Philly area counties scramble to recruit more — and younger — poll workers for Election Day

Sheyla Street

Sheyla Street helps people register to vote. She has signed up to be a poll worker. (Courtesy of Sheyla Street)

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The November general election is just a little more than two months away, and county voting officials are intensifying efforts to avoid the kinds of staffing problems that hampered Pennsylvania’s primary in June.

Initiatives aim to recruit a new wave of poll workers and coax more senior workers to return to the polling places. The aging demographics of local election officials has been an issue for years across the country, but it’s gained new urgency in a presidential election year in which an unprecedented pandemic is prompting sweeping changes to how Americans cast their ballots.

In Southeastern Pennsylvania, some younger people are stepping up for the first time.

”I thought that the primary was a disaster,” said Margaret Matteson, a 38-year-old resident of Ridley Township in Delaware County who has applied to work in the general election. “The fact that they were so short of poll workers seemed at least part of it.”

Matteson said that when the primary took place, worries over the coronavirus kept her away from in-person polling stations. She has friends who are a bit older and have worked at voting precincts in Pennsylvania and Delaware for years, but fearing for their health, opted not to serve in June. But both she and her friends thought adequate safety measures were taken during the primary, and as more information has come to light about how the virus spreads, they feel like working in the general election is a manageable risk.

“If you can go to the grocery store, you can vote in person. I don’t take COVID lightly, I don’t think it fools around,” Matteson said.

She plans on bringing a mask and face shield in case adequate personal protective equipment isn’t provided.

Plus, Matteson said, the stakes of the general election are much higher. She sees this year’s vote as critical for the future of the country, and preserving voting rights is her No. 1 priority.

“I reflected on the fact that people died for the right to vote, and the least I could do was try and serve as a poll worker,” Matteson said. “Essential workers are putting their lives on the line, this seems like small potatoes.”

Matteson applied to be a poll worker on July 14, but said that so far she has not heard back from Delaware County officials.

That may be because local election managers are still figuring out how many veteran workers will feel safe enough to return. The majority of Americans who work the polls during federal elections are older than 61, according to the Pew Research Center, which puts them at a higher health risk from COVID-19.

“We don’t yet have a grasp on what the need will be,” said Larry King, a spokesperson for Bucks County.

In the June primary, Bucks saw more than a third of its usual poll workers opt out, roughly 600 of the 1,700 people who typically staff voting precincts, according to King. Those workers tended to be older, have more institutional knowledge about running a smooth election, and occupied more senior roles at their polling sites.

Ahead of this fall’s election, King said, officials in Bucks County sent letters to former poll workers to try to get a better sense of how many might return. Those are due back in early September, at which point the county expects to have a better sense of the landscape heading into November. In the meantime, King said, there’s a large bin collecting applications from first-time volunteers election officials will turn to if there are shortages.

“We certainly are actively soliciting more poll workers,” he added.

Neighboring Montgomery County anticipates it will fill approximately 2,500 polling station positions with a mix of returning workers and new recruits. The county is also tripling its Election Operations Office in stages as the election approaches, using a combination of part-time and temporary employees.

“These staff members help answer questions from constituents, open and sort mail, process voter registrations and mail-in ballot applications,” said Montgomery County public affairs manager Teresa Harris. “We also have a sizable contingent of county employees in other departments who have been cross-trained, in the event we need backup.”

At the national level, a coalition of nonprofits and businesses is trying to recruit 250,000 new poll workers, specifically people who are younger and more diverse than the traditional pool. The Power The Polls initiative is seeking not just to draw in new poll workers, but also convince businesses to give volunteering employees the day off and help provide PPE.

Technically, Abigail Thomas, who is now 17, won’t have Election Day off, but she plans to be a poll worker in Philadelphia anyway.

“Honestly, I’m not doing anything on Election Day as is — school is online right now,” the incoming high school senior said, adding that she can make up missed schoolwork the next day. “All you’re doing is giving back to your community, spending one day is not bad at all.”

Thomas expects working the polls to be more rewarding “than getting paid for a day of passing out [political] literature.” She’ll still get a small payment for working the day, but Thomas looks forward to meeting like-minded people who see elections as a pillar of democracy.

Poll worker Abigail Thomas
“All you’re doing is giving back to your community,” Abigail Thomas says of working the polls. (Arianna Nuñez)

And to the delight of the city commissioners, the three officials who oversee Philadelphia’s elections, Thomas doesn’t think a surge in COVID-19 cases would stop her from showing up to the polls. She will be turning 18 in time to cast her first vote on Nov. 3, and she wants to do so in person.

Similarly, Sheyla Street, also 17, is ready to work her polling place, even with a surge of COVID-19 cases, because she knows Philadelphia will need the bodies. The average poll worker was in their 60s, according to the city commissioners, and many called out in the spring primary.

Street doesn’t live with anyone who is at a higher risk of getting severely sick from the coronavirus, so she feels more comfortable working that day with the right precautions.

“I would probably have … not just the mask, but maybe one of those face shields and gloves,” she said.

Even if there weren’t a pandemic, Street said, she would have likely become a poll worker. Her family is politically engaged, of course, and the type to get out the vote, which influenced Street’s decision to get involved in her high school’s voter registration team her sophomore year — though she adds all her volunteer work is nonpartisan.

What’s more, Street is alarmed by the number of people she’s met at registration drives who were “taught not to be civically engaged” or to think their vote doesn’t matter.

“I’ve seen a lot of misinformation on social media discouraging people from voting, saying it doesn’t work and these myths,” said Street. “I don’t think people always pay attention to what narratives they’re reading.”

Sheyla Street
Street, 17, is ready to work her polling place despite the ongoing pandemic because she knows the city will need the help. (Courtesy of Sheyla Street)

For Street, being able to make sure people’s votes are processed correctly is a way of “helping other people make their voices heard and making sure the election is valid.”

City Commissioner Omar Sabir hopes more younger people follow Street’s and Thomas’ lead.

The city needs to staff 800 polling locations in November. The goal is to recruit 8,500 poll workers, and Sabir estimated they’re halfway there.

With the commissioners making media appearances and showing up at voter registration events to sway young people to work the polls, Sabir is confident voting locations will be staffed well.

But he has hopes that recruiting young people, with a focus on ages 18 to 25, will offer a secondary benefit and boost voter turnout among that demographic.

“If we involve them to be poll workers, involve them to work, organically they’re [telling] their colleagues about the election process,” said Sabir. “You know they might Tweet … they might Snapchat, make an Instagram post, make a Facebook post.”

The city commissioners might be onto something.

Thomas posted about signing up to be a poll worker on a recent Instagram story, which she said got some of her peers to ask about how they could do it, too.

Sign up to be a poll worker:

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