WASHINGTON -- Kaylie Martinez-Ochoa arrived at an elementary school at 5 a.m. on Election Day barely awake for duty as a poll worker in northern Virginia. The 22-year-old recent college graduate spent hours at the polling site earlier this month helping check in hundreds of voters.
Despite the exhausting day, Martinez-Ochoa plans to do it again in 2024 and hopes more young people will join the pool of much-needed poll workers.
“There just needs to be more awareness,’’ Martinez-Ochoa said of her peers. “You have to get them to vote first and get interested in that process.’’
Desperate for more young poll workers like Martinez-Ochoa for next year’s elections, officials across the country are ramping up recruitment efforts. They’re teaching civics lessons in high schools, working with universities to offer credit and launching social media campaigns to entice young people to join a workforce where the average age is over 60.
Election officials acknowledged the challenges of convincing young people to sign up after a global pandemic and recent threats against election workers have scared off many poll workers. But they said recruiting younger poll workers can help protect democracy. Issues such as abortion rights, student loans and climate change may spur more interest from young people, experts said.
“We can build a bench with young people that will take care… of our poll worker population, but also our future leader population for years to come if we nurture this the correct way,” said Rhode Island Secretary of State Gregg Amore.
Election officials tap high schools for poll workers
In Rhode Island, Amore visits high school classrooms across the state to teach a 35-minute civics lesson, including the history of voting rights and voter suppression efforts.
“They have grown up in a period of political vitriol,’’ he said of students. “They have seen nothing but ad hominem attacks back and forth. They've witnessed their own families being split apart by vehement arguments in regard to politics. So we thought we would talk about the voting rights process and we do it in a civil manner and talk to them about how to engage both civically and civilly on the issues of the day.’’
As part of the nearly year-old initiative, the office also created a Student Civic Liaison program, where selected students participate in projects like voter registration drives. Many become poll workers.
“One of the benefits, though, is we get to talk to them about civic duty being connected to working on Election Day,’’ Amore said. "Election workers are aging out or they're being eliminated out of the process. We're encouraging our young people to become part of that process.”
Election and education officials in Rhode Island are also working to offer credit to college students.
Across the country in San Mateo County, California, 125 to 150 high school students are assigned to work across 45 voting centers. They are part of the county election office’s Student Democracy Program, which won a best practices award last year from the federal Election Assistance Commission.
For more than 20 years, the program has partnered with 20 high schools and worked with 5,000 students known as student democracy ambassadors. Students attend training sessions and, on Election Day, help at the polls.
The goal is to educate and engage students so they will become active citizens and lifelong voters, said Mark Church, chief elections officer for San Mateo County.
For many students, he said, it’s their first exposure to how the election process works.
“This is an experience that the student will carry for a lifetime,’’ he said.
Election officials in Wyandotte County, Kansas, also turned to young poll workers to help with recent elections as part of their program with local high schools. Students young as 16 are paid or earn community service hours.
Officials hope to expand the program, which also won an award last year from the EAC.
“It’s really exciting to get them to be part of the process,’’ Marni Arezalo, program coordinator for operation services, said of young poll workers. “If we can get them in the polling places when they're young then hopefully they'll continue to be there.”
'Willing to answer the call'
For some young people, learning about civic engagement is a first step.
Oluwademilade “Demi” Egunjobi, a 17-year-old senior at Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island, is part of a program that aims to increase civic engagement among young people.
She said it’s important for young people to try and address pressing issues like access to health care, affordable housing and quality education.
“To make change through policy you have to advocate…You have to know your rights. You have to know what's going on,” Egunjobi said. “This is the starting ground for that – like understanding the history of it and understanding how the government works.”
Egunjobi plans to host a civics conference at Brown University next spring. She’s also considering becoming a poll worker. She said it could help young people better understand the election process.
“We're the next and the current generation of leaders,’’ she said. “If we're stepping into leadership positions with that knowledge, we're already in a better place.”
Martinez-Ochoa, the poll worker from Virginia, started at 17 years old as an election page handing out “I Voted” stickers. She got extra credit for her high school Advanced Placement government class. She later signed up in 2020 to become a poll worker.
“I was willing to answer the call,’’ said Martinez-Ochoa, who graduated from William & Mary University last May.
Edward Burroughs, a member of the Prince George’s County Council in Maryland, said he visits high schools to talk with student governments and sports teams about civic engagement and issues they want resolved.
“If you're able to meet students where they are and talk about issues that they care about first and foremost, it's much easier to engage them to be civically involved,’’ Burroughs said. “But there has to be a connection about how their involvement will make a difference for themselves, their families, for their school, for their clubs.”
Young people stepped up during pandemic
Nearly 1 million poll workers are needed nationally for the general election, according to the Election Assistance Commission. In 2022, about 14% of poll workers were between 18 years old and 40 years old, the EAC found. Most were 60 years old and older.
Earlier this month, the EAC opened the application process for nearly $1 million in competitive grants to help colleges, nonprofit organizations and election offices recruit more poll workers and provide civic education.
In 2020, many young people served as poll workers because older workers were particularly at risk during the pandemic, said David Becker, executive director of The Center for Election Innovation & Research. He said the demand is likely to increase next year with the presidential election and thousands of local elections.
Election experts said it’s important that the pool of poll workers is diverse.
Traditionally, poll workers have been older and white and not always reflective of the communities they serve, said Bob Brandon, president of the nonpartisan Fair Elections Center. The center’s Campus Vote Project partners with colleges to educate students about voting and civic engagement and encourage them to become poll workers.
Younger people tend to be more tech savvy and more likely to be bilingual, depending on the area, Brandon said.
“Having somebody that is from your community is both more comforting to the voter, but also probably means that poll worker might go that extra mile to make sure they've done whatever they could to help,’’ he said.
Martinez-Ochoa said it matters that she can help Spanish-speaking voters at the polls. She said many in the area of her polling site don’t speak fluent English or aren’t as comfortable, much like her parents were when they immigrated from Central America years ago.
"Every single election there has been at least a few people that I help,'' she said.
Is it safe to be a poll worker?
Efforts to recruit poll workers have been harder because of the pandemic and threats against election workers, officials said.
Zach Mohr, a professor at the University of Kansas, said his research showed recent years have put a strain on recruiting poll workers.
“While it used to be a patriotic thing to do, now people's families are asking them if it is safe to be a poll worker,” Mohr said. “It is safe, but there is that issue of perception. So, that perception is likely making it more difficult in some places.”
Becker said a poll worker is almost always a safe job in most communities, but recent threats may turn some away.
“I am concerned that the harassment of election officials down to the poll worker level is going to be a disincentive for people to volunteer,’’ Becker said.
But Brandon said threats may have spurred some young people to become poll workers because they refused to be intimidated.
“There was a lot of interest in 2020 for stepping up and helping people vote, particularly given the context of all the craziness about elections,’’ he said.
Election officials push to boost pay
One challenge to recruiting poll workers is the long day at the polls, officials said. High school ambassadors in San Mateo County work from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Martinez-Ochoa said long hours for low pay can also turn off young people who can make more money elsewhere.
“A lot of people my age are like, ‘Oh, I don't want to work for 16 hours for minimal pay,’’ she said.
Many poll workers get a stipend for attending trainings and working at the polling sites. Students in San Mateo County get a $280 stipend.
In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. Austin Davis said officials are pushing to increase pay, which he said hasn’t been raised in years.
“Election Day is a long day,’’ he said. “There's very real responsibility so we need to make sure that we're appropriately paying the people who are stepping up to do this civic service and this duty.”
Martinez-Ochoa said she’s excited to help at the polls again next year.
“When you think about it, conceptually, it doesn't sound very fun. But my experience has always been really good,’’ she said. “Because I'm the youngest I feel like a lot of people are interested in hearing what I have to say at the polling places. I always get the question, ‘Oh, is this your first time doing this? And I'm like, ‘No I've been in the game for a little bit. And they're like, ‘Oh my gosh!’”
Contributing: Terry Collins, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2024 election: Younger poll workers being recruited by officials