Each election year, hundreds of thousands of Americans help sustain our democracy by volunteering as election workers at polling locations across the country. Poll workers are the unsung heroes of our democracy, and right now America is facing a critical shortage of these dedicated volunteers.
The outcome of the November election will have national and even global implications, but it will be conducted at the local level by legions of local election officials, staff and volunteers who dedicate themselves to keeping our elections secure, accurate, and accessible.
When people think of ways to get more involved in strengthening our democracy, they may think of conducting a voter registration drive or volunteering for a campaign — but not enough consider signing up to work the polls on Election Day. We hope this year that can change.
Across the country, state and local election officials are reporting critical shortages of volunteers who are willing and able to work the polls on Election Day. Poll workers were already in short supply before for earlier elections, and now the COVID-19 pandemic has made the need even more acute. In the 2018 Election Administration and Voting Survey, the EAC found that about 70 percent of jurisdictions were already having difficulty recruiting enough poll workers on Election Day, up from about 46 percent in 2008. Now, given that a majority of poll workers are over the age of 61, many of them are opting to stay home rather than work the polls.
This is a serious challenge because our democracy depends on voters — and voters depend on poll workers.
Even as many states move to expand mail-in or absentee voting amid COVID-19, millions of voters will continue to rely on in-person voting. This is especially true for voters with disabilities, those without access to reliable mail service and voters who have trouble casting an absentee ballot. Without enough poll workers on Election Day, voters may face longer lines, fewer polling locations and more confusion at the polls.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission designated National Poll Worker Recruitment Day on Sept. 1 as an effort to raise awareness about the vital role poll workers play in our democracy and encourage more Americans to become election workers. This effort builds on state-level initiatives that are already leading the way, such as Michigan’s Democracy MVP campaign, Tennessee’s “Be a Patriot. Become a Poll Official” initiative, and North Carolina’s call for “democracy heroes.”
So what does a poll worker do? Their specific duties vary by state, but poll workers generally set up and break down the polling location, welcome voters to the polling place, verify voter registrations, issue ballots and make sure voters understand how to operate voting machines.
People who sign up to be election workers typically receive a stipend, as well as training and preparation from their local election authority. Amid COVID-19, local elections officials are also taking extraordinary measures to keep their poll workers safe by providing masks and other PPE, and ensuring social distancing. By signing up to work the polls on Election Day, new volunteers can also make it easier for older and immunocompromised workers to stay home.
Election workers typically commit to a full day’s work – 12 hours in many cases – but the reward is beyond measure: a chance to strengthen the foundation of our democracy, right from your own backyard.
Poll working is one of the most meaningful and rewarding ways that everyday citizens can help America vote.
For the sake of our democracy, we need more people to answer the call.
Benjamin W. Hovland is the chairman and Donald L. Palmer is the vice chair, while Christy McCormick and Thomas Hicks are both commissioners of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent, bipartisan commission that helps election officials improve the administration of elections and helps Americans participate in the voting process.
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