Every election year, millions of Americans wait in line for hours at polling stations to cast their vote. This year, with COVID-19 still posing an immense public health threat, college students have stepped up to be poll workers, a job traditionally filled by elderly people who are at high risk of dying from the virus. 

According to a Pew Research study from April, which included information from 33 states, 58% of poll workers in the 2018 general election were over the age of 61. Polling stations nationwide are urging young people to sign up to work the polls. Stations risk closure if there are not enough people to run them. In Georgia, poll workers can be as young as 16 years old.

“I think that during this pandemic, there’s a real need for people to work at the polls,” Matthew Klein (22C) said. “Poll workers really play such an important part of this election, and if there aren’t enough poll workers we may not be able to cast all the votes and that’s extremely concerning.”

Klein is currently signed up to be a poll worker in DeKalb County but also is planning to work on Carolyn Bordeaux’s congressional campaign for Georgia’s 7th district. Currently, DeKalb County and Newton County — where the Atlanta and Oxford campuses reside, respectively — are overwhelmed by poll worker applications and are placing new applicants on a wait list. 

A position still available in some counties is the role of Election Technician, a job specifically for students who are not registered to vote in Georgia but are living in the state. Technicians set up voting machines and assist poll workers. 

Mary Mann (23G) is on DeKalb County’s wait list to become a poll worker. Mann decided to do so after having a frustrating experience when voting in the 2020 primaries. 

“I think I had always sort of known voter suppression was an issue in Georgia, but I had never really experienced it … until this summer when I tried to vote in the primary and ended up waiting in line at my polling precinct for about three hours,” Mann said. “There were people that day who waited in line upwards of seven hours just to vote in a primary.” 

The Emory Votes Initiative (EVI), a University organization that seeks to encourage voting in the Emory community, has worked with students seeking to become poll workers. While EVI has been cautious about encouraging students to apply given the health risks it poses to individuals and the campus as a whole, they do provide information for students who are interested. 

“We talked about it as a group, and we are aware that there’s risk involved … We’re not telling anyone to do this potentially dangerous thing,” Assistant Coordinator for EVI Sarah Zaslaw said. “We just want to provide information for some recommended routes for people who decide that they want to run the polls that we believe to be good organizations.”

EVI’s website provides links to resources like The ACLU of Georgia and the Georgia Youth Poll Worker Project (GYPP). Both of these resources help to link poll worker applicants to the polling places that face shortages. 

The GYPP was founded in July by recent honors graduate of Georgia State University and Campus Coordinator for Georgia Shift Evan Malbrough. The project aims to recruit poll workers to work at their local polling stations. Malbrough became interested in getting young people involved in poll work after writing a paper on the national poll worker shortage last September. 

“When I wrote this article in September, I did not realize that pretty much the entire planet would be shut down,” Malbrough said. “I ended up serving as a poll worker in early voting in March, right before the shut down on Georgia State’s campus. When everything shut down, they weren’t able to do training, so by the time it got to the prep for the June 9th election, I was the only one who was trained and had hands-on knowledge of the new machines.”

Fulton County called Malbrough to see if he could work the polls again for the June 9 primary election. Malbrough had frustrations similar to Mann’s during the Georgia primaries, inspiring him to create the GYPP.

“When I saw everything that happened on June 9, I realized that a lot of it was due to inadequate staffing,” Malbrough said. “I realized that a lot of young people aren’t poll workers, but a lot of young people will need the money that being a poll worker pays. I’ve made about $3,500 as a poll worker for the election season in a month.” 

The availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for poll workers remains a concern, according to Laney Graduate Student Council President Sam Lanjawar (24G). The council has acquired surgical masks and face shields for Laney Graduate School students who wanted to be poll workers.

“I think a lot of students want to get involved,” Lanjawar said. “People are very interested, but that is a hesitation about not knowing what the proper protections are going to be at each polling place.”

Lanjawar hopes polling stations will be proactive about protecting their polling workers by enforcing social distancing measures, providing face shields to wear over masks, creating sanitizing stations and checking the temperature of voters. 

Polling stations will provide PPE to poll workers, Malbrough said. Additionally, GYPP is also working to implement social-distancing guidelines at the poll stations. However, Marlborough said that polling stations do not have the authority to turn away voters for not wearing a mask. 

“I would keep that in mind that potentially infected people could walk into the precinct and [they] can’t turn them away cause they’re not wearing a mask … That’s voter suppression,” he said.

Eleanore Fuqua (22PH), the chair of community involvement for the Rollins Election Day Initiative — a nonpartisan resource for poll workers that collaborates with EVI — warned students that along with concerns for PPE, they should also be prepared for lengthy work hours on Election Day. 

“It’s a super long day from 5 a.m. to whenever you’re done,” Fuqua said. “With COVID, that’s a long time to be in a mask and potentially exposed.”

The initiative is planning to secure PPE for voters and deliver masks to the voting lines on Election Day. Fuqua encouraged students studying from home this semester to look into registering as a poll worker in their county.

+ posts

Sarah Davis (22Ox, 24C) is a co-Editor-in-Chief of the Wheel. Previously, she interned with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Covington News and Austin Monthly Magazine. In her free time, you can find her exploring new running trails and coffee shops around the city.