Evan Wayne Marlbrough was into working the polls before it was cool.
Last fall, while still a senior at Georgia State University, he wrote an essay for the Black culture site Blavity urging his fellow young people to volunteer at the polls. He laid out a case that, if you’ve been following election coverage at all, will by now be familiar: Most jurisdictions have trouble recruiting enough poll workers, and the ones they do get tend to be old; 77 percent of poll workers are over the age of 61. A lack of people staffing polling sites contributes to long lines and, in turn, voter disenfranchisement. Becoming a poll worker, Marlbrough argued, is a “little known—and vital—way for us to participate in and protect our democracy.” On top of that, he added, young digital natives could provide useful tech support as more states modernize their voting systems.
The article would soon prove prophetic. That January and February, Marlbrough trained as a poll worker in Atlanta in anticipation of Georgia’s presidential primary. That vote, originally scheduled for late March, was delayed until June as the pandemic took hold. The state did not make excellent use of the extra time. The primary made national headlines after voters in predominantly Black jurisdictions, including Atlanta, were forced to wait as long as four or five hours to cast their ballots—a result of fewer polling locations, compounded by malfunctioning machines.
The episode played into a long-running history of Republican efforts to make it difficult for left-leaning groups, especially Black people and young people, to vote. But from his vantage point as a poll worker, Marlbrough could see there was another, more prosaic problem: There weren’t enough people working the polls. Plus, he noticed, some of the older folks who were brave enough to show up, despite the coronavirus, struggled with the new technology the state was deploying.
“I realized a lot of the issues we saw on the news were because of staffing,” he said a few weeks ago. “We didn’t have enough young people, enough people in general, and enough tech-savvy people to staff our precincts.” It was the precise thing he had warned about in 2019, just accelerated dramatically by the pandemic.
This worried Marlbrough—and it gave him an idea. On July 1, Marlbrough, now 22 years old and a recent college graduate, launched the Georgia Youth Poll Worker Project, with the goal of recruiting at least 1,000 young people to staff polling sites in the general election. In addition to shoring up polls that went understaffed even in ordinary times, the idea is that young people have less to fear from the coronavirus. They could also use some extra income, especially given sweeping youth unemployment due to the pandemic. (In many places, including Georgia, people can make a few hundred bucks working the polls.)
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And don’t count out the role of technology. In Georgia, as in other states, poll workers now check in voters using tablets, not paper voter rolls. It’s not an entirely intuitive system. “If someone just puts that machine in front of you with little to no training, you’re not going to be able to get it, at all,” said Marlbrough, who now trains poll workers himself. He offered the example of a Democratic primary voter who decides midway through voting that they’d prefer to start over and vote in the Republican primary. “If you open the screen to do that, there’s two questions: ‘Cancel voter check-in’ or ‘Spoil ballot.’ Your first instinct is to spoil the ballot, which is correct. But you also have to cancel their check-in so their position is reset in the rolls. If you don’t cancel the voter check-in, the card isn’t going to work.” Little tech snags like that can add up to major delays at precincts. It’s not purely an age thing, of course—without training, even a Gen Zer could easily get confused. But all else being equal, it doesn’t hurt to enlist more digital natives.
When we spoke a few weeks ago, Marlbrough said his organization had recruited around 750 poll workers, many of them students at Atlanta’s public and historically Black colleges and universities. Most of the recruiting comes from the absolute best place to find young people in 2020: Instagram. The organization promises to help place volunteers where they’re needed, get them hired, and make sure they get paid.
Marlbrough said his pitch to potential recruits combines civic duty with practical self-interest. “Our approach is that we tie poll working to the basic voter issues we see every election,” he said. “Every election we see five-hour wait times. Every election we see communities not have enough polling sites. Those are specifically tied to staffing. So we bring it home for them. And then we also say, ‘Hey, not only that, there’s a financial incentive for you to help fix this issue, so why wouldn’t you?’”
The pandemic ads extra urgency to those issues. It’s hard to put exact numbers on the Covid-induced poll worker shortage, but if unaddressed, the number would likely be at least in the tens of thousands. In the Washington, DC, primary, for example, 1,700 of about 2,000 workers dropped out. But election administration is a state and local enterprise, and each jurisdiction is different. Plus, it’s impossible to predict how many volunteers will show up come Election Day (plus early voting days), and how many will cancel at the last minute.
Fortunately, the Georgia Youth Poll Worker Project is only one of several efforts spearheaded by young people to stave off an Election Day catastrophe by recruiting their peers to staff the polls. I recently spoke with Lucy Duckworth, who at age 17 makes Marlbrough look like an old-timer. Duckworth, a high school senior in Philadelphia, is working with Poll Hero, a project founded this year by a group of high school, college, and grad students. The organization’s original goal was building support for vote-by-mail, but it pivoted to recruiting poll workers when it became clear that the shortfall could pose massive barriers to in-person voting.
“Young people are so excited about changing the world and being active, and I feel like being a poll worker is one of the concrete ways you can do that,” said Duckworth, who found out about Poll Hero through—of course—Instagram. She’s leading a team of four teenagers focused on recruiting as many volunteers as possible in Philadelphia. Since school has gone virtual, she said, she’s got a little more time to focus on the election.
Duckworth speaks in the hyper-fast cadence of a passionate teen, but otherwise she sounds like a seasoned professional. “In my precinct alone, there are generally four poll workers, and three of them had to drop out due to coronavirus concerns,” she explained. “There’s a monumental loss to make up this year. We alway say, what is a ‘successful’ election? A successful election is when everyone who wanted to vote got to vote, and that’s what we’re trying to make happen.” Nationally, she said, Poll Hero has signed up about 18,000 poll workers. New recruits are encouraged to post to their Instagram stories to get their friends to sign up.
“I follow the news and I consider myself politically active, but far and away, young people participate in democracy the least,” Duckworth said, accurately. She’s too young to vote, but Pennsylvania allows 17-year-olds to work the polls. (Age requirements vary by state, but most allow 16- and 17-year-olds to volunteer.) “They don’t vote as much, they don’t participate in local elections as much, and it’s been a goal of mine—let’s get involved. Let’s get involved right now. Don’t wait until you’re the next Boomer generation. You can have a voice today.”
These youth-driven movements aren’t the only examples of efforts to fix the poll worker problem. The biggest is Power the Polls, a national organization that says it has enlisted 350,000 volunteers in partnership with major nonprofits and corporations. Companies like Old Navy are giving employees paid time off to work the polls, and social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat include sign-up links as part of their voter information efforts.
One lingering question is whether any of this energy lasts past the election.
“These problems are not new,” said Hannah Fried, the national campaign director at All Voting Is Local, a campaign of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “If you ask voters in Milwaukee, ‘Were you surprised that 180 voting locations were reduced to five?’ or voters in Atlanta who waited hours to vote, ‘Were you surprised?’ the answer is going to be no. Covid has brought this into really stark relief, but these are not new problems.”
Evan Wayne Marlbrough, for one, is thinking long-term.
“The plan is, we’re going to be an organization that’s here to stay,” he said. “There’s always going to be election hype. People want their candidate to win. But throwing money at the problem can only take you so far. You have to start building foundations and institutions that work on these issues past November 3. It can’t just be, ‘Every election I’m going to get riled up and ready to vote, and then if my candidate wins, I’m just going to leave it to the candidate.’ Because there's still things that need to be advocated for, and that’s what I hope the Georgia Youth Poll Worker Project will do.”