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Staffing our democracy in the COVID era

Lessons to draw from recruiting poll workers amid the pandemic 


BY: RACHAEL COBB, TEGAN GEORGE and SAMANTHA PERLMAN


WHEN WE LEARNED that there was a high likelihood of a poll-worker shortage stemming from COVID-19, advocacy organizations like MassVOTE , Common Cause Massachusetts, and Scholars Strategy Network joined forces to address it. Traditionally, poll workers are older than the general public, disproportionately female, and most have served as poll workers in previous elections, so they bring institutional knowledge to the table as well as serving as key figures in the “voting experience.” 


Given the likelihood that many of these higher-risk poll workers would not feel comfortable serving, we came together to create the Massachusetts Student Poll Worker Corps, which recruited and trained over 200 young people, and placed them at polling locations in need. Due to the overwhelming success of recruitment, most of these trained individuals have now been placed on reserve, ready to serve communities that need them, should that need arise. 


Our program’s training modules – which were designed with a keen focus on young people while pulling together best practices from political scientists, pundits, and election experts alike – proved very useful at a time when in-person training was not feasible. We are proud and excited of the progress we have made, and feel this outpouring of civic-mindedness is one of the most under-celebrated news stories of this admittedly very tough year. 


Imagine what our democracy would look like if we had this level of engagement in every election, not just during highly visible presidential elections. Let’s harness this energy and ensure that it grows, setting a precedent for youth service in Massachusetts. 


Our Commonwealth’s leaders and local municipalities should develop structured programs that explicitly train, support, and educate youth about the impact of being a poll worker, while encouraging them to serve as soon as they are eligible. By developing experiential learning experiences for students, we also develop poll worker pipelines that further the civic objectives noted in the 2018 civic education law that promotes action–based civics. 


Especially at the college level, universities should include poll worker programs as part of regular courses and/or as service learning opportunities. We have seen the success of a systematized poll worker recruitment effort nestled into a campus structure. For the past 14 years, one of us (R.C.) has led an annual partnership between Suffolk University and the city of Boston to recruit students to serve as poll workers as part of the University Poll Workers Project she founded. 


In her upper-level course, Voting Rights and Election Law, students are required to serve as poll workers. Professor Cobb notes that students learn more about the electoral process and legal mechanisms during their 15-hour plus day than they ever would if they took the class alone. Subsequent class discussions and sharing of experience provide a rich learning environment for students to learn from their peers and take stock of the administration of elections across a variety of jurisdictions. Moreover, students who serve once tend to serve again and are eager to serve their communities in this important way. 


For those who weren’t selected or able to serve as poll workers this cycle, don’t be discouraged. There are several other ways to get involved in the days remaining. You can sign up to be a nonpartisan election protection volunteer. There you can serve as a first line of defense for voters through socially-distanced poll monitoring; screening social media for mis- or disinformation; and connecting voters who have had issues voting with trained legal professionals through the hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE. 


You can also sign up to text or call voters on nonpartisan GOTV phone banks. Most importantly, it is crucial that you vote yourself: whether by mail, early in-person, or on Election Day proper. Ultimately, democracy depends on its citizens, and specifically those citizens doing the behind–the-scenes work that is often underappreciated. 


This year in particular, be kind to your pollworker. Chances are they are new to their role, or operating under COVID-related pressure. Well-trained poll workers underscore confidence and satisfaction in the American electoral system. In the future, we are excited to continue to work with our community to generate this level of civic-mindedness and engagement in non-presidential years, and to ensure our polls remain staffed and ready to serve voters in each and every election. 


Rachael Cobb is an associate professor of political science at Suffolk University, where she chairs the Department of Political Science and Legal Studies. Tegan George is the deputy director at MassVOTE. Samantha Perlman is the civic engagement manager at Scholars Strategy Network. Together they are part of the Safe Elections Network.


This story originally appeared in Commonwealth Magazine. Check it out here!

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