WASHINGTON, D.C. — The backbone of the American election system rides on the shoulders of an army of paid volunteers: poll workers, who take time out of their lives to spend Election Day helping others have their say at the ballot box.
“Poll worker recruitment is an issue every election cycle,” said Jeanette Senecal with the League of Women Voters.
It’s an issue even more so this year.
In the 2016 election, there were nearly a million poll workers across the country, 917,694, working at more than 116,000 polling sites.
Many of the poll workers tended to be older: 56% were over the age of 61.
Now, though, concerns about COVID-19 mean many in this population, vulnerable to the virus, are choosing to sit out this time around.
“Poll workers are kind of the make or break point,” Senecal said. “If they’re the people who are interfacing with the voters, they’re the people who are supporting those voters at the polling place on Election Day.”
Officials estimate that across the U.S. about a quarter of a million poll workers may still be needed. It can take about 30 days to train them all, which means they need poll workers to sign up right now, in order to be ready by Election Day. Poll worker pay varies by county, but in some it can be as much as $17 an hour.
“This is a real opportunity for us to recruit a new generation of Americans, who can help ensure a safe and fair and as smooth as possible Election Day,” said Erika Soto Lamb, a vice-president at Comedy Central and MTV.
The networks are part of a new, national non-profit coalition called Power the Polls, targeting younger people, who have never been poll workers before.
“The work of Power the Polls is really in sounding the alarm bell, bringing people into the mix and then connecting them with their local boards of elections and secretaries of state, to make sure they are plugged in to work the polls in areas that need it the most,” Soto Lamb said.
If there is a shortage of poll workers, experts fear some polling places may not be able to open at all and the ones that do could experience long lines.
“This summer, we saw a voting rights legend pass away in Congressman John Lewis, whose life was built around voting rights and access – and this is one of those component parts,” Soto Lamb said.
So far, Power the Polls has recruited 160,000 poll workers for Election Day. However, not everyone who signs up, will show up, so they are aiming to recruit as many as possible to ensure there are enough poll workers available.
According to Power the Polls, the states with the most need for additional poll workers are: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.