“Helping My Community Vote Is What’s Most Important”: Poll Workers Share What It’s Like—and Why You Should Volunteer

published Sep 23, 2020
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lead art for How to Work the Polls essay
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Elections matter, and there’s a pretty big one coming up. The future balance of the Supreme Court, access to health care, a national reckoning on racial justice, and our increasingly changing climate are all on the ballot this November, along with countless other issues at both the national and local levels.

And yet, this critical election is threatened by what is, at least for the moment, the biggest issue of all: a pandemic that has already killed some 200,000 Americans. (I know we’re all numb to the news at this point, but that is an unequivocal, nightmare of a disaster; it’s as if the entire population of Salt Lake City was annihilated by an asteroid, or if a terrorist group had been roaming the country killing 1,000 people a day, every day, for the past six months.) 

Because of the pandemic, districts are facing an epic shortage of poll workers. It comes down to three factors: The novel coronavirus is most easily spread through in-person, face-to-face contact; COVID-19 is generally more severe and more fatal in older people; and the majority of poll workers in the U.S. are over 60 years old.

Fifty-eight percent of poll workers were age 60 or older in the 2018 midterm elections, according to Pew Research, and many of them are understandably expected to sit this one out. And when counties or towns don’t have enough poll workers, they’re forced to shut down polling locations—making it harder for people to cast their ballot on election day, and hindering democracy. 

“There could be mass closures of poll sites on November 3 due to lack of poll workers, resulting in long lines, fewer opportunities to physically distance, and directly stifling voters’ ability to cast a ballot,” says Scott Duncomble, co-director of Power the Polls, a nonpartisan nonprofit group working to recruit a new generation of poll workers nationwide. 

Washington, D.C. was down 1,700 election workers during its June primary, Duncomble says. Shortages of poll workers for the Georgia and Wisconsin primaries forced officials to shut down polling locations, creating hours-long waits and risky crowding for voters. In Kentucky, which in June had to consolidate in-person voting to a single polling place per county in some areas, elections typically require 15,000 poll workers; only 3,000 had signed up as of Sept. 1.

And while some states are expanding their mail-in voting services to ease the pressure on polling stations in November, others, including Georgia, Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin, are not. Either way, turnout for the general election is likely to be even greater than for the primaries.

“While some voters will vote-by-mail this election, many still plan to vote in person,” Duncomble says. “It’s critical that all polling places stay open so that voters who want to or must cast their ballot in person can do so safely and easily.” 

What Election Day looks like for poll workers

Poll workers often put in a 12-hour or longer day, but in most districts, they’re paid for their time—including a brief, paid training session that takes place before election day. And the actual work of delivering democracy isn’t too complex. “There are many kinds of jobs for poll workers to do, including helping voters maintain physical distance in lines, wiping down machines and equipment, and helping voters check in, and understand their ballots,” Duncomble says. “With absentee and mail voting, poll workers also help open and count mailed ballots.”

Alexis Rose Richards, a grad student at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, has worked several elections in the past few years, including the 2018 midterms. By no means a morning person, Richards makes an exception for voting day, arriving at her assigned polling place by 5 a.m. “At the beginning of the day, it’s just a lot of unpacking, unloading, setting up,” she says. 

As voters trickle in, Richards typically ends up working the scanners, which count and record the paper ballots New Yorkers fill out. But the job can require you to be anything from an IT specialist troubleshooting the electronic equipment to a civics teacher explaining the process to new voters. One time, a Spanish-speaking woman sought Richards’ help while the location’s official translator was busy. Richards, not at all fluent, tried her best to help. “I learned that I’m much better at explaining ballot measures in Spanish than I thought I was,” Richards says. Imperfect as they may be, such efforts are generally appreciated. “I’ve had voters who are just so grateful that we’re there in the first place,” she says.

While Richards has always been assigned to work at a nearby polling station in Alphabet City, it’s not her own polling place, so she makes sure to vote early by mail. She says they get two hours of total breaks, but the day doesn’t end until around 10 p.m. “At the end of the night, we print out these election reports,” she says, which are cross-checked against the records from the check-in tables. “So it’s a lot of counting and math at the end of the day, which can get kind of tedious, but there is a poll worker handbook that explains everything,” she says. 

Ahead of the June presidential primary, Richards was worried about whether people would refuse to wear a mask or to respect social distancing. But she’s come to realize that New Yorkers really do want to keep other New Yorkers safe. “I was pleasantly surprised by how safe everyone was being… and how safe I felt ultimately after spending an entire day there.” 

Amulya Aradhyula, a user experience researcher in California, worked the last presidential election in San Francisco’s Mission District. She and her fellow poll workers—all people of color or immigrants, she says—were tasked with setting up the machines before their polling location opened, and then looking up people’s voter registrations as they came in, answering their questions, and keeping an eye out for problems; any malfunctions or other issues got called in to an election deputy. “We helped people vote who were not mobile, who had not registered, who had not voted in years, who had never wanted to vote before,” she says. 

The perks go beyond getting paid

While it was a long day, and a hectic one at times, Aradhyula describes her overall experience working the polls as “very chill.” There’s a quick camaraderie formed by working a long day with a team. And in that historic election, she witnessed some inspiring, if ultimately heartbreaking, human moments: An old Latino man praying over his ballot for Hillary Clinton. A pair of parents helping their young daughter feed the ballot into the machine, looking her in the eye, and telling her, “Baby, you can be anything.”  

Both she and Richards got paid for their efforts. Pay varies by location, of course: In Boston and San Francisco, poll workers can earn up to $200 for a full day, according to WorkElections.com. In New York City, pay ranges from $225 to $500. Richards said she usually gets a check in the mail about a month or more after working an election. 

Payment is a nice perk, especially at a time when so many Americans have lost work. But both Aradhyula and Richards say the rewards are more than monetary.

“Being able to help my community vote, that’s what’s the most important to me,” Richards says. She feels almost a sacred obligation to help her neighbors exercise their rights. “When there are so many people who are being prevented from voting because of voter suppression tactics, or because of outdated voter laws, or because they’re being purged from voter rolls, if you are able to vote without any obstacle, I think you owe it to your fellow Americans who are being kept from this most basic right to do it, and to vote,” she says. And as a poll worker, she adds, “I owe it to those people to make it as easy for them to do that as possible.”

How to volunteer in your area

There are certainly risks to working the polls in a pandemic, but most poll workers are being provided with personal protective equipment. You can also come prepared with your own face mask, face shield or goggles, as well as gloves and hand sanitizer (and be sure to get your flu shot in advance). According to the CDC, older adults and people of any age with medical conditions such as cancer, kidney disease, or even pregnancy could face increased risk for severe illness due to coronavirus. But if you feel healthy enough—and safe enough—to assist with in-person voting this fall, your community could likely use your help.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has some general guidelines, and a PDF that breaks it down by state and territory, on how to be a poll worker. There you’ll find age requirements, residency requirements, and how much compensation to expect. While everything differs by state, most require that you:

  • Be a registered voter
  • Have lived in the district (or county, or state) for a minimum period of time (about 30 days)
  • Be 18 or older (though quite a few states have stipulations for student volunteers age 16+)
  • Participate in a training session
  • Not be a candidate on the ballot or an elected official

To learn more about working elections in your area, and to find out whether your community needs poll workers, you can also visit PowerthePolls.org or WorkElections.com, or contact your local elections department.