October 5, 2020

EPSTEIN | Volunteer at the Polls

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The Nov. 3 general election is now less than 30 days away, and about one-third of Americans plan to vote in person on election day this year. Even with the majority choosing to vote early or by mail, that number still adds up to millions of voters who plan to show up at an estimated 116,000 polling stations, both democrats and republicans, which means state election officials will need as many as one million people to serve as poll-workers. And even this late in the game, they’re worried they won’t have enough.

The reason, as with most bad news nowadays, is the pandemic. In past elections, the great majority of poll workers have been elderly. According to the Pew Research Center, in the 2018 congressional elections, for instance, nearly 60 percent of poll workers were older than 61, with many in their late 60s and early 70s. Yet this group is the most at risk for bad outcomes from the coronavirus, so many veteran poll workers are choosing to stay home.

If there aren’t enough poll workers, election officials will consolidate polling places, meaning that voters across the nation will have to stand in long lines putting their health significantly more at risk with the added trouble of a potentially long commute to vote. Whether in left or right leaning jurisdictions, if enough polling stations close, some voters might simply not vote.

If this bothers you, and you’re U.S. citizen, there’s a way you can help.

Expedited through a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit group called Power the Polls, you can easily volunteer as a poll worker to fill the void that the pandemic has created. Power the Polls has already recruited more than 160,000 poll workers for this election, and makes the process easy. Once you sign up, Power the Polls will link you up with election officials in your community, make sure you know everything you need to know and hold your hand through the registration process.

The job itself is straightforward. You sign up for what’s usually a brief training session, then show up early on Election Day, and stay until after the polls close that night. In many places, Lyft is offering free or discounted rides to the polls for voters and poll workers alike, as to minimize the worry of transportation. You answer questions, help voters work the machinery, that kind of thing. In most jurisdictions, you’ll be paid up to $250, on top of the satisfaction of knowing you did your part to protect your elders – and democracy.

How do you know if you’re qualified?

In most places, you must simply be 17 or older. You also can’t be a government official, which shouldn’t be a problem, and must be a registered voter in the state where you want to work. Since many Cornellians are taking their classes at their parents’ homes, that makes it easy.

Now, what about your safety?

If you have a compromised immune system, are living with at-risk family members, or simply don’t want to take the risk, you should sit this one out. Otherwise, you should know that all poll workers will be given personal protective equipment such as masks and/or visors. Also, it shouldn’t be hard to lower your risks on election day, as no one is going to ask you to get up close and personal with voters.

As a poll worker, you’ll be an essential, frontline worker for the day, and your communities will thank and support you. You can help put others out of harm’s way, help facilitate democracy and you’ll get a front-row seat to an election that will be talked about for decades to come.

Joshua Dov Epstein is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, and can be reached at jde74@cornell.edu. His column, Heterodox, appears every other Tuesday this semester.