A poll worker at Liberty High School on July 7, 2020 in Jersey City, New Jersey. New Jersey residents will choose their candidates for president, Senate and House but because of the pandemic most are casting their votes by mail-in ballots.
MIT professor: This could be the biggest 2020 voting disruptor
09:46 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Diaz is legal counsel for voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in Washington, DC. He is also a CNN election law analyst. Before joining CLC, Diaz worked in private legal practice in New York and at the National Hispanic Media Coalition in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

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You’ve seen them. They check your name and voter registration when you arrive at your polling place, provide you with the correct ballot and hand you an “I Voted” sticker when you’re done. They’re poll workers: volunteers recruited and trained by county and local election officials to do the tough work of keeping our elections running.

Jonathan Diaz

Without these unsung heroes at the polling place, our electoral system simply could not function. And on Sept. 1, National Poll Worker Recruitment Day, election officials around the country are beginning their final push to staff up once again before voting begins.

According to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), 637,713 Americans assisted as poll workers on Election Day in 2018 in 45 states. But more than two-thirds of jurisdictions reported that it was either “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to obtain a sufficient number of poll workers to meet their needs. In some areas, like Bucks County, Pennsylvania, concerns about poll worker shortages were so severe in 2018 that election officials were scrambling to find enough hands to staff the polls in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

And, of course, in the many jurisdictions offering early in-person voting for days or weeks prior to Election Day, the need for volunteers is even greater. Public health and elections experts are increasingly urging voters to take advantage of early options to reduce crowding on Election Day, but to make that happen, America needs more poll workers.

The challenges elections officials face in recruiting and retaining poll workers have only grown in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The EAC reports that the majority of poll workers in 2018 were 61 years old or older – meaning that many of them may be at a higher risk of contracting and developing serious medical complications from the virus. While it’s too early to know the average age of poll workers this year, elections officials across the country are already reporting issues in recruiting older traditional poll workers.

The chaos caused by a poll worker shortage isn’t some hypothetical problem; we saw the impact of shorthanded election offices in primary elections earlier this year in places like Georgia and Wisconsin. When states and counties don’t have enough volunteers to work the polls, they have to consolidate polling places, resulting in long lines, burdensome delays and crowded polling locations, which, during a pandemic, creates a greater risk of spreading disease. These shortages are already leading some officials in states like Maryland to consider consolidating polling places for the November general election.

In response to this impending crisis, elections officials have turned to unusual methods to recruit volunteers. Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin authorized members of the Wisconsin National Guard to work the polls this fall. The Ohio Supreme Court, with support from Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, is allowing attorneys licensed in the state to receive Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credit for working the polls – a call that has been echoed nationwide by the American Bar Association. The Tennessee Legislature lowered the minimum age to work the polls from 17 to 16 earlier this year, and Kentucky and California have set up new online portals to facilitate poll worker recruitment.

Voting advocates and nonprofit organizations have also stepped up to boost recruitment efforts. New organizations like Power the Polls and the LeBron James-led More Than a Vote are seeking to complement ongoing efforts by groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and All Voting is Local (the latter of which I provide legal advice to in my capacity at the Campaign Legal Center) to add new names to the poll worker ranks. Many of these groups are focusing their efforts on bringing young people aboard to pick up the slack for older, vulnerable workers unable to participate this year. These outreach initiatives include Poll Hero, which was started by a group of college and high school students.

Becoming a poll worker isn’t difficult. The eligibility requirements and time commitments vary depending on where you live, but your state and county election officials should have all the information that you need to be able to sign up, and the EAC and Work Elections (a project of the nonprofit Fair Elections Center) have created a helpful online tool to help figure it out.

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    Before working the polls, you usually have to participate in a training session for each election to become familiar with your jurisdiction’s election rules and procedures. Once you do, you cannot only perform a valuable public service, but in many cities and counties, you can even get paid for your time.

    The 2020 election will be like no other in history – and the best way to ensure that it goes as smoothly as possible is to roll up your sleeves, put on your mask and get to the polls.