Poll workers are frontline defenders of Democracy, ensuring free and fair access for voters at the polls. Tuesday, Aug. 16, marks Help America Vote Day. The Election Assistance Commission and civic engagement groups are celebrating the day with a call for poll workers. People interested in learning more can sign up at HelpAmericaVote.gov or contact their local election officials.
What is a poll worker?
A poll worker is someone who works at established polling locations during election time to help ensure a given state’s election process is administered with minimal disruptions. Poll workers can help check people in and verify IDs where required. They are also responsible for ensuring the accurate distribution and collection of ballots. As the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania recently tweeted, “poll workers make Democracy work.”
In a previous conversation with NewsOne, New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way spoke about the importance of poll workers to maintain Democracy.
“Part of the civic responsibility is being a poll worker,” Way said. “We’re in colleges and universities, just trying to make certain that bench is going to be full.”
She also shared the story of Laura Wooten, who is thought to be the longest-serving poll worker in the country’s history. Wooten served as a poll worker for 79 years consecutively. Although she passed away in 2019, Wooten’s legacy and commitment to voting remain evident in the work of Way and others.
Born in Jim Crow era North Carolina, Wooten began working as a poll worker when she was 18 years old in 1939, more than 25 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law. Her commitment inspired a New Jersey law requiring civics instruction in middle school.
It was also not lost on Way that Wooten’s work began when many Black people did not have access to the ballot.
“So impressive,” Way said. “So, in awe of her. And that is part of what makes us a democratic nation.”
Why is poll worker recruitment necessary?
The Election Assistance Commission noted that many poll workers are traditionally older Americans. But younger people can and should volunteer to help elections run smoothly.
A recent report from ABC News indicated the country is facing a poll worker shortage. Groups like Vet the Vote hope to enlist people to sign up to serve in this important capacity. Having enough people to staff polling locations adds support to communities with long lines and limited staff.
During the 2020 election, many areas offered temporary pay increases and bonuses to attract new volunteers. Similar strategies could be necessary ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
The enduring nature of COVID-19 and concerns about threats of harassment and violence could also account for some existing poll workers wanting to step aside. The University of Massachusetts at Lowell Professor Joshua Dyck told ABC that another significant issue is low pay for the position.
“Violence is the extreme outcome, but the less extreme outcome is people just deciding, ‘I don’t really want to work at the polls, this isn’t really worth it,'” Dyck said. “And then it becomes more difficult for the basic cogs of our democracy to turn.”
Attacks and threats on election volunteers have increased since the 2020 election and the many false claims of election stealing and tampering fostered by Republican candidates and officials. In June, Wandrea Arshaye “Shaye” Moss testified before the Jan. 6 committee about what she endured after Trump and his supporters targeted her and her mother with false allegations after the 2020 election.
What is the difference between a poll worker and a poll watcher?
Poll workers are specifically designated individuals who volunteer to assist the government entity responsible for overseeing elections. Election observers, in general, observe the process to ensure compliance with existing rules etc. Election observers can fall into a few different categories, with partisan poll watchers appointed by political parties and non-partisan election protection observers making up the two of the common types of individuals in this category.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the rules on who can observe elections vary depending on the jurisdiction. When following existing laws and improving election administration, election observation can play an essential role in Democracy.