Traditionally, Election Day polls are staffed by bright-eyed and smiling sixty, seventy and even eighty-somethings. But this year, as this demographic remains the most susceptible to the COVID-19 pandemic, younger generations are stepping up: College students are helping to fill the poll worker void.
And in Tompkins County, that’s no exception.
Stephen Dewitt, co-commissioner of the Tompkins County Board of Elections, told The Sun that around half of the older poll workers who would normally work the polls chose not to sign up this year because of concerns related to COVID-19.
In their place, the commissioner said Cornell students have partly filled the gap left by seniors. He estimated 10 to 15 Cornell undergraduates will be working the polls this year — significantly up from years past, when he said he normally had just one or two Cornellians, “if we were lucky.”
Unlike many other counties across the nation, Dewitt actually has a surplus of volunteers readily available for Election Day: “Right now, I would say I’ve got about 40 to 45 spare poll workers that have been trained, that I have been unable to assign,” Dewitt said.
Despite the encouraging surplus of poll workers in Tompkins County, the process of becoming a poll worker has proved to be difficult for some college students. Lilly Howes ’21, from Westport, Connecticut, tried applying to be a poll worker in Ithaca, but was turned away because she was not registered to vote in the county.
“It’s hard to be a poll worker, especially because you need to be registered in Tompkins County,” Howes said. “It’s not the easiest thing for us to work the polls.”
New York State elections law mandates that poll workers work in the county they reside in — except for New York City, where residents can work in all five boroughs.
Natalie Breitkopf ’22, from Scarsdale, New York, was successful in her endeavor to work the polls, but detailed what she said was a tiresome application process.
After going to the elections office five times, which had lost her initial application, taking a Zoom training, dealing with “lots of paperwork,” and re-registering to vote in Tompkins County, Breitkopf still had more work to do to finalize her spot as a poll worker.
“I’m going there after this interview to make sure they have all the documents they need so that I can work,” she said.
Like Howes, Odeya Rosenband ’22, a Sun opinion columnist from Long Island, was also unable to register as a local poll worker because she wasn’t able to re-register in Tompkins County in time. Rosenband did, however, outline many ways in which undergraduates can be proactive, even if they are not doing something tangible like working the polls.
“Our biggest responsibility as American citizens is to vote,” Rosenband said. “I think that’s obvious. Especially with COVID, young people can play a huge role in the election.”
In addition to voting, Rosenband also emphasized the importance of taking advantage of resources, such as those provided by universities and social media presences, to inform and educate those around us.
“We all use social media to some extent. We all have platforms,” Rosenband said. “We have individuals walking around this campus with enormous platforms to put information out there in the world. Take advantage. Use your platform. Use your voice. Talk to your friends. This isn’t a little deal.”
The issue of incentivizing individuals to vote is another aspect of the election process Rosenband thinks is important to address, seeing as many voters often participate in elections because of civic pressures.
“This doesn’t have to be a public shaming thing,” she said. Instead she encouraged people to make a dialogue to address reluctant voters: “Why aren’t you voting? What’s holding you back? It’s a conversation worth having. Having those conversations is incredibly meaningful.”
“If you get one person to vote it’s a huge mitzvah. You can sleep well that night,” she added.
With California Republicans admitting to having placed misleading ballot boxes around the state during this election cycle, as well as other instances of rampant voter suppression, particularly in the South, there are concerns about the equity of voting procedures looming across the country.
“It is not designed to be equitable at all. There are immense flaws in it,” Breitkopf said. “There’s voter disenfranchisement all over the country in different counties.”
Organizations such as Rock the Vote and More than a Vote, developed by LeBron James and other celebrity activists to “increase the number of poll workers in predominantly Black communities in America,” according to Howes, are examples of other far-reaching online resources that have proliferated the number of registered voters this election cycle.
Former President Barack Obama was clairvoyant in anticipating the national shortage of poll workers. In an Instagram post from Sept. 1, Obama wrote that the elderly will be less willing to work the polls because of their increased risk of complications from COVI9-19, and called upon youths to step in as a civic duty.
“Here’s what we need: more people — especially young, healthy people — to do their part for this country and volunteer to make sure this election runs fairly and safely,” Obama wrote. “It’s one of the most crucial things you can do for our country right now. If you can volunteer, I hope you’ll do it. Sign up at PowerThePolls.org.”