Civics For Change: Why Poll Workers Are Important And How To Become One

Election workers direct voters outside Bard College’s on-campus polling station during the 2020 Election. Photo by Karl Rabe.

The last time I voted, it was at the height of a global pandemic. My two-year-old was with me, and he had recently perfected the art of running away from me at full speed at any moment in time. I was double-masked, hot, stressed about the outcome of the election, and honestly, I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. Yes, partaking in our democratic process is a beautiful thing, but it can also be high-stress. 

As soon as I entered my polling location, I was greeted by election workers, many of whom were so excited to see a young person with me. Each poll worker directed me with confidence in the direction I needed to go in order to cast my ballot. They even played peek-a-boo and made funny faces with my kid to keep him entertained while we were waiting for a frozen voting machine to get back up and running. The poll workers were both young and old, some were outgoing while others were quietly observing the flow of voters in and out of the building. But they all had one thing in common: a desire to serve their community in the voting process.

“I wanted to be a poll worker because it feels like giving back, and I want to be of service to my local community. Who is at the polling place matters. How a voter, especially a first-time voter, is greeted, encouraged, listened to, and supported may determine whether they choose to vote again. Many voters are tentative and unsure — even voters who have voted in the past — and I want to make sure that all voters are treated with dignity.” Erin Cannan, Andrew Goodman Campus Champion at Bard College

Poll workers (also called election clerks, election judges, inspectors, and commissioners) are people who assist voters in navigating the election process in person. They are the lifeblood of America’s election system. While their responsibilities will vary by jurisdiction and position, there are certain aspects of working at the polls that one can count on.

  • Before Election Day, poll workers are trained by election staff in the county or municipality in which they will be working. Poll workers are given an overview of election rules, responsibilities, and common situations that they may encounter at the polls.
  • Poll workers must commit to working at their assigned polling location for the entire day. It is not just a few-hour commitment. Usually, poll workers are asked to arrive early and leave late in order to make sure things operate smoothly on Election Day.
  • Poll workers will interface with voters. Poll working is a “contact sport,” so be prepared to interact with voters all throughout the day, regardless of what your specific role is during Election Day.
  • Poll workers can be called on to help with a recount. Recounts will often take place if the initial vote tally during an election is extremely close. If a manual recount is needed, poll workers will often work in shifts to ensure the integrity of elections by physically recounting paper ballots. 

“I was an Absentee Voter Count Board worker for the city of Ann Arbor for the 2020 Election, which meant that I spent the night at a school in Ann Arbor counting and processing ballots submitted by absentee voters. It was a really cool experience, getting to see the behind-the-scenes work that goes into counting all of the absentee ballots and verifying all of the votes submitted. We were there from about 7 p.m. until around 5 a.m. because the 2020 Election in Ann Arbor had the highest number of absentee votes ever recorded, so it took longer than in prior years. I would highly recommend this experience to people who haven’t worked as a poll worker or election worker before — I had a lot of fun and learned so much!” Meredith Days, Former Andrew Goodman Ambassador at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Meredith Days volunteers for the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s office during the 2020 Election.

Poll workers are like binge-watching your favorite show — we just can’t get enough of them! All jokes aside, poll workers are critical to the success of our elections, and we need more people to volunteer. Without an adequate number of poll workers to staff polling places on and before Election Day, voters experience longer lines, more broken machines, and fewer polling location options. According to the Election Assistance Commission, more than two-thirds of jurisdictions reported that it was either “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to obtain a sufficient number of poll workers to meet their needs. Of course, these problems have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as poll workers who were above the age of 60 were discouraged from volunteering in order to protect their health and well-being. 

We need younger and more diverse poll workers. It’s important to our democratic process that people from different backgrounds and cultures see themselves reflected in public spaces. Oftentimes, it offers an extra layer of safety and encouragement to know that you will be welcomed and helped by someone who represents the community that you are a part of. The time is now to step up and volunteer to be a poll worker. If you would like to be a poll worker in an upcoming election, visit the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and look up the specific process for your state and county. Their website provides information on the requirements, hours, pay, and training required to be a poll worker. If you’re interested in starting a recruitment process to get younger, more diverse poll workers on your college campus and the surrounding community, check out Evan Malbrough’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to Building a Youth Poll Worker Project. In this guide, Evan shares lessons and tips he learned while recruiting more than 1,000 young poll workers in just four months. And a future “thank you!” to helping America vote! 

 About The Author

Mo Banks is the Digital Marketing Manager at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. They currently live in Arkansas with their wife and 4 kids, where they’ve been working as a digital organizer for the past 3 years.