Polling locations don’t change much: the plastic fold-out tables, the cups of ballpoint pens, the fluorescent overhead lights, and that large printer-looking thing that digests your ballot once you’ve filled it out.
And of course, there are the senior citizens who merrily staff them.
Older folks love working the polls. As of 2018, six in 10 election workers were senior citizens, and nearly a third were over 70. Since many of them return year after year, election officials have come to rely on this elder population of helping hands.
Given their vulnerability to Covid-19, however, a growing number of older election workers are putting their health first by staying home for the upcoming election, according to Patrick Gannon, the public information officer for the State Board of Elections.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections is urging younger, healthier people to pick up the slack. Election officials are seeking “Democracy Heroes” who will sign up to work at polling sites for early voting in October or the general election in November. North Carolinians can take the first step in becoming a paid Democracy Hero by filling out an interest survey sign-up form at NCSBE.gov.
Democracy Heroes will have the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of elections, the bipartisan teams who run them, the safeguards in place to protect voters against fraud and Covid-19, and more.
“We’re encouraging anyone who wants to learn more about the voting process, learn more about elections, and help their communities at the same time to step up and become a Democracy Hero,” Gannon says. “You’ll learn a lot, and you get paid as well.”
Polling sites have been a nationwide concern during the pandemic. States across the country have struggled, to varying degrees, with handling their in-person primaries. Sixteen states, including New York, Kentucky, and West Virginia, chose to delay their primaries or replace them with a vote-by-mail system.
Wisconsin, which chose not to delay, was the first state to hold its primaries during the peak of the coronavirus. Seven thousand poll workers stepped down, fearing for their safety, which forced Wisconsin election officials to close hundreds of polling sites.
Milwaukee typically has 182 polling sites for its almost 600,000 residents. The steep drop in poll workers meant that only five polling places were open, which depressed turnout by 37 percent.
These stark results played out in many other states, especially within urban and marginalized populations. Researchers have shown that a decreased number of in-person voting sites disproportionately impacts Black and Indigenous voters as well as people who have disabilities or require language assistance.
As North Carolina gears up for the general election, election officials and state legislatures have increased funding for vote-by-mail and protective measures for in-person voting sites. More accessible absentee voting suggests that “there’ll be more people who vote by mail this year than ever before,” Gannon says.
But while absentee voting and early voting will be likely more popular than in past years, in-person Election Day voting remains ingrained in voter behavior.
“We know that there’ll be a lot of people who would rather cast their ballot in person,” Gannon says. “We have to make polling places and early-voting sites safe and accessible for anyone who wants to vote in person. That said, we need election workers to make that happen.”
North Carolina has about 2,700 polling places on Election Day as well as early voting sites October 15–31. Since each polling place is staffed by five or six workers, Gannon estimates that statewide, there are more than 15,000 election workers.
The State Board of Elections is “seeking hundreds if not thousands” of Democracy Heroes to ensure that North Carolina can keep all of its polling sites open and accessible. The State Board of Elections is planning outreach efforts to college students, veterans and retired veterans, and advocacy groups. High school students who turn 17 by Election Day and are U.S. citizens can apply to become a Student Election Assistant.
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I wondered when this topic would bubble to the surface. In my experience over the last 5-6 years of working elections, the number of elderly volunteers approaches more like 85-90%. The county keeps growing, meaning more voters, more precincts, more workers. Board of Elections is trying right now, as the pandemic numbers rise, to sign up workers,set up training, equipment, etc. The methods of handling this whole situation need streamlining and adjusting right now, not 4 months from now.
And just as a final note: remember that when you walk into a precinct as a worker, you do not walk out for 16 hours. Locked in, unable to leave, no shift changes, few/no breaks, constant contact with the public. Difficult for a 30-year old, it takes days-a week to recuperate for an elder. Without pandemic.
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