When the coronavirus struck the country in March, Trinity Smith desperately wanted to help. The 17-year-old tried volunteering at a hospital, she said, but due to the pandemic they weren’t accepting volunteers.
As spring turned to summer and then fall, she thought of another way to make a difference: by becoming a poll worker, a role often filled by older retired people who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“It’s a very important election coming up, and I was feeling bad that I wasn’t old enough to vote,” Smith said. And “with the pandemic and everything going on, a lot of the people who normally work at the polls aren’t going to be able to.”
So from 7 a.m. onward Tuesday, Smith will be a clerk signing voters in at a polling place near her home in Elkins Park.
“I figured I could go in the place of someone who is at risk,” Smith said.
In normal times, most poll workers are over the age of 60, according to Pew Research Center, and in the 2018 general election, a quarter of them were over age 70. People’s risk of suffering serious complications from the coronavirus increases with age, health experts say, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 80% of coronavirus-related deaths in the United States have been in people 65 or older.
The average age of poll workers is expected to skew younger this year as reports from many cities and towns across the country indicate an influx of lower-risk individuals who have stepped up to fill volunteer jobs that older people don’t feel safe doing.
Battleground Pennsylvania is no exception. After elections officials sounded the alarm on a shortage of poll workers due to the pandemic, thousands of people — many of whom are young or first-time workers — signed up in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, as well as in Philadelphia. Officials now say they have a surplus of poll workers, some of whom will be placed on “reserve" lists in case of last-minute call-outs.
“Every county is in far better shape than, I think, maybe ever, in the history of elections because of this huge, huge influx of volunteers in the community,” Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, whose department oversees elections, said last month.
Juan Mancera, 19, of Norristown, heeded the call of elections officials before the primary this spring and spent the day working as a poll worker in his hometown.
“I said, ‘I’m young, why not do it?’ ” he said. “ ‘And maybe I can encourage other young people to do it, too.’ ”
“I got to help a lot of people," added Mancera, who speaks both English and Spanish. It was especially empowering to help people who only spoke Spanish and were confused by the process, he added.
If not for the pandemic, Beatrice Murray, 20, said she would have spent her Tuesday handing out literature for a candidate or participating in other last-minute get-out-the-vote initiatives — jobs that would perhaps pay better than being a poll worker and would not require the West Chester University junior to wake up before the sun.
“Especially with online classes, I do not wake up that early ever,” Murray said with a laugh.
But instead, by 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, she’ll be at a polling place in her hometown of Kennett Square, Chester County.
“I’m young and fairly healthy enough,” said Murray, a first-time poll worker, “so I figured I would do something."
Christian Jesús Camacho, 21, a La Salle University senior, will also be a first-time poll worker in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia.
“I felt this call to action," said Camacho, who got involved through La Salle Votes!, the university’s initiative to get all students to cast ballots and encourage some to work the polls. “We are in the most consequential election in my life.”
Rachel Baker Mann, 30, of Bala Cynwyd, volunteered at the polls once before, for a primary election a few years ago. When she heard the elderly people who typically work at that location weren’t willing to do so this year because of health concerns, she said she jumped at the opportunity to help.
A third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania and the mother of two young children, Baker Mann said she felt “guilty” that she hadn’t been more involved in the election this year.
“It will burn the day,” she said, “but so many other people have literally committed their careers.”
Concerned about the pandemic, she’s going to wear an N95 mask, she said, and be vigilant about social distancing.
At some point, she said she’ll ask her babysitter to swing by with her 4-year-old and 10-month-old.
She wants to get a quick photo of her and her children wearing masks outside the polling place. When her kids are older and learning about 2020 in school, she said she has a feeling they’re going to ask her where she was and what she did when there was a presidential election amid a pandemic.
She will want to show them, she said, that even though they may not remember, they lived through this pivotal moment, too.