More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic -- and with ongoing concerns about political violence -- America is facing a critical shortage of poll workers, experts say. A new national campaign hopes to see veterans and their families fill the gap.
Some 130,000 poll workers have stopped serving over the past three midterm elections, the group Vet the Vote says. And 20% of local election officials said in a survey this year they were very unlikely or somewhat unlikely to stay on until the 2024 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Traditionally, the average age of poll workers is 61 or older, a demographic that is also more at risk from COVID and has, often, become warier of exposure, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Committee (EAC).
Vet the Vote hopes to sign up 100,000 veterans or their relatives to volunteer at the polls and fulfill the crucial but small-bore work that makes elections possible.
Ellen Gustafson, Vet the Vote's co-founder and co-executive director, is recruiting with 30 coalition partners. So far, the group's six-month campaign has attracted 1,000 veterans, but Gustafson said that the “big recruiting push is just starting” with upcoming promotions at NFL games.
“We saw a big connection between the military family community and the veterans’ community and the need to protect different facets of democracy,” said Gustafson, whose husband is in the Navy and whose grandfather was in the Coast Guard. “We volunteer at a higher rate -- we obviously know how to deal with complex situations and work together across many different boundaries to sort of accomplish amazing things.”
Vet the Vote's partners include 15 veterans groups, four civic organizations and the NFL.
“Veterans are made of stern stuff, we have been to war and aren’t easily intimidated,” said Marine Corps veteran Joe Plenzler, an election judge responsible for administering voting procedures in Charles County, Maryland, and an avid recruiter for Vet the Vote. “I found that other volunteers in the polling site are more reassured working alongside veterans who have been to war.”
Andrew Turner, 10-year Navy veteran, said he felt inspired by his love of politics and commitment to serve and decided to work the primary election as a Vet the Vote volunteer.
“The biggest thing ... was the amount of times I heard people say ‘thank you,’ like they just were so grateful to have the access to voting,” Turner told ABC News.
June's primary saw a turnout of hundreds of voters in Bay City, Michigan.
Turner, who previously had cancer and is disabled in one of his hands, said he had his own mounting concerns about COVID but felt safer given the sanitary environment with oscillating fans, an abundance of hand sanitizers and masks.
“It's tough in a polling site to make it perfectly safe, but I think we did a pretty good job,” he said.
Kate Germano, a 20-year Marine Corps combat veteran, was an inspiration behind the campaign. She recently worked as an election judge in Maryland, calling her time “the most meaningfully patriotic thing I’ve done as an adult and a citizen.”
Without volunteers like Germano and Turner polling sites would be pinched, said Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at MIT and director of the M.I.T. Election Data and Science Lab.
Stewart said the lack of staffing would lead to longer lines, delayed wait times for results and the consolidation of polling locations, potentially creating more obstacles for voters. Still, he predicted that there would be less absentee voting in 2022 compared to previous years in the pandemic, which saw a record surge in the use of mail ballots.
Coupled with COVID, political violence and partisan extremism remain a looming concern for potential poll workers.
“Because that sort of venomous nature of American politics has amped up so much, people are just less and less willing to work the polls,” explained Joshua Dyck, a professor and the director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
The Brennan Center for Justice conducted around 600 interviews among local election officials and, according to a survey published in March, found that one in six local election officials personally experienced threats; more than half of those officials had been threatened in person.
Part of the polarization around voting was driven by GOP-fueled claims going back to 2020 that certain forms of voting are fraudulent.
Employment forces such as low pay for the role and an otherwise tight labor market are also exacerbating the shortage of poll workers, experts say.
“Violence is the extreme outcome, but the less extreme outcome is people just deciding, ‘I don't really want to work at the polls, this isn't really worth it.’ And then it becomes more difficult for the basic cogs of our democracy to turn,” said Dyck, the professor.
“Veterans and military members are one of the most trusted communities in America,” Vet the Vote's Gustafson told ABC News. “What we want to see is a new normal when people get out of the military or military spouses move to a new community [that] one of the ways that they engage is by being coworkers."
"We think that this is a great solution, not just for American elections to run smoothly but also for military families and veterans to remind America that serving is not a one-time thing," Gustafson said, "but service is something that lasts your whole life.”