A Conversation With a Teenage Poll Worker

“I began to stress about another failure on a larger scale in November and knew I had to do something.”

Doors open to a polling site with tables and booths
A polling site at Charles Allis Art Museum in Milwaukee, seen on Friday. Stacy Revere/Getty Images

One of the consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak has been that many of the people who traditionally work in polling places, some of whom are quite elderly, cannot work on Election Day. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, in the 2018 general election, around 6 in 10 U.S. poll workers (58 percent) were age 61 and older, including roughly a quarter who were over 70. In the primaries this spring, the shortage of election workers caused the closing of significant numbers of in-person voting sites. Confusion and concern around voting by mail have added to the urgent need for people to staff polling places. And young people—some of them too young to cast ballots themselves—have been stepping up to fill in.

I met Grace (her name has been changed, as she is a minor) a few years ago and was impressed to hear that she was training to work the polls in Wisconsin this year. She’s a rising senior who lives in Milwaukee and became interested in voting issues this year. I was curious to hear what inspired her to volunteer at the polls, what her friends thought of her decision, and what worries her the most about this election. Our conversation, conducted over email, has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dahlia Lithwick: Hi there. I know you’re busy and school is just starting up again, so thanks for talking to me.

Grace: My pleasure. I’m really excited to talk about this!

How did you become interested in voting and elections? Is this a recent thing? Is there a specific aspect of the voting problem that struck you as underreported or especially urgent?

This past spring, I was assigned a research paper as my final project for an English class on any topic of my choosing. With the upcoming election at the forefront of my mind, especially it being my first election that I can vote in, I decided to look into voting laws and discover the various policies that can limit voter participation. As I began my initial research, I focused on voter ID laws. … I realized that this conversation surrounding the balance of accessibility and integrity of elections is much more nuanced than it’s made out to be on both sides. At the conclusion of this project, what I took away was that there are so many different nuances when it comes to these voting policies and these are hard to communicate to the American electorate. With so many new laws taking effect, even though they may include exceptions for disadvantaged voters, voters are still left confused and wondering if they really do meet all the qualifications to vote. I don’t blame them. Even after training, I found all the rules and requirements confusing.

When did you decide to train to be a poll worker?

This past April, my home state of Wisconsin rose to infamy for its handling of the primary elections during the pandemic. In Milwaukee alone, the usual 200 or so polling places usually open were reduced to a mere five, mostly due to a shortage of nonvulnerable poll workers. That day, the high school near my house that served as one of those five sites had hourslong lines—on a rainy day no less. As I read about our state’s failures in national newspapers the next day, I began to stress about another failure on a larger scale in November and knew I had to do something. Within the week, I decided to sign up to work the polls and emailed my municipal clerk to get the process started.

What was the training like? What will your duties be on Election Day?

I attended a two-hour virtual training class taught by two veteran poll workers. Joining a PowerPoint webinar along with 70 others from the Milwaukee area, we watched a slideshow and walked through the handbook with information about procedures and how to deal with common and unique problems that could come up. Other than asking questions—and not many did—we as new poll workers didn’t do much else during the training other than listen. Although I couldn’t see anyone’s faces or hear anyone except those who asked questions, I recognized no names and didn’t seem to see anyone my age on the list.

The real training was just working the primary. For Election Day, we are expected to hold various jobs including greeting voters, registering new voters, giving out ballots, and monitoring the machines. Despite the in-depth information we got about all these procedures, I couldn’t picture what it would actually look like until I was doing it on primary election day.

What kinds of issues have cropped up in the past, and what are the voting-related issues you have been trained to handle?

Some common issues we were taught about were mostly in regard to documentation. Wisconsin has same-day voter registration, so voters need specific documents to prove their residence and identity. Additionally, all voters in Wisconsin need an ID to vote, so there can be problems when the documents don’t match our requirements. One complication we poll workers experienced during the primaries were people who wanted to drop off their absentee ballot at their usual polling place. In Milwaukee, you can’t do that. You have to go to another central location, and those locations sometimes change between elections.

Is this something that other high school and college students should consider doing in advance of the November election and why?

This is absolutely something for all high school and college students to consider doing. While it will always be a good way for young people to take an extra interest in the democratic process and see how other people interact with it, the upcoming elections are especially important for young people to help out with. (One thing I learned was that—in Wisconsin, anyway—you don’t have to be old enough to vote to work the polls. You can be as young as 16, if you have a 3.0 GPA! So more students may be eligible to help than they think.) The majority of poll workers are elderly, a population especially at risk of catching the coronavirus, so many of them have opted out of this election cycle for health reasons. In order to make these elections go smoothly, cities need more poll workers to make it happen, especially with the high turnout rates predicted for November.

Did any of your friends train to do this with you? Do they think you’re weird for signing up to do this?

For the partisan primary in August, I knew of no friends or other people I knew my age who were signed up to do this. When I told them about working the polls, they were all impressed and interested as to what that would entail. However, as we get closer to the November election, I’ve heard of a lot of high schoolers who have been signing up both due to an increased awareness of the importance of having a well-run election and the emergence of sites that make beginning the process of signing up easier.

A lot of folks have come to believe there is no point in voting at all because they either think it’s “rigged” or it’s life-endangering (because of COVID) or because it’s all too partisan and ugly. What do you tell people who say this is just too much of a hassle?

While in-person voting can be hard for some people to fit into their schedules, with a minute or two of research on their local election commission’s website, you can plan out a way to make it into as little a hassle as possible. It’s so important to take this time to vote because we spend so much time listening to what politicians have to say, but the ballot box represents a time for voters to force politicians to listen to what they have to say. Sometimes the election may go your way and sometimes it may not, but nevertheless, it’s hard to complain about the results of an election or elected officials if you didn’t make an effort to participate in that process.

Is there a “meltdown” scenario you’re worried about in the election in November? If so, what is it?

I worry about miscommunication on absentee ballots. While there are strong systems in place to make sure whoever wants an absentee ballot can get one and make sure it counts, it’s easy for people to take in either accidental or purposeful misinformation regarding absentee ballots as they have not usually been the traditional method of voting for most Americans. I worry that voters will get led astray by mixed messaging and won’t be able to use the absentee balloting system to their advantage.

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