By Theresa Nelson
Do you pay much attention to who runs your polling place on Election Day?
Voting in-person on Election Day remains the most popular method of casting a ballot, according to the 2018 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) conducted by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC).
In 2018, more than 200,000 polling places were open on Election Day, and more than 600,000 poll workers staffed them. Most of these staff are temporary workers hired by local election officials, but despite this huge workforce, polling places are often understaffed.
More than two-thirds of jurisdictions that responded to the EAVS in 2018 said it was “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to sufficiently staff their polling locations. This problem seems to be growing significantly; in 2008, 2012 and 2016, less than half of election officials who responded to the survey reported having a hard time recruiting workers.
And if you have paid attention to the poll workers, have you wondered where the young people are?
The EAC found that “less than one-fifth of poll workers were younger than 41 years old, whereas more than two-thirds were 61 years or older.” Local officials are often dependent on retirees to meet their staffing needs, yet the long hours (only 18 states allow poll workers to work part time or in split shifts) and the trend toward more technologically advanced election equipment (i.e. voting machines and electronic poll books) pose challenges to these workers.
Rachael V. Cobb, assistant professor of government at Suffolk University, suggests local officials start hiring who she sees as “technologically adept workers” who are “well educated and accustomed to learning new skills”— i.e. students.
Many legislatures have taken the idea of hiring students a step further and implemented youth poll worker programs for high school teens, which have historically garnered bipartisan support.
Hawaii was the first state to implement a youth poll worker program in 1990. Since then, most other states have moved in this direction. In 2019, two states—Alabama and Maryland—enacted legislation allowing for the creation of statewide youth election programs. It should be noted that since 2001, Maryland has had statewide laws allowing youth ages 16 and 17 to work as election judges, but this new legislation creates an additional youth program called the Election Day Page Program, bringing the total number of states with programs for youth participation on Election Day to 46.
When did each state enact a youth poll worker program?
For jurisdictions suffering from understaffed poll locations, the addition of youth and students can expand their applicant pools.
This year, the Virginia General Assembly enacted SB 589, a bill that amended the current youth poll worker program in the state to expand tasks that youth were allowed to do and open up volunteer programs for adults in addition to those in place for high school students. The office of Senator Adam Ebbin (D) stated, “This bill was a response to the existence of a strong opportunity to involve more community members in the important civic duty of voting and provide assistance to the officers of election.” All in all, it “promotes smoother election day processes.”
Beyond combatting chronic staffing difficulties, there are also civic benefits to hiring youth poll workers. Maryland Senator Bryan Simonaire (R), who authored SB 364 that enacted Maryland’s Election Day Page Program, said, “We hear almost every election that young people don’t get involved … Research found that by involving young people and showing them what the election process is and how it makes an impact will help them get involved and stay involved.”
Youth as young as 14 in Maryland will be able to get to know the election process firsthand starting in October 2019, when this law takes effect. Simonaire is not alone in his belief that familiarizing students with the polls will instill in them a desire to participate in elections in the future.
For example, Idaho’s statute introduces the state's youth poll worker program by stating its purpose is an effort “to provide for a greater awareness of the election process, the rights and responsibilities of voters and the importance of participating in the electoral process, as well as to provide additional members of precinct boards.”
Theresa Nelson is a policy intern with NCSL’s Elections & Redistricting Program.