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Gen Z Has a Plan to Save the Election—Starting With the Polls

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.”