A poll worker wears personal protective equipment as she monitors a ballot drop box for mail-in ballots outside of a polling station in Miami Beach last month. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
By Robert Brandon, Sindy Benavides
and Melanie Campbell
Nearly 60 percent of the 920,000 poll workers during the 2016 election were over the age of 60, and, as we have seen during this primary season, concerns around COVID-19 have led them to opt out in 2020. As a result, the primaries saw numerous polling locations shuttered because of a lack of poll workers.
Right now, the poll worker shortage is set to be even greater in the fall given the anticipated historic turnout in November. If we fail to add more poll workers, the shortage will lead to closures and fewer polling sites and longer lines.
This is the perfect time to implement solutions to the challenge our election system faces and lay the groundwork for more efficient voting in the future: bring on a younger, more tech-savvy and more diverse group of citizens to serve as poll workers.
Traditionally, long lines and closures have led to voter disenfranchisement, particularly in communities of color and low-income communities. Scientific American last fall published a story about smartphone data showing voters in Black neighborhoods waiting longer in lines to cast their ballots, even before the pandemic.
What lies in store for Black voters in November? The shortage could also have real consequences for Latino voters, who for the first time are expected to be the nation’s largest ethnic minority voting bloc in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, with 32 million projected to be eligible to vote.
As Americans step up to help one another during these extraordinary times, we should think about the opportunity for younger generations to help their communities exercise the most fundamental right we have: the right to vote. There is nothing more patriotic than serving our communities and strengthening our democracy.
Recruiting new poll workers will prevent election administrators from closing polling places, ensure polling sites are appropriately staffed, minimize lines and delays, and add more workers with greater comfort in operating the new technologies employed by election administrators. Workers who can speak Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog and other languages will also mean more access for those less proficient in English. And, by the way, in almost all cases, poll workers are paid for their services.
Increases in vote-by-mail options are important for many voters concerned about the potential health risks of in-person voting, but maintaining safe in-person voting is critical for communities without reliable access to mail service, voters with disabilities, those who need language assistance, those who need to re-register on Election Day or for voters who simply want to cast their ballot in person, as they always have.
This is particularly true in communities of color. A recent study concluded that Hispanic voters utilize vote-by-mail at lower rates than non-Hispanic White voters. And for many Black communities, given a history of voter suppression, voting in person creates greater confidence that their ballot will be counted.
While there are continued efforts in some states to erect barriers to voting, particularly for voters of color and young voters, we must not let limited options for in-person voting be an additional obstacle. It’s why the Fair Elections Center created WorkElections.com, a web portal designed to centralize and simplify information on poll worker requirements and links to 4,000 local jurisdictions’ applications. And it is why all of our organizations are working with Power the Polls to recruit 250,000 new poll workers.
Elections officials, who have a tough job under normal circumstances, need more people to step up to help in this most essential expression of our democracy. Officials are doing everything recommended to ensure the act of voting will take place with health precautions for voters and poll workers alike. As they work to make sure the process is safe and voting sites are sanitized and ventilated, our organizations are encouraging those who can do so safely to sign up to work the polls and ask others to do the same, to follow CDC guidelines and help administer the November elections.
Poll workers are key to making sure every voter has a voice, the best way to see that we maintain a healthy democracy. This year, we need to make sure there are enough poll workers, so every voter’s voice is heard on Election Day.
Robert Brandon is President and CEO of Fair Elections Center.
Sindy Benavides is Chief Executive Officer of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Melanie Campbell is President and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.