By Carl Smith, Governing | October 8, 2020
This year’s election will require more than 1 million workers to assist voters. The pandemic was expected to suppress the number of volunteers, but innovative and creative recruiting drives have boosted the supply.
Almost 40 percent of registered voters plan to cast their votes by mail in November, according to a recent AP-NORC poll, almost twice as many as in years past. Pandemic or not, however, more than half still plan to vote in person, whether on election day or during early voting periods.
In 2016, nearly a million poll workers were needed to assist voters at more than 100,000 polling places and over 8,000 early voting locations, says a post-election white paper from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. It’s difficult to say exactly how these numbers reflect needs during the pandemic, but it became apparent months ago that the most reliable pool of poll workers needs to stay away this year.
In 2016, 56 percent of poll workers were 61 or older. Only 8 percent were between 26 and 40, with 5 percent in the 18-25 bracket. For months, election officials have been working to shift the demographic for this temporary but vital workforce to lower-risk age groups, with help from nonprofit organizations, businesses and celebrities.
The gap between demand and supply, like everything else about election administration, varies among the country’s more than 6,400 county election jurisdictions and the hundreds of city-level voting districts in states such as Connecticut and Wisconsin. But there are indications that Americans are rising to the occasion in encouraging numbers, eager to help prevent the disaster predicted by actors inside and outside the country.
A month ago, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose told ABC News that his state had about 33,000 poll worker commitments, short of the minimum 37,000 needed to open 4,000 polling places in the state.
“This week, we’re at 46,000,” he said. “We’re making good progress, but we told our boards of elections to recruit 150 percent of their normal allocation, in case there is a resurgence of the virus or some other reason people won’t want to come to work on November 3.”
Pushing Forward in a Swing State
Secretary LaRose has been directly involved with poll worker recruitment in Ohio. Last summer, before pandemic concerns were a part of the picture, he ordered election officials to survey past poll workers, in order to get commitments from as many as possible to return in November. Even at that time, it was apparent they would need to make up ground.
Five distinct recruitment campaigns were launched, each accompanied by social media toolkits, flyers and posters for counties to use, along with templates for letters that could be sent to community members.
One of LaRose’s campaigns, “Youth at the Booth,” reflects a strategy that is being used in many states. Michelle Andahl, election commissioner for Sarpy County, Neb., used “help us save your grandparents” messages aimed at younger voters. “Quite a few younger people stepped up and got involved in the election process for the first time, and took the places of their grandparents and their parents,” she said.
In Ohio, 17-year-old high school seniors can sign up as poll workers. Over time, it became apparent that social studies teachers were particularly effective at recruitment, and a partnership was formed with the state association of social studies teachers to get a campaign going in every school.
“Not only is it a great way to get a group of young people involved, serving as an election official is a good way for them to distinguish themselves as a college applicant,” said LaRose.
“Work the Day, Share Your Pay” turns poll worker recruitment into a fundraising opportunity, enabling nonprofit organizations to recruit poll workers who then donate their salaries to the nonprofit. “Give a Day for Democracy” encourages businesses to give employees the day off to work at polling places.
Another program, “Second Call to Duty,” is aimed at veterans. “Everyone who served in the armed forces made a lifelong commitment to preserve and protect the constitution and defend it against all enemies foreign and domestic,” said LaRose, a decorated former Green Beret. “I remind my fellow veterans that this does not have an expiration date, and signing up to be a poll worker is a way to continue to do this.” Groups including the VFT, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and AMVETS have helped with recruitment.
Other strategies include working with licensing boards from fields such as law, realty and accountancy to provide continuing education credits to professionals who work at polls. LaRose also serves on the board of More Than a Vote, a group founded by Ohioan LeBron James to encourage Black Americans to help combat voter suppression by heading to the polls as both voters and poll workers.
Citizens can follow the results of these efforts through an online tracker that shows need and current recruitment levels, county by county. “I want to hold our county boards of elections accountable,” said LaRose. “For those that are behind, it’s a little bit of tough love to remind them where they need to be.”
You’ve Been Summoned
Sarpy County’s Michelle Andhal has managed to fill every position for the 62 polling sites in her county and has a substitute list of more than 100 people who can fill in if someone calls in sick. Even so, she’s continuing to recruit volunteers.
One strategy she used was to send a letter to several hundred registered voters, summoning them to be poll workers in the manner of a jury summons, informing them to be prepared to serve if they were needed.
“We weren’t sure what the response would be,” said Andahl. “But people were wonderful — they stepped up and said, ‘Okay,’ and we ended up getting at least a hundred additional workers for election day.”
Sarpy County has also had support from Deputy Secretary of State Wayne Bena, who arranged for national guard members to be available on Election Day if needed and facilitated continuing education credits for professionals in his state. She recommends working with chambers of commerce to get business leaders to lend workers to man polls.
PayPal has been an active partner in this regard, even offering its offices as a polling place.
A poll worker application form on the county’s website has made it easy for hundreds of residents alerted to the county’s need by employers, social media or local news coverage to contact Andahl’s office, and online poll worker training has also added efficiency.
“A lot of the newer workers prefer to do the training from home instead of having to come to a two-hour class in person,” she said. “They also appreciated that if there was something they didn’t understand, they could go back over it.”
Powering the Polls
In 2018, the Fair Elections Center launched a pilot project, Work Elections, with the goal of contacting election officials throughout the country by phone and email to create a centralized, interactive resource for prospective poll workers with details such as poll worker hours, compensation, age and training requirements and an application.
Today, the database contains information for 4,000 jurisdictions in 47 states, excluding Washington, Oregon and Hawaii, the three that vote entirely by mail, says Ryan Pierannunzi, the Work Elections project manager.
“The seismic shifts from the pandemic catapulted poll worker recruitment to the forefront, especially given the struggles that states and localities faced in the primary election,” he said. To accelerate recruitment, the center created Power the Polls along with founding partners including Viacom, United Way, MTV, Patagonia, Uber and Levi Strauss & Co. Scores of project partners have joined the effort, from Starbucks and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to Twitter, Microsoft and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
The promotional power of this group has been significant. “Our initial goal was 250,000 signups before election day, and we’re already over half a million,” said Pierannunzi. “We’ve been able to help a lot of jurisdictions connect with people who haven’t served before, and our hope is that we’ll have a new generation of poll workers who will continue to serve at elections in the future.”
Power the Polls draws on the database developed for Work Elections, and whenever possible, links to election district application forms. If an online application is not available, it collects data applicants and forwards it to the relevant jurisdiction. It can also send emails to those who apply, reminding them to follow up with election officials, get trained and show up on Election Day and provide assistance in developing online applications.
Jurisdictions that need help with recruitment should reach out to Power the Polls, says Pierannunzi, to work out the best way its resources can be used or updated to assist them. Best practices among the officials he’s worked with include outreach to community colleges, encouraging municipal and county employees to help at polls and minority language communities to sign up even more language assistance than is required by law.
“We're expecting that there are likely to be some jurisdictions that will need help right up until the week of election day,” he said. “We'll be continuing to focus on this to make sure that no polling place is closed due to a lack of poll workers.”
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