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There is a 'big need' for volunteer poll workers to help the election run smoothly this year. Here's how to get involved

A worker cleans an election officials station during early voting for the June 2nd primary in Washington D.C.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

If you are young, healthy and want to help this year's historic presidential election run smoothly, one way to make a difference in your community is to volunteer as a poll worker.

There is a "big need" for volunteers this year because more than half of those who typically volunteer are over 60 and, understandably, worried about the coronavirus, Bob Brandon, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Fair Elections Center, tells CNBC Make It. (Polling sites are doing everything they can to keep volunteers and voters safe, he adds.)

But fewer volunteers means fewer polling sites can operate: Milwaukee, for example, typically has 180 polling places. At the primary in April, just five sites were operating. Earlier this month, election board officials in states across the country said they were still thousands of volunteers short.

More than 900,000 volunteers are needed to operate polling sites across the country, according to Brandon. And more volunteers are needed this year than in past years not only to ensure that jurisdictions like Milwaukee can operate the appropriate number of polling sites — keeping lines shorter and enabling more voters to cast their ballot — but to count the anticipated increase in mail-in ballots. 

Brandon notes there is an especially great need for workers in certain states and cities, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Miami and Charlotte, N.C.

If there's one good thing that's come of the pandemic, it's that citizens who don't typically volunteer have been signing up to work the polls, becoming more invested in their communities and the democratic process as a whole, he says. In many states you have to be at least 18 to volunteer, although some allow high school students aged 16 or 17 to volunteer

"It's going to wind up being a whole new generation of poll workers," says Brandon. "We're going to have a lot more people who are younger and more diverse who have done this and decided it's a good thing to do."

How the process works

The official duties of poll workers vary by jurisdiction, but typically, they open and close the polling sites, check in voters and ensure everyone who wants to (and is eligible) to cast a vote is able to. In most places, volunteers get paid for their training and for the elections they work. In New York City, you can volunteer to be a Coordinator, an Assembly District Monitor, an Information Clerk, an Accessibility Clerk or an Interpreter, among other jobs.

It's not an easy gig. Volunteers have to complete a training and commit to a 15-hour day working at their assigned poll site. They arrive before it opens and will work, with few breaks, until all of the votes are submitted after it closes. If your employer does not offer volunteer days, you'll have to use a vacation day or take an unpaid day off of work.

But if you're interested, don't let any of that deter you. Election boards and voting organizations are doing everything they can to simplify the process and make it as safe as possible.

After reading about the poll worker shortage earlier this year, I decided I felt personally safe enough to volunteer in NYC. After filling in some basic personal information on Power the Polls, a nonpartisan poll worker recruitment site, I was directed to New York City's Board of Elections' (BOE) site, where I applied to be an Information Clerk. A few days later, I received an email that my application was approved and I selected a training session from NYC's Election Day Worker Dashboard.

My in-person training session was simple and safe and lasted approximately 3½ hours. It was held near my apartment in Brooklyn, though some other volunteers had traveled over an hour to reach the elections warehouse. The BOE workers took the other volunteers and myself through what we would be expected to do on election day and taught us how to find voters in New York City's elections system. 

The BOE workers told us time and again that it's the Information Clerk's job to ensure everyone who wants to vote, can. If a voter turns up to the wrong polling site, we fill out a referral card for the correct site, and use the the BOE's system to map out how they can get there. We also learned how to properly fill out Affidavit Ballots for any voter who requests one.

If you want to get involved, you can look up the requirements for your state via Work Elections.

Poll worker safety is a top priority

Election boards across the country have gone to great lengths to make training and voting as safe as possible, including providing personal protective equipment and planning to keep voters spaced out at the polls. Public health experts contend that voting in-person is as safe as going to the grocery store.

When I attended my training session, the BOE workers wore face masks and disposable gloves to check us in and teach the class. They checked the volunteers' temperatures before the class and had us sign a statement saying that we were not sick. They provided disinfecting wipes and kept everyone socially distanced during check in and the training session itself. Two volunteers sat at each table with plastic barriers on the desks between us. They held the training in a large warehouse; everyone wore masks and was respectful to each other. I never felt unsafe.

After the training, I walked to the subway with the woman I sat next to during the class. I learned she was an immigrant who had volunteered as a poll worker many times in the past. I was only on the subway for a few stops; she would be on it for at least another hour and two transfers.

A few days after our training, she was scheduled for surgery, she said. She wasn't sure if she would be mobile by the election, but she wanted to get her training in so she was prepared, just in case she was able to work. She considers it her duty, she said, to help others cast their votes safely. 

I thought about her as Fair Election Center's Brandon explained what so many people get out of volunteering.

"It's almost always the case when people do it, it's a long day, but it's rewarding," says Brandon. "They really feel closer to the community, because they are fulfilling their civic duty."

So far, that has been my experience. 

If you're interested in volunteering, head to Power the Polls to sign up, or Work Elections to find out more about volunteering in your state.

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