Philly teens signing up as poll workers amid pandemic

Poll Hero, an effort to get young people to sign up as poll workers, spreads its message through Instagram and other social media platforms. PHOTO: Provided

Lucy Duckworth has been spending her days trying to get people in Detroit to sign up to work the polls in November.

The 17-year-old Masterman School student isn’t even old enough to vote, but she signed up to be an election worker and is now volunteering as part of a nationwide effort to encourage young people to staff the polls.

“I think the earlier you get involved, the better,” Duckworth, of Center City, said.

The Poll Hero Project was organized in mid-July by Princeton University and Denver high school students, but it has gained a foothold in Pennsylvania, where 850 people have signed up, most in the Philadelphia area.

City residents as young as 17 years old can register to work the polls, and, in some states, the cutoff is 16.

Duckworth found out about the effort through Instagram, where the group has been gaining traction, especially among politically-active high school and college students.

Those interested fill out a simple form on the Poll Hero website and are contacted by volunteers, like Duckworth and University of Pennsylvania sophomore Aislinn Sullivan, a Florida native who is registered to serve at the polls in Philadelphia.

In some cases, Poll Hero has connections with local election offices, allowing the nonpartisan organization to forward along participants’ information, Sullivan said. If not, volunteers do the research and leg work and guide the young people through the process.

“We think that through this organization, by having young people lead the initiative to get people involved, that our peers will be more willing to also get involved,” Sullivan, 19, said.

Election workers in Philadelphia and elsewhere tend to be older and, as a result, are more susceptible to severe symptoms if they contract the novel coronavirus.

In the 2018 general election, nearly 60% of poll workers nationally were over the age of 60, and only 8% were under 26, according to the Pew Research Center.

Officials this spring opened less than 200 polling locations for the primary election, a nearly 80% reduction compared with the previous general election. The cuts were made, in part, due to a shortage of poll workers.

Concerns about United States Postal Service delays have also caused some to question whether they should opt to travel to the polls, which could possibly boost in-person voting numbers.

Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio said his office is working to open at least 800 polling places—about on par with the recent general elections.

“We are cognizant of the fact that some older poll workers may be less likely to work, but we have had a good response from our poll workers for the general election,” Custodio said in an email. “There have also been many offers from groups looking to help us recruit additional poll workers.”

Election workers show up at polling places at around 6:15 a.m. to set up, check voters in as they arrive and help close the site, usually leaving after 8 p.m. In Philadelphia, they are paid $145, which includes $30 to attend a training session.

Duckworth and Sullivan said Poll Hero is as much about getting young people involved in civic life as it is about filling in for older poll workers who might sit out this year.

“We often have very strong political feelings and we struggle to get engaged,” Duckworth said. “Young people, by and large, are the group who don’t vote.”

“So much is at stake this election, which is why it’s important that we do our part to ensure that every voice is heard, not just those that historically show up to the polls more often,” Sullivan said.

Aislinn Sullivan, 19, a University of Pennsylvania student, has signed up as a poll worker and is volunteering with Poll Hero. PHOTO: Provided

For Mishelley Low, working the polls is one of the only ways she can be involved.

Low, who was born in Indonesia, is a DACA recipient, meaning she is covered by an Obama-era policy protecting children unlawfully brought to the country from being deported. President Donald Trump sought to end the program but a court order blocked the move.

Neither Low nor her family are eligible to vote.

“This upcoming election is really important to me and my family, especially, so I wanted people to get involved,” said Low, 17, of South Philadelphia, who is a senior at Masterman.

She had not been engaged with politics, but, during the pandemic, she began paying more attention to social issues and attended several protests.

“I realized that I have to do something about it because I can’t imagine someone just hearing about everything that’s happening and not getting involved,” Low said.

For more information about Poll Hero, visit www.pollhero.org. To sign up as a poll worker in Philadelphia, go to www.philadelphiavotes.com/en/election-board-officials/pollworker.

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