LSA freshman Anthony Medei walked nervously into his local polling place in Bingham Township, Mich. for the first time on Aug. 4, but not just to vote. He was there to volunteer as a poll worker after receiving a newsletter from his city’s county commissioner’s office in the August primary election.
“I had never even thought about the idea of, ‘Oh, there are poll workers, there are people who actually make elections run, and they need people,’” Medei said. “I never really thought about it until I had gotten that newsletter. And so I was really, really nervous going in. But once I got there, it was honestly a really good place for you to start (getting involved).”
Medei is one part of a solution to a major issue: a potential shortage of poll workers in the November election. Roughly 58 percent of poll workers nationwide were 60 years old or older in 2018. But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, people in this age group — which account for nearly four out of every five virus-related deaths — are less likely to work the polls because it could potentially expose them to the virus.
This leaves states like Michigan, a battleground state in the upcoming election, depending on other people like Medei to fill the void.
Medei said a primary reason he wanted to work the polls was to ensure older people did not have to. He said he felt he would be safer working since the fatality rate for ages 18-44 remains constant at 0.4 percent. He also said his experience working the August primary encouraged him to be a poll worker again.
“They were low on workers, and obviously, it was because people were nervous to go out because of COVID,” Medei said. “And I thought if anyone should go out, (it should be) someone who’s younger and had a higher chance of surviving. Considering I was younger, and less at risk, I thought, ‘Why not do it?’ So I did it, and then I really enjoyed it.”
The state of Michigan has made a push to encourage young people to work the polls by launching the Democracy MVP, a program aimed at recruiting enough poll workers ahead of the election. The program had recruited more than 2,000 volunteers from 78 out of 83 counties in the state going into the August primary.
In a statement to The Michigan Daily, Jake Rollow, director of communications and external affairs for the Secretary of State, said the Democracy MVP initiative has since recruited more than 26,000 election workers, proving to be a valuable tool in ensuring there will be no shortage of poll workers on Nov. 3.
“It has been invaluable to local clerks across the state who have seen experienced workers forced to step back this year by the pandemic,” Rollow wrote. “Election workers are truly the most valuable players on Election Day … and we have no expectation that any jurisdiction will not be able to open polling places due to a shortage of poll workers.”
Nonprofit groups have also been reaching out across the state of Michigan to address the issue. The Poll Workers Project, which began in Wisconsin after witnessing 175 polling locations close in the primary due to a shortage of poll workers, has expanded its efforts to Detroit, Flint and Ann Arbor. The group expanded to Michigan after learning of the Democracy MVP program and recognizing the crucial role the state’s electorate will have in deciding this election.
James Lengyel, a Michigan resident who is involved with the project, has spearheaded efforts in reaching out to young people across Michigan, and in Ann Arbor, to recruit volunteers. He said he hoped to bring attention to the issue and utilize the large population of young people in Ann Arbor to fill in any shortages that may arise.
“Our hope is that the amount of attention that’s been brought to the issue is going to create a pipeline of younger poll workers,” Lengyel said. “We recognize (there is) a large body of young people here (at the University). And I think that truthfully, the message overall is saying, ‘Hey, wherever you are, if you’re willing and able, there is compensation to be had, there will be PPE (personal protective equipment) provided, it’s a significant duty that you can take on for a day that makes a significant, truly large impact on the overall process.’”
Through efforts such as the Democracy MVP program, the Poll Workers Project and other initiatives from organizations and the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s office, the city expects to have enough workers, City Clerk Jacqueline Beaudry said. In a statement to The Daily, Deputy City Clerk Steve Gerhart said their recruitment of election workers has been so effective the only issue they are facing is recruiting more registered Republican poll workers in order to meet state law requirements.
Students like Medei are finding the message of groups like the Poll Workers Project to ring true. Medei, who will be one of the University students volunteering at the polling stations in Ann Arbor, said working the polls has made him feel empowered in the democratic process.
“When I heard about doing it (in November), I knew I was going to do it,” Medei said. “(When) the younger generation steps up and starts helping out (at) the polls, it gives you sort of a sense of ownership, that you really do feel like, you’re a part of this and that it’s more than just going and voting, you’re a part of making our democracy work.”
Daily Staff Reporter Julia Forrest can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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