States ask teens to staff polling places on Election Day

Recruiting enough workers to staff the more than 200,000 polling places across the country has been a longstanding struggle. Now, the coronavirus is making the problem even worse — because older people, who are the majority of poll workers, are also at the greatest risk of getting the infection.

In response, states are getting creative, increasingly asking their younger populations — including some not yet old enough to vote — to step up and play an essential role in the election process. While it’s not widely known, people younger than 18 can be poll workers in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

Recruiting members of Generation Z has become critical this year because aging Baby Boomers are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. But long before the pandemic transformed the country — and the way elections are run — in a matter of weeks, keeping up the supply of election workers has long been a sore subject for election officials. And it has been getting worse.

Even in a year when the share of ballots cast remotely is sure to shatter past records, election officials are generally promising to keep a reasonable number of polling stations open for those who prefer them as well as those who require them, like many disabled or homeless voters. And that means several hundred thousand people will be needed to check in voters, verify their identities, register people in states where that’s allowed on Election Day and then answer questions about voting equipment — which is brand new this year in thousands of locations.

The shortage is likely to be particularly acute in Texas and other states that have not done much to promote mail voting despite new surges of coronavirus. Handfuls of polling places have been shuttered in Fort Worth and San Antonio for Tuesday’s primary runoffs, for example, because of a lack of people willing to staff them. Wisconsin infamously had to call out the National Guard to replace no-shows for its April primary.

The surge in the number of cities and counties struggling to find sufficient help on Election Day is made plain in the surveys of election officials taken after every election by the federal Election Assistance Commission. The number of jurisdictions reporting at least some difficulty in filling their poll worker jobs rose from only about one-third a decade ago to 70 percent in 2018.

The poll found that for every general election going back at least to 2010, fewer than one in five poll workers was 40 or younger. The surveys also consistently found about one-fourth of poll workers were 71 or older — results that make intuitive sense, because older people are likelier to be retired and have fewer weekday commitments while people in their 20s and 30s are generally working and committed to family obligations.

Trouble recruiting election workers during the pandemic is magnified by demographics: Three in five poll workers in 2018 were older than 61, an age group at high risk of COVID-19, while just one in five was younger than 40. One way to expand the pool: Grow the share (4 percent last time) not yet old enough to vote, something most states allow.

To help solve its version of the problem, Minneapolis implemented a Student Election Judge Program in the early 1990s and has since seen immense success with recruiting a bilingual, tech-savvy and ethnically diverse corps of high school students to work in its polling centers. The city partnered with local schools to help enlist teenagers, even establishing volunteer advisers at some schools to help advocate for the program and coordinate recruiting. The law in Minnesota, which usually has the strongest voter turnout of any state, permits high school students to work at polling centers after they turn 16.

The coordinator of the program, Caryn Scheel, says that over the years, Minneapolis has received far more applications than it needs — more than 800 in a typical year, when only about 400 students are needed on Election Day. She estimates that between one-fifth and one-quarter of the city’s polling centers have high school students at work.

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