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The pandemic has caused a serious shortage of poll workers. Your high schooler can help

By Lauren Dezenski, CNN | July 29, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has amped up pressure on election officials ahead of November's general election. They're charged with filling a likely shortfall caused by older poll workers, at greater risk from coronavirus, who are canceling plans to work at local polling places.

And young people could help solve the problem.

More than half of the nation's poll workers in 2016 were 60 or older, according to data tracked by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In some states, that number was even higher, according to the Center for Public Integrity's analysis.

That's the same age group most at risk for coronavirus, experts say. And with the country fast approaching an election that's likely to see record turnout, finding enough people to run polling stations is more important than ever.

It's also a pretty good way to make a little money in the middle of a pandemic.

Seventeen-year-old Karuna Bhat signed up to work the April primary in Madison, Wisconsin, before the pandemic became a major concern. Once it did, and other jobs dried up, working the election became even more appealing.

"In Madison, it's $13.62 an hour which is a pretty good wage for a pretty easy job for someone my age. And I worked a 15-hour shift and I got like $250 from that so that was a nice bonus," Bhat said.

"That's how I got into it, and then once (Covid-19) started and I wasn't really doing anything, it's like, 'Hey, I can work a little bit and make some money for college and rent for when I move out.'"

Some teens are using the money to help their family

For 16-year-old Zayda Ayala, this was a chance to not only get involved, but help her family, hard-hit by the pandemic in Madison.

"During the pandemic, my family has run into financial issues," Ayala said. "My stepdad works at a restaurant so that caused him to have some trouble because the restaurant obviously had to close. In order to help financially with my family and also try to get a bit more support, there was this opportunity."

"It's my part to try to help others," Ayala said.

Many election officials count on a consistent, reliable group of older people who work every election, and now might be so committed to showing up that they do not recognize the risk associated with the job until it's too late.

"What we want to avoid is having last-minute cancelations," said Madison, Wisconsin City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl, who is in charge of running the city's elections. "We have to be kind of stern about it, as we send out our communications."

Witzel-Behl advised that for those in a high-risk category: "If you are not comfortable going to the grocery store right now, consider not working at the polls."

"We don't want it to be that the day before the election, our poll workers talk to their grown children who say 'Mom, dad, no, you are not working at the polls' and then you get all these last-minute cancelations," Witzel-Behl said.

In 2016, two-thirds of election jurisdictions struggled to recruit enough poll workers for Election Day, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Much of that need comes from big cities. "Most of the big urban jurisdictions were often short poll workers and if they have large immigrant communities, they are always looking for bilingual speakers as well," said Robert Brandon, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Fair Elections Center.

They see few downsides

It's important clerks and organizers make clear the process is fairly safe, officials say.

"We have to say people are going to be safe," Brandon said. "We can't say you're young, you can afford to get sick. That's not the right message."

Bhat worked the April primary election in Madison and had multiple jobs throughout the day. At one point he was assigned to disinfect pens voters used to cast ballots.

"And I thought that was interesting, it's not a typical poll worker job without Covid," Bhat said.

Eva Kouraichi, 16, was initially just signed up to work the April primary for her election department in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. For her, the job was perfect for early-on in the pandemic, when schools were closed and other jobs weren't an option. "I definitely made a good amount of money doing that and it was flexible with my schedule," Kouraichi said.

For the young people that do step up, they see few downsides.

"There's really no reason not to do it. You get paid and it's fun and it's not super hard work," said 17-year old Anna Patten of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. She and a group of friends worked the March 3 primary, and will work again this August, as well as November, if things look OK with coronavirus. "And it's really cool to get an inside look at how the voting process works."

But reaching students is a challenge

Jessica Deschenes is an 18-year-old Madison resident who worked the April primary election. She plans to work again in November, whether in Madison or in Providence, Rhode Island, where she's supposed to begin her freshman year at Brown University.

"I would feel hypocritical by complaining about the electoral process or complaining about outcomes of the election if I hadn't had anything to do with making it run smoothly," Deschenes said.

These new signups can also help those longtime election workers feel better about canceling. "As we find out that there are more people signing up to work at the polls, they feel not as guilty about canceling," Witzel-Behl said.

One particular hurdle for election clerks mid-pandemic: Reaching out to students. American elections are highly decentralized, and run through counties or municipalities, depending on the state. Election offices were once able to contact students through high school teachers, but with high schools closed and much of fall classes up in the air, that recruiting tool is largely off the table.

With a high-stakes election on the horizon, city clerks like Elena HIlby, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, are eager to bring in young people any way she can. "We're trying to say 'hey, tell your friends, let them know,'" Hilby said. "Just tell everybody. We'll find something."

Nonpartisan groups like The Fair Elections Center are trying to help. Their website makes the process easy to learn more about working at the polls, including hours and compensation, work requirements in each locality and a portal to apply for the job.

It has prompted officials to get creative

Other election officials, like Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, are reaching out to students through social media or youth groups: "any outlet where we think they are listening and tuning in and reminding them this is a chance to give back," Pate told CNN.

The consequences of a shortage in poll workers can be dire. "We don't know how short it's going to be but we all will benefit from having enough poll workers because when we don't, it ultimately leads to people not voting," Brandon said.

For the young people who do step up, it's a way to experience a system firsthand, and make a difference.

"If you want to be seeing change, at least help out the way you can," said Deschenes.

"If not for nothing, even if you don't see the long term benefits, you're going to get paid, you're going to meet some new people, and you can at least know you helped out our, albeit flawed, voting system," she added. If you want to help: Start by visiting the US Election Assistance Commission's page here. It'll tell you if you are eligible and how to contact your local election office.

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