By De Elizabeth
Four years ago, Stormie Conn was 16. Unable to participate in the presidential election that November, she found herself frustrated by the inability to tap into the collective power of voting, especially when she learned of the results. “I went to school the next day and all my friends were sobbing in the hallway,” she recalls. “I felt so hopeless. I promised myself that next time around, I would do everything I could.”
Today, Conn is making good on that promise. With her early vote already submitted, she’s turned her focus on volunteering as a poll worker on Election Day, where she will assist her fellow Omaha, Nebraska, residents with casting their ballots efficiently and safely. “I saw a lot of my friends on Twitter talk about becoming poll workers and encouraging others to join them,” Conn explains, adding that she was inspired to sign up as well. After participating in a series of online training sessions and watching informational videos, the 20-year-old was approved as a volunteer. “Doing my part makes me feel like I’m helping out in some small way.”
At this particular juncture in U.S. history, poll workers are needed more than ever. “Recruiting enough poll workers is especially critical this year as traditionally older poll workers are staying home due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Scott Duncombe, co-director of Power the Polls, a first-of-its-kind initiative aimed at enlisting a new wave of poll workers, particularly focusing on a young and diverse population. Having an inclusive group of poll workers is important because it allows voters of various identities to feel represented while at the polling site. “Poll workers are essential to ensuring our elections are safe, fair, and accessible,” Duncombe adds. “Without enough poll workers, voters could face long lines at polling places; polling places can even close due to a shortage of poll workers.”
The responsibilities of poll workers could vary depending on the needs of specific polling sites, but volunteers might be expected to help voters check in and understand their ballots, while also enforcing safety guidelines such as social distancing and maintaining the cleanliness of machines and equipment. Since launching in June 2020, Power the Polls has seen an enormous surge in signups; according to Duncombe, nearly 700,000 volunteers have signed up as of mid-October. “This momentum has been built by young people who are raising their hands to help their communities,” he adds. “We’ve heard a range of reasons that inspired these new recruits, but the core theme is wanting to protect their community, their democracy, and their older family members who are more at risk of COVID.”
That’s exactly what motivated Alyssa Kaplan to volunteer as a poll worker in New York City. The 27-year-old, who runs a small business called The Scrunchie Club, tells MTV News that she’s always been passionate about voting, but the events of 2020 have intensified her drive. “This summer, I was reading about how many poll workers are elderly or immunocompromised and wouldn't be able to work the polls as usual, which inspired me to apply,” she explains. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of poll workers in past elections have been over 60. During the 2018 midterms, for example, 58 percent of U.S. poll workers were 61 and older, with 27 percent over 70. As older adults are at a higher risk for COVID-19 complications, volunteering is not necessarily safe for those who might have been poll workers in years past. “The consequences have already been felt in recent primaries where poll worker shortages led to long lines and the closure of polling places,” Duncombe adds. “Washington, D.C., lost 1,700 election workers during its primary in early June. Similarly, Kentucky consolidated in-person voting in each county to a single polling place during the primary due to poll worker recruitment concerns.”
An ongoing pandemic is not the only issue that makes 2020 such a unique election year. Over the past few months, President Trump has repeatedly insinuated that he might not commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he were to lose, and he has made several false or misleading claims about voter fraud and the legitimacy of mail-in ballots. Add in reports of unauthorized ballot boxes and accusations of voter suppression, and you have the perfect storm for undermining election integrity. These factors have given Amanda Jacobsmeyer a sense of “existential dread,” which she’s chosen to manifest into action by signing up to be a poll worker.
“Volunteering has given me a small sense of control, like I am at least doing everything I can in my sphere,” the 27-year-old New York City resident says. “We've heard our whole lives how younger people are the least likely to show up for civic engagement, but I think this year has created a very unique opportunity for us to prove that wrong. We are going to be the generation most affected by the outcome of this election.”
According to Duncombe, poll workers help preserve election integrity in a multitude of ways by ensuring that in-person voting is safe and accessible. “This is critical for communities without reliable access to mail service, voters with disabilities, those who need language assistance, or for voters who simply want to cast their ballot in-person as they always have,” he adds. “We’re doing everything we can to ensure communities across the entire country have enough poll workers for a safe, timely, fair, and accessible election.”
While it’s hard to know exactly what Election Day will bring, poll workers are bracing for exhaustion. The U.S. has already seen record numbers of early votes, and experts predict that the country could have the highest number of total voter turnout in decades. Kaplan says she anticipates extremely long lines at her local polling place, as she learned during her training that lines were substantial in 2016. “I'm required to be there at 5 a.m., and won’t be leaving until at least 16 hours later.”
Jacobsmeyer is also preparing to arrive at her polling place early and knows she won’t be heading home until 10 p.m. at the earliest. “I anticipate working at the check-in desk where I'll be looking each voter up and then handing them their ballots,” she says, adding that her training taught her about the functionality of voting machine equipment and how to be sure that every ballot is accounted for.
Where there are long lines, there are likely to be impatient voters. This is something Conn is mentally preparing to deal with, and already has a script prepared for motivating folks to remain in line. “Think about how important this election is to the future of our country,” she plans to tell them, adding: “Every single vote matters.”
Ultimately, the belief in the collective power of voting is what brings many election volunteers together and motivates them to continue pressing onward. “I think we are all starting to understand that our vote is vital in holding the people who are supposed to be working for us accountable,” Jacobsmeyer says, adding that folks who might have previously been feeling disenfranchised are now feeling more inspired to get involved. “Protesting, contacting our representatives, voting with our dollars, and things like that are really powerful and important, but showing up on Election Day allows us to raise our voices in a way that [politicians] are constitutionally not allowed to ignore.”
Kaplan adds that the importance of voting was instilled within her at a young age, crediting her politically motivated parents for those values. “Voting is one of the easiest mechanisms we have, as citizens, to shape this country’s future,” she says. “It’s a privilege to be eligible to vote, and it’s one that we shouldn’t take for granted.”
You can learn more at VoteForYourLife.com.