For many poll workers, the job is a citizen's duty — and now more than ever amid COVID-19. But for others, it's that and more: a channel to strengthen community legacy and a vehicle for passing the civic baton to new generations.
“Poll working” has gained new traction against the backdrop of a pandemic that poses significant risks for people over 65, when two-thirds of U.S. poll workers in 2018 were older than 61. But even in a pandemic-free election year, a poll worker staffing shortage is the reality for many jurisdictions.
Looking to get involved in your own community?
The role of a poll worker to a community during Election Season cannot be overstated, which rang powerfully clear after speaking to poll workers during this year's Connecticut primary. We asked them why they showed up to work the polls this year, amid a global pandemic and widespread power outages in the local area caused by Tropical Storm Isaias.
Many expressed their “why” as a deep commitment to civic duty and voter education that honors the continued fight for racial justice through the vote. Some saw it as igniting hyperlocal collective engagement within a tight-knit, though under-resourced Connecticut community. And there were those with reasons that sharply reflected their personal reality: retirees who need the poll working stipend to help pay their bills.
But they were all clear about one thing: in this unprecedented election year, it's time for those who are able to show up for their community — across generations — and power up the polls and our collective civic voices.
At her mom's and grandmother's urging, Amanda worked the polls this year, mostly cleaning surfaces between ballot stations after voters left them. On the day of the primary elections, her own house was without power due to outages from Tropical Storm Isaias. Frank A. Berry School, where she worked the polls for Connecticut's primary, is a community hub for the town of Bethel:
“I grew up in Bethel and I've always helped my community growing up. My mom and my grandma have worked the polls for years, so I grew up visiting them working at the polls.”
Amanda was the only young poll worker at her polling station in Bethel. To other young people, she says:
“Be true to yourself, your voice matters. I would tell people my age or younger to get out there and vote, get out there and get engaged and help as much as you can. We need it.”
I would tell people my age or younger to get out there and vote, get out there and get engaged and help as much as you can. We need it.
Sharon has been a poll worker for 15 years, and grew up with a strong sense of civic responsibility and patriotism instilled in her by her father, who was in the military. She works the polls because, “It's what you do,” and she has passed that sense of duty down to her daughter Lisa and granddaughter Amanda (pictured above), both of whom also signed up to be poll workers in Bethel during the state primary:
“When I retired and someone said, ‘Come work the polls,’ I didn't even hesitate about it. Voting is part of being an American citizen. It's about being able to have a part in all the rights we have as citizens. That's what I'm supposed to do. It's an honor and it's great to be an American citizen and you should participate. That's what you should do.”
Gladys had some trepidation about working the polls this year, but ultimately felt it safe enough due to the additional measures the polling location was taking. She worries that older people will be deterred from voting because of health risks posed by the pandemic, but hopes this election will galvanize young people like never before:
“I believe a lot of young people will vote this year because of so many things that are going on in the world, as you can see with the protests and all these things happening to people. So I'm sure that the younger generation will be out there to vote more than ever this year.”
I'm sure that the younger generation will be out there to vote more than ever this year.
Alice has worked as a poll worker for more than 10 years. For her, the role is a way to “see” and affirm young Black women new to the democratic process. But she is adamant that all people vote no matter what party they support or whether or not they like the current candidates––because she knows how much each vote matters:
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, I don't like either candidate. I don't like this. I don't like that. So I'm not going to vote.’ But that vote always makes it another vote for the other person, whoever it might be. You cannot do that. Your vote counts.”
“No matter what color, people need to be out there and work together and do what we have to do for the community, for the world at large, because we're in a dire mess. So, you know, if a young Black woman sees me out there, maybe she will say, ‘Oh okay, it's okay. Don't be afraid. Don't be fearful.’ We can be there in any capacity at the polls, people volunteer with rides, whatever we need to do to get the vote out. It's crucial.”
Whatever we need to do to get the vote out. It's crucial.
Shawn has volunteered in several elections as an assistant moderator, but was asked to work as a Moderator in the 2020 primary elections. She does this work to "show the change," and to underscore how change comes when individuals choose to step up and work together to shape a stronger community and nation. She says:
“I lived as I live and I breathe it because I am the community. I've been on my own legally since I was 15 years old. I understand what it's like to be out there. I am the community. I've been there — I've been hungry. I get it. Our forefathers before us fought for us to have the opportunity to vote. We all have freedom of choice, and the choice is yours. And no one can force you. You have to choose, and you have to make the choice. I choose to show them gratitude for everything they've done and what they put in place for me to have that opportunity. I choose to be out there and volunteer and assist others and give them the same opportunity. It's just about educating the community.”
I am the community.