Election season sees surge in younger poll workers as older Americans stay home

Poll workers at-risk of COVID-19 sit this election out as Gen-Z sign up to help with in-person voting.

In the final weeks before the election, high school and college students are answering the nationwide demand for poll workers.

Election officials estimate the fall general election will require 460,000 workers to accommodate the 230,000 polling sites across the U.S. In the past, older Americans have made up most of the poll worker population. According to the Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), 56% of the workers surveyed in the 2016 elections were 61-years-old or older. Because of risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, election officials are trying to recruit younger workers to staff polling sites for Election Day.

Recruitment initiatives like the Poll Hero Project and Power the Polls are reaching younger voters and high school students, who are ineligible to vote due to age, through digital marketing and social media. Poll Hero was founded by Princeton University students, Denver East High School students and a University of Chicago Booth School of Business graduate student this summer when voting challenges arose from understaffed polling sites.

Nationwide youth poll worker programs allow individuals under the age of 18 to sign up as election workers for in-person voting. With increased demand for workers, 46 states support these programs, which are often run at the local level in partnership with high schools and community youth organizations. Even though they aren’t eligible to vote, they still have the opportunity to help with the election process.

Princeton University sophomore Axidi Iglesias is a team leader for Poll Hero. She describes the organization as the middle person between recruits and their local elections office.

“The polls always need more help — especially now that I think older people would be less likely to go help and volunteer like they usually do,” Iglesias said. “It’s important for young people to go and try to help.”

The oldest daughter in an immigrant family, Iglesias saw volunteering for Poll Hero as an opportunity to help her family but also as a way to support the election process. When she signed up, Iglesias opted to join the team and currently leads and trains new team members.

“In our team meetings, we do have students not only represented from different ages and backgrounds but also from different regions,” she said. “I think that brings in diversity geographically, and even in terms of demographics.”

Chloe Smelser is a high school senior who joined Iglesias’s team in August. She attends Central High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While she can’t vote, she’s eager to help make the voting process easier for those who can.

“I feel like with Poll Hero, there’s a lot of ability for everyone to contribute and give ideas,” Smelser said. “I think that’s one of the biggest strengths and the biggest reasons we’ve been able to have 30,000 sign-ups.”

Smelser attends weekly Poll Hero team meetings and reaches out to an average of 30 election worker sign-ups a day to follow up and connect individuals with their local election offices.

“The average poll workers age is 60 — so many of those people aren’t going to be able to be poll workers this year,” she said. “Even just me being a poll worker or me helping the Poll Hero Project can just help open a lot of polling locations and therefore, even though I can’t vote, someone else will be able to vote because of me.”

Alan Martinez is another high school senior on Iglesias’s team. He attends Queens Technical High School in New York City and is undergoing training to be a Spanish translator on Election Day. He and a friend were inspired by the protests and Black Lives Matter movement during the summer and wanted to take action, so they volunteered with Poll Hero.

“I know a lot of people in my neighborhood are predominantly Hispanic,” he said. “I just wanted to help out with those who cannot speak English well or cannot understand it.”

In the last four years, the demand for workers has nearly doubled. In the 2016 election, 917,694 workers operated 116,990 polling sites. While mail-in voting has lessened the load, voters have still expressed interest in voting at local polling sites.

Power the Polls, another recruitment initiative founded by a group of nonprofit organizations, launched in July after seeing more crowding and longer lines at election places earlier in the summer.

“For me, it’s always been a real motivation to try to take care of people at the polling places,” co-director and co-founder Scott Duncombe said. “I think that’s something that’s really important and something that we can all do on Election Day to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.”

Scott Duncombe works out of his home in Oregon. He was originally involved in another nonprofit, Pizza to the Polls, a nonpartisan organization that sends pizzas to polling places with long lines.

Dumcombe says Power the Polls is like a “concierge service” in signing up workers and making the application process more accessible. Over 500,000 people have signed up online so far.

“We’ve heard a lot of great feedback from local election officials,” he said. “I think Denver had eight times the number of sign-ups that they usually have. We had the same thing in Las Vegas and some other places. So it’s been really cool to hear from election officials that they’ve got more than enough, in some cases, poll workers than they would need.”

While initiatives like Poll Hero and Power the Polls have generated substantial response, many states are looking to fill the gaps at polling sites.

Visit the U.S. Election Assistance Commission voter page for more information on eligibility and how to sign up in your district.

Correction: An earlier version of this article included some typos in the quotes, which have since been corrected. Correction made 10/16, 1:37 p.m.