With the November elections drawing near, state and local officials have been reporting significant shortfalls in the number of poll workers available, as many who are at risk for complications from COVID-19 have decided to sit out this fall. An organization co-founded by several Princeton students has been trying to reverse that trend by recruiting college and high school students to fill these openings at the polls.
Ella Gantman ’23, one of the co-founders of the nationwide nonprofit Poll Hero, explained that the cause of the poll-worker shortfall — COVID-19’s persistence — could indirectly be part of the solution. “The fact that a lot of schools aren’t going back actually makes this project possible,” she said. As they attend classes remotely, many potential college-age poll workers will be in their hometowns on Election Day, and poll workers are required to work in the place where they’re registered to vote.
The Poll Hero co-founders, who include seven Princeton undergraduates, students from a Denver high school, and Avi Stopper, an entrepreneur and University of Chicago business school grad, launched their work in July and set out to recruit 1,000 poll workers in their first month. They blew past that mark in a couple of weeks. As of mid-September, they had signed up more than 16,000 poll workers. In addition to spreading the word about the need for more poll workers, Poll Hero connects the new recruits with local officials to arrange for registration and training.
Co-founder Kennedy Mattes ’23 said election officials have been grateful. “As our project is becoming more known,” she said, “we’ve had election officials in different cities reach out to us, to ask if we can work on recruiting young poll workers in their specific areas.”
Young people are energized and engaged in the election, said Kai Tsurumaki ’23, a Poll Hero co-founder and fellow at Princeton’s Vote100 project, which aims to increase civic engagement among undergraduates. For most college students, this will be their first chance to vote in a presidential election, and Poll Hero offers a nonpartisan way to get involved. Health and safety are concerns for young people, too, Gantman said, but for those able to take the risk, it’s a chance to make a valuable contribution and keep more polling sites open in November.
Four of the Princeton students involved in Poll Hero had previously worked with Stopper to advocate for expanded access to mail-in voting. Late in the summer, they shifted focus to the poll-worker shortfall. The message seemed to resonate on social media, particularly among college students.
As Poll Hero grew, so did the work for its organizers. In the week before classes began, Ryan Schwieger ’21 led Zoom calls helping people take the first steps to register with local officials. Gantman recruited college students, reaching out to student-athletes and their coaches, directors of student life, campus Democrat and Republican clubs, and service organizations. Tsurumaki designed social-media graphics, partnering with the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission on outreach for national poll-worker recruitment day on Sept. 1. And Mattes trained new members of the team “so that people are still able to volunteer with the Poll Hero project while also managing their school work.”
Schwieger, a sociology major who is writing his senior thesis on gerrymandering in North Carolina, said that Poll Hero has offered a window on important behind-the-scenes work that is largely unnoticed and underappreciated. He points to the contributions of the late Laura Wooten, a longtime employee in Princeton’s dining halls, who was believed to be the longest-serving poll worker in the United States. She worked the polls for 79 years until her death in 2019.
Poll Hero’s organizers are looking forward to working the polls for the first time — Gantman in Washington, D.C.; Tsurumaki in New York City; Mattes in Cincinnati; Schwieger in Waxhaw, North Carolina; and dozens of other Princetonians around the country. “We’re glad that we can do our part,” Schwieger said.