WASHINGTON — During the Wisconsin primary in April, Jacob Major, a high school student, noticed how the line for one of Milwaukee’s five polling locations dragged on for blocks. At the beginning of the pandemic, the city did not have enough volunteers and officials to staff its 180 polling sites, leading it to shutter 175 of them.
On Election Day, Jacob, 17, plans to work at a polling place in Milwaukee, part of a small but notable generational shift brought about by the coronavirus. With many traditional volunteers — especially older people who have long been the main pool of poll workers — reluctant to spend hours in direct contact with large groups, thousands of high school students and other young people are stepping forward.
In doing so, they are embracing a role in politics, sometimes before they are even old enough to vote, and assuming a degree of risk, especially in states like Wisconsin that are virus hot spots.
“I’m sure from whatever side of the political spectrum someone comes from, they can agree that currently in our country and in our world, there are a lot of problems that need solving,” Jacob said. “For me, that’s being a poll worker.”
The coronavirus brought a new urgency for states and counties to support voting by mail as an alternative to in-person voting. But with mail voting surrounded by partisan litigation, the Postal Service’s capacity to deliver ballots on time being questioned and President Trump making baseless claims of widespread fraud, activists and election officials in many places have hastened to ensure that they have enough people working at polling sites to handle the demand for in-person voting as well.
The pandemic has only accelerated the impending need to replace those who have long worked the polls, 58 percent of whom in 2018 were 61 or older, a group for whom the virus is a high risk. In an effort to prevent long lines at polling locations across the country, some jurisdictions have offered hazard pay to compensate poll workers. And even before the pandemic, 70 percent of jurisdictions reported in 2018 that they faced at least some difficulties recruiting enough poll workers.
Many states and counties allow 16- or 17-year-old high school students to help others cast their ballots even if they cannot do so themselves. Some have additional requirements, such as a minimum grade point average, to qualify. Tired of simply posting on social media, young people have volunteered in droves after many watched the chaotic primary election season that shed light on the demand for new poll workers.
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Ben Hovland, the chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency that provides support to state and local election authorities, called the new generation one of the potential “silver linings” of an election season filled with new challenges. The critical need caused by the pandemic prompted an outpouring of volunteers, many of whom would have never known otherwise about the impending poll worker crisis, he said.
Though many areas are still in search of additional poll workers, the need is far less than what was expected, said Bob Brandon, the president and chief executive of the Fair Elections Center, a voting rights organization. Activist groups like Power the Polls have drafted hundreds of thousands of poll workers using social media like Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok and working with online influencers in an effort to spur interest among young people.
Word among students has spread. Lucy Duckworth, a high school senior in Philadelphia, said she learned about serving as a poll worker through a friend’s Instagram story in July. The polling places in her neighborhood had been consolidated into fewer sites during the Pennsylvania primary in June, providing her with a personal sense of the importance of the issue. A report from the advocacy group Human Rights Watch found that decisions to change or merge in-person polling locations were likely to have disproportionately affected voters of color in Philadelphia.
Shortly afterward, Lucy, 17, joined The Poll Hero Project, an initiative to recruit young poll workers that was founded by a group of college and high school students and a business school graduate.
Leo Kamin, a founder of the project, said he would turn 18 less than four weeks after the election, so he has to wait until 2024 to cast his first ballot for president.
“It feels like you’re watching from the sidelines,” he said. Leo, who is from Denver, volunteered during Colorado’s primary election; he said his group had recruited 30,000 poll workers nationwide in a little over two months.
Across the country, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor brought young people to the streets this summer to protest police brutality. That momentum carried many to the polls or to volunteer as poll workers in November.
Among them, Emily Duarte, a 17-year-old from Rome, Ga., said she began attending her county’s Board of Elections meetings this summer. She and a group of friends volunteered to work at the polls, partly over concerns of voter suppression in their state.
Her friend Adan Escutia, also 17, said that during the Republican runoff election in the state in August, older poll workers struggled to understand the election technology. Many relied on Adan to set up equipment or troubleshoot any issues. One older woman had no idea how to turn on an iPad, he said.
New and confusing election technology in Georgia contributed to lines and hourslong waits during its primary in June. Mr. Brandon, the president of the Fair Elections Center, said he received reports that poll workers were often looking for the youngest person in the room to offer guidance.
The pandemic has also put elections officials in charge of ensuring social distancing, providing personal protective equipment to poll workers and introducing cleaning protocols to prevent the spread of the virus.
Lucy, the student in Philadelphia, acknowledged the risk to volunteering at election sites. But she added that “at the end of the day, polls have to stay open, and somebody has to work them.”
The coronavirus has made politics feel personal for many young people. Stuck in their childhood homes with school online, the pandemic has become a transformative moment in their lives. Some have more free time to work at the polls without a daily commute.
Richa Thakar, 17, of Columbus, Ohio, said she did not care much for politics before the coronavirus upended her life. Before March, her Twitter feed featured mostly memes and photos of her favorite singer, Ariana Grande. Trapped at home and taking high school classes remotely, she said, politics became inescapable. She turned to social media for answers.
For the first time, Richa said, she worried how politicians’ handling of the pandemic could alter her own future.
On Election Day, when she will be a few months shy of 18, Richa plans to serve as a poll worker in Columbus.
“I just felt that I had to do something,” she said.
Jacob, the student in Milwaukee, said he was confident his service would become an election-season tradition.
“A new generation of people is going to have to step up to be poll workers even past the pandemic,” he said. “I want to be part of that community. I can see myself being a poll worker for every election from now on.”