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A Shortage of Poll Workers for the Election

This episode looks at the lack of election workers and ways to solve the problem

Poll workers

Getty Images/AARP

Mike Ellison:

In episode 102 of this podcast, AARP Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, Nancy LeaMond, discussed the importance of voting for older Americans. In a period of health and financial uncertainty, it's a way to make your voice heard. However, fear over the pandemic presents hurdles to the voting process.

Nancy LeaMond:

Personal concern about contracting COVID-19 has been increasing in the last month or so with some polling showing as many as 88% of the 65 and older, and 78% of those 50 to 64, now worried that they, or someone they know will get sick.

Mike Ellison:

On today's show we discuss the often overlooked role that poll workers play in elections. Hi, I'm Mike Ellison with AARP, Take On Today.

Nancy LeaMond:

This is a group that typically turns out in big numbers in every election, and they intend to vote this year. That's why the center piece of our campaign is providing detailed information about voting options in every single state.

Mike Ellison:

The campaign she's talking about is AARP's Protect Voters 50+, and one of its goals is to spread the word to people about how to vote safely.

Nancy LeaMond:

We're also urging policy makers to take action to ensure that all Americans can vote safely, including by expanding access to absentee voting for those who don't want to, or can't physically go to a polling place this year.

Mike Ellison:

Voting procedures vary by state. For example, several states require voters to provide a valid reason why they can't vote in person in order to receive an absentee ballot. For some, absentee voting may not be an option. Polling places are expected to be busy once again, which is why poll workers are in high demand.

Mike Ellison:

The US Election Assistance Commission says poll workers are the face of the election office during voting. Most places task election workers with setting up and preparing the polling location, welcoming voters, verifying voter registrations, and issuing ballots. They also help ensure voters understand the voting process by demonstrating how to use voting equipment, and explaining voting procedures.

Mike Ellison:

In years prior, poll workers have traditionally been over the age of 61, making them especially vulnerable to complications if they contract COVID-19. As a result, there was a need for people to sign up to assist with in person voting on and before election day. Poll workers are critical to the success of an election. That's why Ben Brown, Founder of the Association of Young Americans, or AYA, is urging people of all ages to help out however they can.

Mike Ellison:

AYA, along with Power the Polls, New Leaders Council, and AARP announced a new initiative to enlist poll workers for November, which you can find at PowerthePolls.Org/AARP.

Ben Brown:

We've actually seen some consequences already of having a poll worker shortage in some of the primaries this Spring, where there were poll worker shortages. It led to reduced polling locations, leading to long lines, confusion, and ultimately voter disenfranchisement. It's really important that we do everything we can to get as many poll workers in as many poll locations as possible.

Ben Brown:

Association of Young Americans is a membership organization working to insert the voices of 18 to 35 year olds into everyday politics, and part of that is a commitment to ensuring that young people, and people at large have access to democracy, and that includes ease of voting. Without poll workers, we're going to see a shortage of polling locations, longer lines, confusion. And so, we really want to ensure that there are poll workers in place to ensure smooth voting, in person voting, and protect our democracy.

Mike Ellison:

What do you think younger voters will get out of the experience?

Ben Brown:

We've been seeing that being a poll worker is an opportunity to work for democracy. Democracy is hiring right now. It is often a paid position, there's training. I think it's an absolutely amazing way to really kind of see how the sausage is made, and roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and really, really participate in the election process beyond just voting. So many of our members, we have 30,000 members all over the country. So many of our members and young people at large are looking for ways to engage and be a part of the solution. Being a poll worker is an often overlooked, but absolutely critical role that I think a lot of young people will find rewarding, informative, and fun.

Mike Ellison:

Yeah, it is something you kind of take for granted. You just see people, and they're friendly and they're helpful, and you just assume that they will always be there. I imagine the benefit would also be two fold in that, when you see younger Americans who show up to vote, when they see their peers working the polls, I imagine that might have some impact on them as well.

Ben Brown:

Yeah, absolutely. We always say that people need to see themselves represented in places of power, whether that be congress, corporate boards, or the election poll line. I think it's really powerful to see people who look like you in positions of power and influence, or just volunteering and working at the polls on election day. I think it's really important to see yourselves in all types of different places.

Mike Ellison:

While the process varies from state to state, do you have a sense of generally how long training takes? Is it an extensive process, is it very efficient?

Ben Brown:

Training to be a poll worker is very efficient, just like our elections in general. It can be in person in some cases, I imagine in many instances this year it will be virtual. It can be up to a couple hours to many hours, an afternoon to prepare you to work the polls on election day. In many instances you'll be assigned a specific role, but you'll really get to understand exactly what happens on election day at the polling place. Comparing ID's to voter roles, being able to help people get provisional ballots if necessary, and all of the things we've historically taken for granted at polling locations. Now we're asking people, specifically younger people, to step up and take that role.

Mike Ellison:

Have you found that whether it's an educational institution or a job that someone may have, have you found that places of unemployment give young people an opportunity to be poll workers? Do you know what I mean? If there's a time commitment do they give them time off for that, do they compensate them, and do they ... is it paid leave, unpaid leave?

Ben Brown:

We're seeing more and more employers offer up time to their employees, both to vote and what's new and exciting this year is many are actually supporting and paying their employees to take time off to work the polls as poll workers. I know GAP's, Starbucks are all offering time off for their employees to be poll workers, or to go vote. But, it really depends on the employer. I suggest anyone who's interested in taking the day off to work the polls or to set some time aside for the training, to talk to their HR representatives and see what can be worked out.

Mike Ellison:

Can anyone sign up, Ben?

Ben Brown:

Yes. Anyone can sign up to be a poll worker, if you're an eligible voter. In many instances actually you can be a poll worker even if you're not old enough to vote, which is I think a pretty exciting way to get involved, even for some of the younger folks. This initiative to recruit poll workers, while we are encouraging new poll workers who are certainly younger than the historical average poll worker, this is for anyone. If you're over 60 and you've never been a poll worker but you're interested in doing it this year, we need you. If you're 25 and a first time voter, we need you too.

Mike Ellison:

How will polling places be made safe? How will they make sure the poll workers are safe and feel comfortable during the training process and on election day as well?

Ben Brown:

It's a great question and one that is part of the reason why we're facing this poll worker shortage. Many people just don't quite yet feel safe going into crowded places. We do know that many polling places are going to enforce physical distancing, they're going to be providing personal protective equipment, masks, maybe even face shields, hand sanitizer to poll workers, and even people who are coming in to vote. But, I know personally, I am volunteering as a poll worker and I'm just going to bring my own face mask, a renewable one that I've had lying around, and some hand sanitizer. Providing personal protective equipment to poll workers is again, up to each individual location.

Mike Ellison:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ben Brown:

But, there are some really basic ways that you can stay safe as a poll worker.

Mike Ellison:

Okay. And so Ben, you've said that AYA is like the AARP for young people. Why do you feel that it's important for older and younger generations to work together?

Ben Brown:

Accessing democracy and ensuring safe, fair elections is not a generational issue. This is an issue that anyone of all ages, across all backgrounds, political persuasion, can get behind. Recruiting poll workers is important to ensure the safety of our elections, and that's good for everybody.

Mike Ellison:

Sure. I mean, there are 80 million Americans roughly between the ages of 18 and 35, what was the impetus for creating this organization? Was there a seminal moment in your life that just led you to say, "I have to do this?"

Ben Brown:

I was inspired to create Association of Young Americans years ago when I read an article about the issues facing young people. It was this laundry list of issues facing young people, and at the end of the article the Author relayed an anecdote from when he was younger in his mid 20's interviewing then, Senator Alan Simpson. He said, "Senator Simpson, how can we solve these issues facing young people?" And the Senator said, "Nothing will happen until you can walk into my office, say, 'I'm with the American Association of Young People, and we're keeping an eye on you.'" And just, this light bulb went off in my head. Organizations like National Association of Realtors, AARP, these powerful, influential organizations that do amazing work for their members. It's such an interesting model, and such an amazing way to organize and do good things on behalf of members, why doesn't that exist for young people? And so, the gears in my head started turning. It took a couple years to get there, but in 2016 I launched Association of Young Americans. Four years later we have about 30,000 members-

Mike Ellison:

Wow.

Ben Brown:

... all over the country working on a couple of important issues like higher education, affordability and accessibility, and obviously right now we're focused on voter registration turnout and making sure that our polling locations have enough workers.

Mike Ellison:

If someone is still for whatever reason not able to become a poll worker, they're not able to support it in terms of their own participation. Or if they are older, they want to be part of AYA but they're not yet comfortable going out, what can they still do to help further this mission and to spread this message to more people?

Ben Brown:

Not everyone who hears this or learns about the poll worker shortage is going to become a poll worker, and that's okay. But, if they can take what they've learned here and tell their friends and family, they may inspire just one or two other people to step up and volunteer as poll workers, or learn about Association of Young Americans and join AYA. And that counts, that's a win.

Mike Ellison:

Absolutely. Man, we covered a lot. Is there anything that I've missed, anything you'd like to add, Ben?

Ben Brown:

America is facing a record shortage of poll workers this year because of the Coronavirus, and Association of Young Americans is really excited to be working with AARP to be encouraging people of all ages to become poll workers this year.

Mike Ellison:

Okay, now before we go I'm going to ask you for an election day prediction, but a prediction of a different kind. In terms of civic engagement and participation, what are your predictions for election day?

Ben Brown:

I think engagement is going to be through the roof, that's my prediction. I think it's going to break records, especially with younger voters.

Mike Ellison:

Ben Brown is the Founder and CEO of the Association of Young Americans. To find out how to sign up to be a poll worker in your jurisdiction, visit PowerThePolls.Org/AARP. If you liked this episode, please comment on our podcast page at AARP.Org/Podcast, or email us at NewsPodcast@AARP.Org. Thanks to our news team, Producers Colby Nelson and Danny Alarcon. Production Assistant, Brigid Lowney. Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. Executive Producer, Jason Young. And of course my Co-Host, Bob Edwards and Wilma Consul. For an AARP Take on Today, I'm Mike Ellison. Thanks for listening. Stay safe, and be encouraged.

This year polling places are expecting a shortage of election workers, who are typically over the age of 60, due to the risks of contracting of COVID-19. Ben Brown, Founder and CEO of the Association of Young Americans, is working to solve that problem by enlisting people of all ages to sign up as poll workers this November.

For more information:
Power The Polls
Association of Young Americans

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