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High-schoolers nationwide are volunteering to staff voting stations

By Hannah Natanson, Washington Post | November 3, 2020

“So you’re 16, right?”

Elec Schoenbrun, standing in the predawn darkness in the parking lot outside his old elementary school — converted to a polling station for Election Day — shook his head. He rubbed his shoulders in the chilly air, hopped a bit to keep warm and turned to face his fellow poll station workers.

“Fifteen,” he said, “I’m 15.”

The other volunteers at the Northern Virginia voting site nodded, impressed. They told the high-schooler how thrilled they were to see him out volunteering Tuesday, donating his time to help democracy function. Elec, who had arrived at the station at 6 a.m. and would stay until 3 p.m., nodded and thanked them.

Elec would give anything to be able to vote but signed up as a poll worker as a next-best option. Elec is transgender, so the Trump administration has felt like one long attack on everything he cares about, as well as who he is.

“Hi, how’s it going?” Elec asked a man in a beige vest who stopped at the entrance to the school. “Any questions?”

“No,” the man said, laughing. “Just waiting for my slow wife.”

Elec laughed, too, and stepped back. He began scanning the parking lot for the next confused voter.

He was one of unprecedented thousands of teenagers doing the same thing Tuesday.

The 2020 presidential election, which is taking place amid the coronavirus pandemic that has cost more than 230,000 American lives, already inspired unprecedented numbers of 20- and 30-somethings to sign up for polling jobs vacated by veteran workers whose age puts them at greater risk of infection. But an even younger group has risen to the challenge, too, skipping school or taking advantage of school-mandated holidays to do their part to encourage full, fair and free voting.

Bob Brandon, president and chief executive of the Fair Elections Center and one of the founding partners of Power the Polls, a group that uses social media to boost voting rates nationwide, said a record number of high-schoolers are volunteering at polling stations this year. They’re part of a large wave of new volunteers, Brandon said. Power the Polls has registered more than 700,000 throughout the nation this year, although it does not track how many poll workers are under 18.

The Poll Hero Project, another group founded this year specifically to encourage high school and college students to serve as poll workers, has signed up 37,000 young people in 2020. Of those, said the project’s co-founder, Avi Stopper, about two-thirds are in high school.

“We are hearing from a lot of election officials everywhere in the country that a lot of high school students . . . are showing up,” Brandon said. “I think it’s a big plus in an otherwise terrible situation of the pandemic.”

“[The students] will see what it means to be a poll worker, what it means to help the most basic part of our democracy function,” he added. “And once you start doing it, you keep doing it: So we may have a whole new generation of poll workers, and a more tech-savvy and multicultural generation, too.”

The vast majority of states — somewhere north of 40, Brandon said — allow people under 18 to help staff polling stations, whether for a salary or free. Each state can set its own rules, and many require that volunteers be at least 16.

In many places, school-age volunteers can do anything a traditional poll worker does, Brandon said: help set up the station, sign in voters, hand out ballots and, this year, sanitize all voting equipment after each use. But some states bar under-18 volunteers from certain higher-responsibility duties, such as teaching voters how to use electronic ballot machines or resetting machines after someone has cast their vote.

School districts also pursue varying policies. Some give everyone Election Day as a holiday; others give students time off and ask that staffers come in for a “teacher work day”; and others do not accommodate the day in any way.

That’s the case in Sarah Zhang’s hometown of Doylestown, Pa., she said, but the 17-year-old is not letting school rules get in her way. On Monday, she sat down at her computer and wrote a short note to her teachers.

“I told them straight-up, ‘Hey, I won’t be in class tomorrow, I’m going to be working the polls,’ ” she said. “And actually, my teachers commended me. They were all like, ‘Thank you for letting me know, we wish you the best of luck.’ ”

On Tuesday, Zhang woke at 5:30 a.m. so she could get to her polling station by 6:15. She stayed there until 2:30 p.m., wearing a double-layered mask and helping people check in.

The high-schooler has not volunteered at a polling station before. She found out that was possible when she stumbled across the Poll Hero Project — and knew immediately that she had to get involved.

Zhang recently founded a newspaper that publishes easily digestible “news briefings for students” to Instagram, meant to keep her peers informed.

“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” partly because of climate change, Zhang said. “All of us are under 18, and we can’t vote, so this is the best way we can get involved in the election and make a real difference.”

Ella Gantman, a 19-year-old sophomore at Princeton University and co-founder of the Poll Hero Project, said recruiting efforts crossed political lines. At one point, Poll Hero partnered with Republican officials in Ohio to entice right-leaning young people in that state to serve as poll workers. Although the project does not ask volunteers about their political views, Gantman estimates a healthy portion are conservative.

All day, she and other Poll Hero staffers have been hearing joyful feedback from student staffers, who are messaging pictures of themselves outside voting stations. The teenagers report that the experience has made them more excited to cast a ballot as soon as they turn 18, Gantman said, and that they want to keep working at voting sites in the future.

That’s how Brigid Donaghy feels. Wearing her favorite Captain Marvel jacket, the 16-year-old pointed toward the election chief of the Northern Virginia polling station: “She’s been a poll worker ever since she started at about age 18,” Donaghy said in a hushed voice, staring in admiration at the tall woman in a striped blazer.

Donaghy, who spent most of Tuesday afternoon greeting voters, said she would like to amass a similar record, even though she had no idea it was possible to volunteer as a poll worker until recently. She stumbled across the idea while watching a voting-focused episode of “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” over the summer.

Donaghy signed up, she said, because in 2020, it feels as though democracy itself is under threat. Donaghy said she wants to do anything she can, no matter how small, to help America survive the 2020 election intact.

“I think elections are probably the most important thing the United States has,” she said. “I really like the idea of everybody getting a chance to vote.”

Even those too young to volunteer at polling stations are stepping up. Nick Coughlin, who is 13 and attends eighth grade in Arlington, Va., was outside a voting station acting as a greeter starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

He offered each person a sample Democratic ballot — his mother is a precinct captain with the Arlington Democrats — and addressed them with the words he practiced. He made sure to remind everyone that the ballot is two-sided, because “a lot of people don’t know that,” he said.

He wanted to help out on Election Day because voting peacefully to choose a new president “goes back to the start of America,” he said.

“The history of America is very messed up, there’s so many racist things that happened, but one major part . . . is it’s a democracy,” Nick said. “And if people want to have a voice, and use their voice, they have to vote.”

That’s how Elec feels, too.

His parents have taken him to every election, local and presidential, since he was born. Some of his earliest memories are of his mother and father filling out little bubbles next to the names of the candidates.

No matter the outcome Tuesday, Elec is proud that he will go through the rest of his life knowing that he tried to help Americans vote in the 2020 presidential election. And he will never forget one voter in particular: The elderly man who said he was casting a ballot for the first time in his life.

The man had moved to the United States from another country, he told Elec, and attained citizenship just in time to vote in this year’s election. Staring with some trepidation at the red-brick elementary school, the man asked the teenager what he was supposed to do next.

“Just walk right up with your ID,” Elec said, smiling behind his mask. “And congratulations.”

Elec watched the man disappear into the building. Then he pulled out his iPhone.

“Can you buy me dinner tonight,” he texted his mother, “because I’m saving democracy.”

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