Teens step up to work at the polls as COVID-19 drives older workers away

It’s National Poll Worker Recruitment Day and one Berkeley High student hopes to recruit other youth to join her in becoming a poll worker.

In 2018, poll workers at the Sylvia Mendez Auditorium finished preparing the polling station short before opening the polls. Photo: Pete Rosos

Frances Lebowitz has never voted — she is only 16 — but she is still deeply involved with the 2020 elections.

Concerned about the future of the U.S.’s democracy during a time when the President is trying to cast doubt about the integrity of the election system, Lebowitz has signed up to be a poll worker in Alameda County on Nov. 3. She found out through the newly formed Poll Hero Project that nonvoters under 18 can help monitor polling places. Now Lebowitz is trying to recruit other Berkeley youth to help out.

“A lot of people don’t know that most states allow you to become a poll worker if you are 16 or 17 years old,” said Lebowitz, who is a junior in the AMPS (Academy of Medicine and Public Service) program at Berkeley High.

Today is National Poll Worker Recruitment Day, and Lebowitz and others want to create a “microcosm of virality” on social media to make people aware of the necessity for poll workers. She and other volunteers for the Poll Hero Project plan to post stories on Instagram and other social media sites to get people excited about working at the polls.


There is an urgent need for poll workers both locally and across the United States. The average age of a poll worker in the U.S. is 62, said Lebowitz. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many people who normally volunteer at the polls stayed home during the primaries.

“Poll workers tend to be older,” she said. “We want them to be staying home this year and it’s important that younger people who are at less risk help out.”

The shortage of poll workers during this year’s primaries led to long lines and wait times in numerous states. Some governments had to take unusual steps to make sure polling places were adequately staffed. In Wisconsin, for example, there was such a shortage of workers that Gov. Tony Evers sent 700 National Guard members to act as poll workers in the Aug. 11 primary, according to the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs. New Jersey also used National Guardsmen for its polling places during the July primary, according to CNN.

The California Legislature, reacting to COVID-19, passed a law in June to send out mail-in ballots to every registered voter in the state. The ballots can be mailed back to county registrar offices or deposited in freestanding ballot boxes. But California law still requires each county to offer walk-in polling places, according to Tim Dupuis, the Alameda County Registrar of Voters.

Many California counties are concerned there will be a shortage of poll workers, according to a July survey by the Secretary of State’s office.


They include Alameda, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Solano counties, according to KQED. Contra Costa County said it didn’t need assistance, while Marin and Sonoma counties said they might need help.

The city of Berkeley sent out a public service announcement Monday calling for people to sign up to help during the election. Workers are asked to commit to working four days: Saturday, Oct. 31, Sunday, Nov. 1, Monday, Nov. 2, and Tuesday, Nov. 3. However, they can choose to work just one day, too. Workers can earn as much as $400 for their time.

Applicants who are bilingual might get paid even more.  Alameda County is particularly interested in those who can speak Chinese, Khmer, Korean, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.

To be eligible, applicants must be either a registered voter in California, a legal permanent resident or green card holder, or an eligible high school worker who is 16, has gotten permission to work from their parents and school, has a 2.5-grade point average and who attends training. Student poll workers can earn as much as $150. Alameda County will train all workers who will be asked to help set up and close a polling place, help voters understand their rights, and help protect ballots and voting equipment.

A number of people who used to work at the polls in Berkeley plan to sit out this year’s election, mainly because of the threat of COVID-19.


One person said they are waiting to find out how Alameda County plans to protect poll workers before signing up again.

Lebowitz first thought about becoming a poll worker about two weeks ago when she started seeing posts about the Poll Hero Project in her Instagram feed. She saw about four or five posts before she clicked through to find out more. The project started recently by students from Princeton University, Denver East High School, and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business is also putting out information on TikTok, Facebook and Twitter.

When someone clicks through, they are greeted with the message “America Needs You to Be A Poll Hero.” If a person indicates they want to be a poll worker, a volunteer connects them with their country registrar. The organization is aiming to recruit 5,000 poll workers today, according to its social media feeds.

Lebowitz said she has been able to get more than 300 young people to sign up to be poll workers. Curiously, not many people from Berkeley have indicated they are interested, she said. Lebowitz hopes today’s social media blitz might encourage more teens to sign up to help out.

“I wanted to find a way to preserve this democracy and improve it as well,” said Lebowitz. “If we don’t take part in preserving it, it will go away.”