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How These First-Time Poll Workers Are Fighting for Democracy

By Emma Specter, Vogue | October 28, 2020

In an election year that’s getting more contentious by the day, the importance of normalcy—of crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s on your ballot and knowing there will be someone on hand to help you if you need it—cannot be overestimated. That sense of normalcy is exactly what poll workers bring to U.S. elections, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to a shortage in their ranks this year; many older volunteers, who make up the bulk of poll workers, are also at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and stayed home accordingly.

Luckily, younger volunteers came out in droves this year to bridge the gap and make sure polling places are adequately staffed ahead of Election Day. This fall, Vogue worked with the poll-worker-recruitment organization Power the Polls to speak to eight young women across America—from Austin to Omaha to Miami and beyond—about what motivated them to become poll workers, why their volunteer work matters, and what kind of country they hope to come of age in.

Georgia Hight-Schickel, Philadelphia

Hight-Schickel, junior at Temple University who signed up to be a poll worker after seeing President Barack Obama’s post about Power the Polls: This year has been super crazy with COVID-19. I was studying abroad in Spain but had to come home because of COVID. I have type one diabetes, so I was definitely freaking out because the cases in Spain were much higher than they were here at that point. When I got back, of course, everything was really shut down. But my mom has always been a huge, huge advocate for voting rights and making sure everybody knows their rights and everything. I knew there were going to be a lot of people who were worried [about voting] due to COVID, and I’ve seen that when I’ve gone to vote, it is a lot of older people volunteering as poll workers, so I felt like I needed to do my part as a young person to go and help make the process as efficient as possible. Having more poll workers and more places to vote could mean more people want to actually go vote rather than getting discouraged because they have to go a mile instead of a block. I’m kind of worried because I probably will be interacting with a lot of people, but I’ll double-mask up; I just felt like I really need to do something.

I’ve been going door to door trying to get people registered to vote, and stuff like that, and just trying to make people in my community more aware of what’s going on in Pennsylvania. For me, being a poll worker and doing all these other things, it’s just because I know there are so many people who can’t vote who probably want to vote. So for me, just voting wouldn’t be enough. I was in that position before, so I know how frustrating it can be. I wanted to do as much as I could to hopefully influence more people to want to vote in person or by mail or however because it is such an important election. And I feel like we have to do as much as we can to make that change.

Mae Tesh, Asheville, North Carolina

Tesh, a junior at UNC Asheville who recently helped plan a campus event celebrating 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified: I am a Democracy Fellow with the Campus Vote Project, which was a really cool opportunity to be presented with. I was doing a brainstorming session on different ways to encourage voter engagement on campus. This year, I think I’m finally going to work the polls because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Many of the people who normally do it won’t be able to this year, so I really made it a key part of all the work that I have been doing on campus and tried to really encourage a lot of students to sign up for it. I try to acknowledge the privilege that I have to be able to work the polls; I’m pretty young, I’m not high risk. And I think this election is incredibly important. I would hate for lack of workers to shut polling places down so people wouldn’t be able to go there to easily cast their vote. And I think it is a passion thing because I am a political science major, but I would do it even if I had to skip classes because it’s just really important to me.

Neha Valmiki, Austin

Valmiki, senior at UT Austin who has developed her interest in public policy working at Texas State Capitol and for Deloitte’s Policy and Government Relations team: For me, it’s about the fact that I am a young, healthy, able-bodied person, and I feel like it’s my responsibility to take the place of those who can’t work the polls right now. It’s even more important than ever because a lot of those poll workers were actually older individuals who have reasonably taken themselves out because of COVID concerns. I feel like it’s my civic duty to take their place and to help make sure our polling locations run as effectively as possible, especially because we’re seeing turnout increase so much right now. And that means more voters, which is going to mean longer lines. We want to make sure our locations are run as effectively as possible. I live in Travis County, and we have 97 percent of eligible voters registered to vote, which is such a big increase from before. The 2020 elections have kind of brought a change not only to students but people all around the country. I feel that people are wanting to become more civically engaged; I’m seeing so many people turn out, I’m seeing lines on our campus, off-campus, and everywhere, I see people like wearing their “I Voted” stickers. I definitely feel encouraged by all this turnout.

Charlotte Silverstein, Birmingham, Michigan

Silverstein, high school senior who first worked the Detroit polls during the primaries this summer: Last year, I had a government class, and for one of our projects, we had to do community service with our local government. I worked with the mayor of Ferndale, which got me more interested in politics. In August, I saw online that there wouldn’t be enough poll workers this year because of the pandemic, so I was looking into that, and I found out that it was easy to sign up and that it would really help to keep polls open in Detroit.

Lutie Brown, Waterville, Maine

Brown, junior at Colby College who ran for local office in the Fall of 2019 and served as a Waterville City Charter Commissioner: My freshman fall, I jumped right into Maine politics. That was September 2018, and during those midterms, we had some really exciting things on the ballot. My sophomore fall, last year, we started our nonpartisan voter initiative. I’ve been working really closely with candidates on local issues in a nonpartisan fashion, and I really care about making sure that college students on campus across the state and across the country vote. I’m in Maine, where the demographic is largely older people. I’m excited about turnout this fall, and I’m doing my on-campus work here as well as my statewide work. I think young people are the ones who are really going to carry this election.

Dora Segura, Las Vegas

Segura, a student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who is voting in her first election this year: I thought this was such a great opportunity to be a part of democracy. A year ago today, I wasn’t really sure how the election worked. Like, everybody learns about it in seventh and eighth grade, but after that, you tend to forget it or don’t really pay attention to it. I just felt out of the loop, and I really didn’t like that. So I thought, what an opportunity to actually be a poll worker and to see how elections are run. There was a shortage of poll workers, which is what makes this election so difficult. I was always just really excited to get to vote, too. And I was like, when I’m older, I’m going to be prepared. And I think this is really important. It’s my duty as an American citizen to go out there and help get things done. I don’t want to just sit back and complain about something that’s not working for me. I want to try to get things done. I actually got three of my other friends to also become poll workers.

Tanya Velazco, Miami

Velazco, author and Cuban-American single mother whose worries about COVID-19 drove her to become a poll worker: My feeling was, if I want something done right, let me make sure I can be there. From what I’ve seen and the training that I’ve already received, they are going to be protecting us. It seems like they’re really taking steps in order to make sure that we as poll workers will be protected; they are providing face shields and all sorts of different protective equipment. There will be safety steps taken that day.

Priya Kukreja, Omaha

Kukreja, junior at Harvard studying social studies and political theory: This is arguably the most important election in the history of America, and perhaps the most important for generations to come. The strength of our democracy is being tested, so now more than ever I feel a sense of urgency about being involved in the democratic process in whatever way I can. I want to ensure that this election is as fair and accessible as possible. That, in combination with the fact that we are literally in the middle of a global pandemic...the landscape of what voting looks like is extremely different than what it was before. America has a long history of suppressing the rights of eligible voters to be able to vote, and we saw that in the primaries right after the outbreak originally started. People couldn’t make it to the polls for a variety of reasons. Now, in the presidential debates, the president is literally spreading misinformation about the security of voting. I think it’s critical that young people get involved, but this isn’t primarily about the people working with the polls. I’ve been fortunate enough to be working around people who work every day on issues of engagement and accessibility. The community organizers who were fighting for racial justice this summer, the people who work at nonprofits to make sure people are registered to vote, the voters who are participating, each one of them helps to protect the election, and their passion for democracy is contagious.

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