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Corporate perks and civic duty motivate young people to volunteer as poll workers

By Kathryn Dill, The Wall Street Journal | November 2, 2020

When Ashley Carlson learned that Levi Strauss & Co., where she’s a communications manager in San Francisco, would let employees take Election Day off to serve as poll workers, she and almost 200 of her colleagues signed up.

“It made it a really simple decision to try to see if I could get matched with a location and volunteer,” said Ms. Carlson, who is 33 and will spend Nov. 3 at a polling place an eight-minute walk from her home.

Taking time off from work is often an impediment to serving as a poll worker, which is one reason why almost 60% of U.S. poll workers were over the age of 60 in the 2018 general election, and nearly 30% were over 70, according to a Pew Research Center report. Elections experts estimate that thousands of poll workers would be needed in 2020 because the coronavirus pandemic could keep many older Americans at home.

Companies including Gap, Target and Warby Parker have tried to help fill the ranks by telling employees they could take paid time off to pitch in at polling places.

“We knew that the pandemic was contributing to a nationwide shortage of poll workers, and we had employees ready and willing to volunteer,” said Kelly McGinnis, chief communications officer at Levi Strauss & Co. “It was an obvious way that the company and our employees could offer help where it was needed.”

Poll workers facilitate the process of voting by checking in voters, setting up voting machines, overseeing ballot collection and passing out “I Voted” stickers. This year, they’ll also sanitize voting pens, wipe down booths and, in some places, collect drop-off ballots outdoors.

More than 900,000 poll workers staffed local polling places during the 2016 election, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. It isn’t immediately clear exactly how many poll workers there are this year, and whether staffing was strained amid heavy turnout for early voting. Robert M. Brandon, CEO of the nonpartisan Fair Elections Center voting-rights group, said many jurisdictions that usually need more poll workers have said they don’t need more and to stop sending new sign-ups.

“It certainly feels like the problem we all saw in March, April, has been solved by this enormous outgrowth of people willing to do this,” he said.

With support from his manager, Joe Coeling decided to use an accrued vacation day from his job as a human resources generalist at the University of Michigan to serve as an Election Day poll worker. As protests spread across the U.S. this summer, Mr. Coeling found himself searching for a way to get more involved in his community.

“I feel like there’s a lot of ways for everyone to do their part,” said Mr. Coeling, who is 27, “and my job allows me to take a day away and go support in this way.”

Miriam Garcia is pursuing a master’s degree in economics at the University of North Texas and works about 20 hours a week for her academic department. Between virtual classes and a flexible work schedule, she has been able to cram in a 12-hour shift every other day at a polling place on campus that is open for early voting. She worked her first shift right after finishing midterm exams.

Ms. Garcia, who is 22, says she’s always wanted to serve as a poll worker, but wasn’t able to fit it in with her class and work schedule in previous years. But she also felt motivated by a personal voting experience: In 2018, while studying in England as a college student, she voted by absentee ballot, and learned about a month after the election that her ballot hadn’t been counted because it wasn’t received in time.

“My vote not being counted made me realize how important in-person voting can be, even in these times,” she says.

Working at the polls has also introduced election participation to a broad group of younger Americans—many of them not yet old enough to vote themselves—who may not have considered getting involved otherwise. Many of them say the experience has changed how they’ll approach balancing work with civic involvement in the future.

Georgina Mbonu, a high school junior from Houston, signed up to be a poll worker in September after seeing an ad on TikTok from Poll Hero, an national nonprofit initiative to recruit high school and college students to serve as poll workers. The gig helps counteract a sense of helplessness she feels at being too young to vote. “I’m a Black 16-year-old girl in Texas, so a lot of this stuff affects me,” she says.

After working two shifts recently at a polling place near her home that was open for early voting, she says it finally felt like she got a chance to pitch in. “I really like seeing the process, seeing behind the scenes,” she said. “I never really thought about getting into politics in college, but it did open my mind a little bit more to seeing that as an opportunity.”

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