This Nov. 3 — Election Day — millions of Americans will assert their political voices.

Being 16, I can’t yet cast a ballot. Instead, I’ll serve as a poll worker, and assist those exercising their constitutional right to vote in my hometown in New Jersey. And you should consider doing it, too.

Poll workers ensure smooth elections by overseeing voting procedures, explaining them, interpreter-like, to community members. Poll workers are vital facilitators for elections — the critical link tethering government to constituent accountability.

Prospective poll workers need relatively few qualifications. Applicants should be registered voters or high school students, county residents, fluent in English (bilingual proficiency is welcomed), and available for extended hours. In most counties, poll workers are compensated.

You might assume that Americans would enthusiastically partake in such civic engagement. But the converse is reality, and statistics paint a bleak picture.

Poll worker shortages vex most municipalities. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center noted in 2018 that “two-thirds of [U.S.] jurisdictions (68%) said it was … difficult to find enough poll workers.” An ongoing crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic — only exacerbates this predicament. Altogether, recruiting woes result in an alarming outcome: a worker dearth affecting everything from polling sites to voter demographics.

On Election Day, 16-year-old Henry Hsiao will serve as a poll worker, and assist those exercising their constitutional right to vote.
Steven Hsiao
On Election Day, 16-year-old Henry Hsiao will serve as a poll worker, and assist those exercising their constitutional right to vote.

Age further complicates matters. Poll workers are generally older, as the U.S. Election Administration and Voting Survey recently observed: “In the 2018 [midterms], around six in 10 U.S. poll workers (58%) were ages 61″ and above. Given what we know about COVID-19 transmission, that means that the people most likely to volunteer to work the polls are also the ones most at risk to contract the virus — and thus more likely to sit out working this election, for individual safety. Asked to remain indoors, occasionally with poor ventilation, and interact with presumable virus carriers, health-conscious senior workers inevitably won’t show up come November.

Election boards are scrambling to enact measures to safeguard poll workers, including supplying personal protective equipment, tabletop/poll machine sanitization, disposable pen use, social distancing, and strict room-capacity thresholds. Even so, these comprehensive steps won’t persuade all veteran workers to return. Yet their absence fundamentally influences polling locations.

Approximately 40,000 poll workers operate Pennsylvania polling stations. On average, eight workers should staff one station. But this minimum regularly goes unfulfilled — a tallied deficit representing thousands of workers. Because not enough people sign up to work the polls, certain precincts shutter each election cycle, which causes longer lines that can be a deterrent for some voters.

Widespread poll closures have insidious repercussions. They foster disenfranchisement, limiting voting access for those lacking vehicles or mass transportation-reliant — disproportionately minorities and the socioeconomically disadvantaged. For example, Texas’ large-scale poll closures since 2012 struck heavily at the state’s Black and Latinx inhabitants, making it harder for them to cast a ballot. Poll worker insufficiencies are just another way to target already marginalized Americans.

Although election officials across the country are encouraging voters to use vote by mail for the 2020 election, many Americans are still expected to vote provisionally or in person. Current mail delays and unfounded allegations of rampant absentee ballot fraud may also inflate in-person figures. And given this election’s high-profile nature, overall turnout is projected to mirror or exceed previous years’, continuing Pennsylvania’s surges in the 2016 presidential election (70% of registered voters) and 2018 midterms (58% of registered voters).

Unfortunately, poll workers cannot cope with a severe voter spike. Past 2020 primaries offer sobering case studies. In Wisconsin, circumstances grew so dire in April that Milwaukee opened just five of its usual 180 polling places. Voting — an ordinarily empowering experience — quickly devolved into an awful spectacle as crowds, waiting hours, jeopardizing their physical welfare to vote amid a pandemic.

Ominously, Wisconsin’s ordeal wasn’t unique. In Philadelphia’s June 2 primaries, the city consolidated 831 polling places into a drastically diminished 190 — with poll worker paucity cited as a decisive factor. And nationally, worker shortfalls will remain an enduring post-COVID-19 issue. Clearly, much is at stake.

So, besides learning from failure, how will we prevent our November elections from culminating in an equivalent debacle?

The solution: mobilize dedicated, active Americans.

Flourishing republics demand vigilant citizen advocates who span the political spectrum. Similarly, our elections require poll workers, who’ll act as democracy’s indispensable front-line force.

Of course, poll worker influxes won’t remedy all election ills — such as pervasive voter suppression — but they symbolize a start, encouraging transparency and universal participation at the ballot box.

I’m confident that pandemics won’t halt prepared citizen advocates, or the countless Americans standing ready to help. If anything, pressing exigencies energize them.

Consider becoming a poll worker — and volunteer a day for your country.

After all, electoral chaos is a frightful scenario that we cannot afford.

Henry Hsiao writes about politics and music. He won the New York Times blackout poetry (2019) and review-writing for high schoolers (2020) contests.