Though many voters will cast their ballots by mail this year, election officials around the country still expect major crowds at polling places on Election Day. Managing the voting process requires an army of poll workers to make sure voters have everything they need to safely and securely elect their local and federal representatives.
However, as COVID-19 continues to threaten vulnerable populations — including seniors, who make up about 58% of poll workers in a normal year — polling places need young, healthy, eligible residents to raise their hands to spend the day working to ensure that our most basic democratic privilege happens without a hitch.
The Inquirer reached out to experienced poll workers from around the region to talk about why they started and what keeps them going back to the polls again and again.
Neighborhood: Southwest Philly
Political party: Prefers not to say
Day job: Retired
Working the polls since: The late ’90s
On rallying young voters: “I try to get the people interested in the candidates they’re voting for, especially our young folks. They feel as if their vote doesn’t count, but we try to educate them. We know that seniors do vote, but a lot of the seniors are leaving us. So we still need to educate the young folks on the process. And get them to do the work.
“I have been a judge of elections at the polls up until maybe the last two to three years. Then we had someone younger come in, who I trained.
“I go around in the community to make sure we got young folks involved. Even to help walk seniors to wherever they’re going to vote. We’re trying to get young voters into a position where they’ll be willing like me, for the long run. Meaning they’ll get into the process and understand why you should vote.
“I’ll probably do as I did in the primaries — it’s just one site, 700 to 800 homes in that division. We are stationed at the site helping get people transportation, getting seniors rides to the polls.”
Neighborhood: Cedar Park
Day job: Software engineer
Political party: Independent
Working the polls since: 2014
On the feel-good afterglow: “Every division in Philadelphia is pretty small. I think we have about nine blocks in our neighborhood that we are covering. They’re the people you see at the park. You see them as you’re walking down the street or at the grocery store, and it’s an opportunity to put names with faces. It’s satisfying every time. You get thank-yous from the people who come in. They’re appreciative of what you are doing. For the most part people aren’t angry, although that happens too. At the end of the day you feel like, in the case of the presidential election, I just helped 700 people fulfill their democratic goals. That feels really good regardless of how the outcome comes out. It doesn’t have to match what I personally am looking for in politicians. But the fact that democracy actually happened in my neighborhood and I was one of the vectors for that — it’s pretty thrilling every time.”
Neighborhood: South Philly
Political party: Democrat
Day job: Administrative assistant
Working the polls since: 2018
On protecting her elders: “Honestly, I really like seeing how the election process works. This goes way back to when I got my U.S. citizenship in 2009. I remember hearing, ‘What can you do now that you’re a U.S. citizen?’ ‘You can vote, you can volunteer.’ At the time I was a college student — I didn’t care, felt apathetic, whatever. But later it felt like the minimum thing I can do. As much as I complain about the pandemic and the social unrest, the U.S. has by and large been a pretty good country to me. So I wanted to give back.
“With the pandemic especially, I noted that during the last primary on June 2, there were two elderly women as volunteers who seemed high on the coronavirus kill list. They were dragging oxygen tanks, all kinds of things — and I just didn’t want that to happen again. I don’t know why they volunteered, but I would just rather older people have that choice not to come [if that’s safer for them].
“That’s why I’ve been posting on social media: if you’re quote-unquote young and healthy, you should really start volunteering for the polls, because I don’t want older folks to feel like they have to volunteer for something that’s more likely to kill them.”
Neighborhood: Point Breeze
Day job: Comedian
Political party: Democrat
Working the polls since: 2018
On enforcing integrity: “We hear about elections in the news all the time, we hear about people being disenfranchised at polling places, and I wanted to be on the ground and see it up close. I like the integrity. I like that there are people there who are interested in following the rules and making sure this is fair and making sure that everyone, regardless of party, can come in and cast their votes without us getting in the way. I have had the fortune of, I think, every time I voted in Philadelphia since I’ve been here in 2002, there have been Black people and specifically Black women at the polling stations. And I think about the fact that that’s just sort of built in for me. And how different, and how much less welcome, I would feel if I walked into a polling place that was staffed exclusively by white people.”
Where you live/vote: Drexel Hill
Day job: Outdoor media
Political party: Republican
Working the polls since: 2017
On being neighborly: “In the primary election some of the regular volunteers have decided that for health reasons they would not be able to participate. But the show must go on. Somebody’s got to be there, the doors have to open and the polls have to be open, so there was no backing out — whether I was comfortable or uncomfortable, that was my responsibility. That was my commitment. I think that it is incumbent upon every citizen to be a part of the process and understand the process, and a part of that is getting involved and seeing and understanding what goes on before and after you cast your vote. It is a community thing. It is a way to meet your neighbors and get to know your neighbors and get a sense of your community.”