In the spring of 2020, Abhinand Keshamouni was stuck at home in a suburb west of Detroit. The pandemic had driven his high school classes online, and he fretted about the state of the country.
But at 16 and too young to vote, he felt powerless to change anything – until an ad flashed on the TV screen for Power the Polls, a new group recruiting poll workers. “I thought, ‘That’s my answer,’ ” Keshamouni recalled recently.
During the August primary election that year, he found himself staffing a precinct at a Detroit middle school, largely by himself because of the poll worker crunch, he said. And as voters raced to cast their ballots before heading to their jobs, “it made me realize that not everyone has the same time and opportunities to vote,” he said.
This year, Keshamouni – now 19 and a rising sophomore at the University of Michigan – is back at it again, planning to work the polls in the Detroit area in November. And so is Power the Polls, which was launched by a coalition of nonprofit organizations and business groups and helped recruit some 700,000 poll workers across the country during the 2020 election to address pandemic-related shortages.
As the fall election season heats up, state and local officials and nonprofits are stepping up their efforts to find a new crop of workers for the midterms. The recruitment drives come as partisan divisions have grown and election officials continue to endure threats and harassment.
About 1 in 5 election workers included in a survey released earlier this year by the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice said they were likely to leave their jobs before the 2024 presidential election. About a third of that group cited false political attacks on the election system as the top reason their departure.
An estimated 1 million temporary workers are needed each election, said Jane Slusser, program manager at Power the Polls.
And while there’s no central database on poll worker needs around the country, election experts say it’s always a scramble to find enough people – particularly as the current cohort of poll workers steps away from these jobs.
Most poll workers traditionally are older than 61, according to the US Election Assistance Commission.
“Every election, big or small, election officials across the country struggle to find poll workers to help staff voting locations, process and tabulate ballots, and perform other important duties,” Meagan Wolfe, the president of the National Association of State Election Directors and administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said in a recent statement.
Power the Polls officials say they have recruited more than 50,000 potential poll workers since they relaunched their campaign in May and are focused on filling gaps in nearly two dozen states.
“We are seeing shortages again,” Slusser said. “Folks who have been doing it for 40 years are starting to hang up their hats. We’re also seeing that there’s a lack of awareness that this is an issue. In presidential years, people think a lot about elections. In midterm elections, people think less about this.”
Election officials are particularly interested in finding bilingual workers, those who know American Sign Language and people with basic tech skills – such as familiarity with operating an iPad or a tablet, Slusser said.
“The machine you vote on today looks very different than the one you voted on 20 years ago or 10 years ago,” she added.
Wanted: lawyers, veterans
Other recruitment efforts are under way.
The American Bar Association, for instance, has teamed up with the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors to encourage lawyers, law students and other legal professionals to serve as poll workers.
And Vet the Vote, a new organization launched in May, focuses on drawing veterans and family members of active-duty military personnel into the poll worker pool.
Ellen Gustafson, who is married to a naval officer and is one of the group’s leaders, said the organization wants to “normalize” the notion of veterans committing to work the polls as part of their return to civilian life.
“This is where vets can feel they are using their skills and talents for America again,” she said.
Vet the Vote hopes to eventually recruit some 100,000 poll workers so that veterans will make up about 10% of the Election Day standing workforce in the years ahead. Right now, the group is signing up about 50 people a day and has teamed up with the NFL to promote the recruitment drive at fall football games.
“We want to see a diverse population of Americans step into this role, and we want to see this not become a crisis every generation when the next one ages out,” Gustafson added.
Back in Michigan, Keshamouni is busy with his own personal recruitment campaign.
His mother, Shyamala, has followed his lead to work the polls. He’s now trying to persuade his friends to sign up this fall – though it’s not always an easy sell.
“For kids my age, it sounds like a very boring job,” he said. But, as a “‘poll worker, you can help people get in and out of the polling place quicker. You are making a difference.”
How to help
Qualifications vary by state, but here are resources to learn more about the job and how to sign up:
The US Election Assistance Commission: https://www.eac.gov/help-america-vote
Vet the Vote: https://vetthe.vote/
Power the Polls: https://www.powerthepolls.org/
National Association of Secretaries of State: https://www.nass.org/can-i-vote/become-a-poll-worker
It’s been a busy few weeks on the voting rights front in some key swing states.
Wisconsin: In the battleground state of Wisconsin, a federal judge recently sided with a group of disabled voters and ordered election clerks to allow friends and family members of voters with disabilities to turn in ballots on their behalf – despite a July state Supreme Court ruling that said voters must return their own ballots in person.
The Badger State has been a hotbed of election conspiracy theories ever since President Joe Biden flipped it in 2020. And now, one conservative activist has been charged with election fraud – after he requested other voters’ absentee ballots in a widely publicized effort to expose what he says are vulnerabilities in the state’s election system.
Michigan: Recent 2-2 partisan deadlocks on Michigan’s state canvassing board over certain hot-button ballot initiatives are raising alarms among some voting rights activists.
The two Republicans on the board voted against allowing initiatives on the November ballot that would enshrine abortion rights and expand voting access – despite the Michigan Bureau of Elections recommending certification.
Groups pushing the ballot measures have appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, where Democrats have a 4-3 majority. But the deadlocked votes have thrown a spotlight on the once-obscure state board that also must certify election results in November.
In 2020, one Republican then on the board, Aaron Van Langevelde, withstood partisan pressure and joined Democrats in certifying Biden’s win in the state – narrowly averting a crisis. The other Republican abstained.
Both have since been replaced.
Nevada: As we’ve reported, the Nevada secretary of state’s office has issued regulations for hand-counting ballots in November’s election after certain rural county commissioners raised doubts about voting machines. Critics say hand-counting ballots could lead to chaos and delays. Last week, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada sued in an attempt to block the regulations.
CNN’s Kyung Lah recently caught up with Jim Marchant, the Republican nominee for Nevada secretary of state, and other figures in the state’s hand-counting push. It’s worth a watch.
You need to read
- Our look at the growing alarm over the exodus of election workers, ahead of November’s midterms. Even in deep-red Kentucky, officials face harassment and threats.
- This deep dive by Votebeat on the years of ugly confrontations that contributed to the entire, three-person election staff in Gillespie County, Texas, resigning recently.
- Stephen Collinson’s CNN analysis last week of the astonishing split screen of Biden’s warnings of the dangers to democracy on the same day that former President Donald Trump pledged to pardon people involved in the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol should he occupy the White House again.
- This Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about federal election regulators dismissing a complaint that a Republican congressional candidate improperly used campaign funds to attend a rally before the January 6 insurrection.
- This report by CNN’s Dan Merica on calls for Democrats to invest more money in secretary of state races or risk 2024 chaos.