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Why young Black students are stepping in as poll workers this election season

By P.R. Lockhart, NBC News | October 28, 2020

Shakira Jackson remembers going with her mom to vote in Philadelphia and noticing an age difference.

“You would see more older people,” she said. She rarely saw younger adults staffing the polling location.

This year, Jackson, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, will be changing this trend on Election Day: The 19 year-old has signed up as a first-time poll worker as part of a national effort by the Campus Vote Project, a nonpartisan group that works to reduce barriers to student voting on college campuses. She hasn’t been assigned to a polling place yet, but she expects to work in Bradford.

In doing so, Jackson, who is Black and Italian American, will join a diverse group of thousands of younger Americans, ranging from 16-year-old high schoolers to college students, who are stepping in as poll workers across the country during early voting and on Election Day.

In 2018, roughly 58 percent of all poll workers in the country were 61 or older, according to a survey from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Poll workers as a group are also disproportionately white compared to the voting population at large.

But those numbers are likely to change this year, especially after calls for young people to step up because of the pandemic, since older people are at higher risk of suffering from complications brought on by Covid-19. While a significant number of Americans are expected to vote through mail-in ballots, in some states, for varying reasons, many people will still vote in person.

The demand for in-person voting has fueled concerns that polling places will not have enough workers to staff the polls by Election Day. These fears were compounded during primary voting in states like Wisconsin and Georgia as many areas reduced the number of open polling places or saw hourslong lines to vote, citing poll worker shortages as part of the problem.

On Election Day, these sorts of polling place closures and issues can be disastrous, creating heightened opportunities for both voter disenfranchisement and coronavirus transmission that fall most heavily on communities of color, said Spencer Reed, the national manager of student poll workers for the Fair Election Center’s Campus Vote Project.

“This is another way that we see this pandemic disproportionately affecting Black communities,” Reed said. “It is a double-edged issue that we really have an opportunity to intervene against.”

Through a network of campus fellows managed by regional supervisors, the Campus Vote Project has been working to recruit students to work at the polls on Election Day. It has also partnered with Power the Polls, a national initiative to recruit more than 250,000 new poll workers, to collect additional sign-ups from students online. The student recruitment effort, which has largely been concentrated in 10 battleground states, had attracted more than 10,000 sign-ups by Oct. 23.

The effort is one of several aimed at encouraging younger people, particularly people of color, to work at the polls. Other initiatives include the Poll Workers Project and The Poll Hero Project, which is working to recruit college and high school students across the country. More Than a Vote, a high-profile coalition of athletes headlined by the NBA’s LeBron James, recently partnered with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Power the Polls to increase the number of Black poll workers as part of its “We Got Next” initiative. Last month, the group announced that it had already attracted 10,000 volunteers.

The efforts have paid off in cities like Philadelphia, which recently reported that there are now more people interested in working the polls than there are available poll worker positions.

But there continues to be anxiety about the status of some polling locations, particularly those in rural Black communities and at predominantly Black colleges. Given broader allegations of voter suppression that continue to plague states like Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida, it is unlikely that these concerns will disappear before the election.

Chadwick Leonard, the Florida state coordinator for the Campus Vote Project who also leads the organization’s efforts at historically Black colleges and universities, notes that issues and concerns about voting are often compounded for Black students who fit into two groups, Black voters and student voters, that have historically faced barriers to voting.

“All of the barriers Black voters face, and the barriers faced by students, those things interact together to block their vote,” he said.

In a year that has seen renewed attention to matters of racial injustice, Leonard adds that young Black Americans who came of age protesting the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and numerous others are uniquely positioned to translate their frustration into political action and broader acts of civic engagement.

This is the case for Jackson, the student gearing up to work at the polls in Pennsylvania. She said that approaching her first time as a poll worker is both exciting and terrifying, and her mother has expressed concern about her working around so many people in the middle of the pandemic.

But Jackson said that given the national political climate and the racial justice uprising that gripped cities across the country this year, she feels an obligation to work at the polls not only for herself, but to set an example for her peers.

“I’m hoping that this will give them the message that, hey, this is something that you can do, too,” she said. “We need more youth here.”

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