Younger generation rescues reduced number of poll workers amid COVID concerns

Ally Guo | Staff Writer

 In a time of need, high school students are stepping up to ensure that the 2020 election is a success.

A typical election requires nearly one million poll workers. Though any student who’s both a senior and at least 17 years old can apply to be a poll worker in Ohio, the position has traditionally been filled by older Americans. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, more than half of the poll workers during the 2016 election were over the age of 60, with only 5% being under 18.

This year, things are changing.

With many of these older poll workers at-risk during the pandemic and stepping down from their positions, jurisdictions began to experience a crippling decline in their numbers, and officials turned to younger citizens — including those in high school — to help out at the polls.

It was on these grounds that the Poll Hero Project first emerged this election season. The Poll Hero Project was formed by several Princeton University, Denver East High School, and University of Chicago students and graduates in an effort to combat the poll worker shortage. Sophomore Margo Mattes, the younger sister of a Poll Hero Project founder and a member of the organization’s content team, describes it as “young people recruiting other young people to be poll workers.”

“I think there’s this universal message that politics and being a part of democracy starts when you’re 18,” Mattes said. “That’s just fundamentally not true.”

And while a poll worker may seem like an inconsequential cog in a much greater political, democratic machine, it is a cog that cannot be removed without dire ramifications.

Despite getting paid, working at the polls is not perceived as a particularly glamorous job — with possible tasks including checking in voters, setting up and monitoring equipment, explaining how to fill out ballots, and counting. However, the lack of poll workers this year has shined public attention on just how vital these duties are.

“We’ve seen [the impact of the shortage] in the primaries already,” Mattes said. “In Milwaukee, 175 out of 180 polling stations were actually closed, just because of the lack of poll workers. That’s a form of voter suppression.”

With a shortage of poll workers comes fewer polling places, longer lines and, this year, even health risks. For many voters with responsibilities to their jobs and families, they can’t afford to spend hours traveling long distances or waiting in line just to cast their ballot.

But thanks to the efforts of initiatives like the Poll Hero Project, thousands of high school and college students across the country have not only become aware of this problem but are signing up to work at the polls. Though Mattes initially held concerns about how interested young people would be, she’s been impressed by the large numbers that have taken up this important responsibility.

“I remember when my sister first started [the project],” Mattes said. “In one day, we had 18 people sign up, and I thought that was crazy. Fast forward to today, we had 927 people sign up in one day to become a poll worker.”

And as of October 5, over 30,000 students have been recruited through the Poll Hero Project.

Mattes runs the program’s official Twitter page, @pollheroproject, and does outreach, contacting news organizations, celebrities, influencers, etc. to partner with the program–or at least share the word on social media. She says that has been integral to the project’s success, its message primarily being spread through posts, sharing and general online attention.

It is also through social media that many MHS students discovered that they could become poll workers. After finding out about the Poll Hero Project online and through her friends, senior Chloe Keim said she thought being a poll worker would be a great way to engage in the election.

“I think with the political tension right now, more younger people are more involved politically and have stronger opinions than they did in the past,” Keim said. “Especially if you can’t vote, this is a great way [to] still feel like you have a say in the election and how it goes.”

With a December birthday that disqualifies her from voting by a month, senior Jillian Jacobs said she felt that becoming a poll worker was a good way to make up for that disappointing fact.

“I was excited to get to vote, [but] I can’t vote,” Jacobs said. “So I thought I could do this instead. It’s not the same, but I could still be a part of [the election].”

However, it’s not solely underage MHS students signing up. Despite being able to vote, senior Bella Beck has also decided to become a poll worker.

“I’m healthy, I’m young, I’m not high risk for COVID,” Beck said. “So if I were able to help in the polls versus somebody else who was high risk, I feel like that’s much better risk wise for me to do it than someone much older who could be seriously affected by COVID.”

Becoming a poll worker is not without its concerns, however, as the threat of catching the virus is ever-present. Additionally, Beck expressed worry that, with most poll workers likely much older and more experienced than her, she’d feel out of place on Election Day.

“I was a little intimidated that I wouldn’t look like I belong there as a worker because I am just turning 18,” Beck said. “I was a little scared that people wouldn’t trust me.”

Still, alongside thousands of other high school students around the country, those at MHS have taken up the responsibility of helping to ensure that this election runs fairly and smoothly — no matter how small their contributions seem at first glance.

“This election is probably the most important election that we will see in a long time,” Mattes said. “It is critical that people are able to vote. When you go to the polling locations, there has to be someone on the other end — a poll worker. This is a movement of young people, stepping up to be a poll worker and really helping protect democracy.”