for a waiver with the Secretary of State to reduce the number of poll workers at town election.

He called the threat of a shortage a real “crisis” – but “not one that we can’t solve together.”

Power the Poll’s partners include Alpha Phi Alpha, the country’s oldest historically African American fraternity that has recruited members to work polls. The group has also tapped into the Million Mask Challenge to help provide protective equipment at polling sites.

“It’s certainly been a huge challenge. We’ve never had to vote in a pandemic,” Duncombe said. “What really makes me hopeful is that it seems that a lot of folks really are stepping up. It seems like people are recognizing in many ways the need to serve. Young folks in particularly are stepping up and recognizing that you gotta do something.”

A push for more data from states

Nathaniel Persily, a law professor from Stanford University, helped launch the Healthy Elections Project with MIT in April to help local election officials ensure a smooth election during the pandemic. The project is working with two groups, Campus Compact and the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition, to recruit college undergraduate and graduate students to work polls.

“While at the beginning of the summer, I was concerned about their ability to recruit poll workers, I think they’re in much better position now than they were then,” he said, referring to cities like Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Detroit. He said the “baptism by fire” from the primary elections sounded the alarm early enough.

But before the election, the Healthy Elections Project is urging states to adopt an online poll-worker dashboard like Ohio has that shows needs on a county-by-county basis. Persily said one of the problems with national efforts to recruit poll workers is not knowing where exactly help is needed.

“Naturally the poll-worker recruitment efforts are focusing on the battleground states and the biggest cities within them, but we don’t really know who’s doing well and who’s not.”

Despite the strong recruitment, voting-rights advocates said they are continuing to monitor communities with large Black and Latino populations, which have historically experienced a disproportionate share of poll closures. A 2019 report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund found 868 polling place closures from 2012 and 2018 in areas previously identified as Section 5 jurisdictions under the Voting Rights Act.

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“The closing of polling places has been a problem long before COVID,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, “and now COVID and the impact on poll workers have made that an even dire situation.

“What’s interesting right now is that there’s so much energy right now to engage and show up for our democracy at a time when it is getting battered by the president and the administration,” she said. “I think there are a lot of folks who want to be ‘democracy workers.’”

‘Vigilance is key’

Megan Lewis, co-founder and executive director of the Voting Rights Lab, which is working to ensure voter accessibility, noted that African Americans vote by mail at lower rates than other voters. She said that makes it more important to ensure in-person polling sites remain open in neighborhoods with large Black populations. 

“We’ve seen in study after study, even in prior elections, that if you close polling places you will have a disproportionate impact on voters of color,” Lewis said.

Valerie Ogamba

“Vigilance is key,” she said, but added she’s optimistic “the combination of efforts” will allow the November election to run smoother than the primaries.

That optimism is thanks to people like Valerie Ogamba, a 31-year-old sales worker, avid volunteer and budding law school student from Dublin, California, in the Bay Area.

As Ogamba was checking on the status of mail-voting for herself, she saw an online link to volunteer as a poll worker. She signed up to work four days of early voting in Alameda County. It will be the first time she’s worked as a poll worker.

“As an African American woman, I just really wanted to put an emphasis on my volunteering and making sure I was all hands-on deck,” Ogamba said. “I’m really thrilled. With how important this election, I just can’t wait to be at the voting polls.”

Detroit Free Press staff writer Dave Boucher contributed to this report. Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.