Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, states were struggling to staff polling locations. In a 2016 survey by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, two-thirds of jurisdictions reported trouble recruiting enough people to staff the poll, up sharply from previous presidential election years. Already, it’s an aging workforce—58 percent of poll workers are over the age of 60—and COVID-19 has only made their job harder. So, with this corps of Election Day staff serving at the very core of our democracy, it’s time you stepped up.
What are the consequences of a poll worker shortage?
Let’s not sugarcoat this: There are legitimate reasons that few people have signed up to run the polls. The hours are long, the clientele can be cranky, and the pay is limited (more so in some places than in others). But without sufficient numbers of poll workers, the process on Election Day slows, and the lines lengthen. During the 2012 election, for example, more than five million Americans waited more than an hour to cast their vote. The waits are disproportionately long in Black and Latino neighborhoods. In the 2020 Georgia statewide primary, some voters waited hours to vote, with predominantly Black areas experiencing the worst problems. The difficulties put the very integrity of the election into question.
Won’t a lot of people be voting at home anyway?
Many certainly will be—and we encourage all voters to register now to vote by mail and to fight to keep the U.S. Postal Service functioning at full capacity. But the capacity to process mail-in votes is limited, says Courtney Cardin of Power the Polls, a nationwide initiative to recruit poll workers. “Given the ongoing tumult and the drastic reduction in resources at the United States Postal Service, it is more important than ever that we work to keep polling places open.”
Workers will need to be ready to move the lines through as quickly as possible. States are already setting the stage for worst-case scenarios by drastically reducing polling places. In the April 2020 primaries, the city of Milwaukee cut its polling places from its typical 180 down to just 5. Green Bay went from 31 polling places to 2. Before the COVID-19 outbreak gave officials a convenient excuse to close polling sites, many states were already doing so, leading to accusations of voting rights abuses. States across the South have shuttered 1,200 polling places since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states no longer had to show the federal government that such decisions were fair to all voters.
What does a poll worker do?
Your most obvious function will be the simple running of a polling place. You’ll arrange chairs, direct foot traffic, and process voters. Some tasks are more involved: Poll workers have to know what to do when disputes and administrative snafus arise. They educate voters on how to operate the machines. (Remember hanging chads?) “It’s especially rewarding to serve our new citizens and other first-time voters,” says Anna Weber, a policy analyst at NRDC by day and an eight-year poll-working veteran by night. “I love seeing my neighbors and making sure they have a seamless voting experience.”
Many poll workers have to communicate with members of the public in multiple languages—so if you speak a few, your services may be especially welcome. Without sufficient numbers of poll workers, the process slows, and the lines lengthen. In some cases, by a lot.
How do you train for the job?
Most states offer a half-day training program. It begins with the basics—where and how to set up the infrastructure. You’ll then learn how to deal with registration issues, such as voters who don’t appear on the rolls and how to issue provisional ballots when uncertainties arise. There is training to assist voters who speak limited English, including how they can access a live speaker of their preferred language over the phone. Disabled voters also need special assistance, and you will be trained to provide curbside voting for people who can’t enter the polling place. In addition, your instructor will explain how to deal with bad actors at the polling place, such as members of the media who attempt to conduct exit polling inside or too near the voting location.
Okay, I’m sold. Where do I sign up?
Start at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission website to find out if you are eligible. You can then follow links to your local election office to sign up. Local officials will provide you with the necessary training, and off you go. Some employers will offer paid time off. If yours doesn’t, it can’t hurt to ask.
Your participation is especially important if you are in the political minority in your jurisdiction. Some states require party balance among poll workers, and sites can be closed if that balance becomes impossible.
Know that the vast majority of voters will thank you profusely for volunteering for this job. You will play a key role in protecting the integrity of our democracy. “People are very appreciative of our work, especially since the pandemic started,” Weber says, “and our local election office has done a great job making sure we’re safe."
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