Experts are worried about a poll worker shortage. These students are recruiting young people to help.

The project hoped to recruit 1,000 young people in its first month — after only three weeks, approximately 1,500 had signed up.
Image: Baltimore holds a special election for Maryland's 7th congressional district, at the Edmondson Westside High School Polling site in Baltimore, Maryland
A volunteer poll site worker at the Edmondson Westside High School Polling site sanitizes a write-in ballot station after it was used during the special election for Maryland's 7th congressional district seat in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 28, 2020.Tom Brenner / Reuters file

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By Kalhan Rosenblatt

In late July, Lucy Duckworth saw a friend’s Instagram story sharing information about something called “The Poll Hero Project.”

Then she saw another. And another.

“When I had seen it three, four, five times, I decided to click on it myself,” Duckworth, 17, told NBC News. “It goes to show you the power of social media to organize young people.”

By the end of the day, Duckworth, a high school student, had signed up with “The Poll Hero Project” to become a poll worker this November in her home state of Pennsylvania.

Poll Hero, a project founded by a group of Princeton University students, Denver East High School students, and a graduate of University of Chicago Booth School of Business, is an approximately 30-member team of almost exclusively Gen Z volunteers who are trying to recruit as many young poll workers — in some cases as young as 16 — as they can to work election sites in their communities this November amid a shortage of workers because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The biggest problem that was not being addressed, that we felt with our resources we could contribute to, was the need for poll workers,” said Kai Tsurumaki, 19, a student at Princeton and one of the project’s founders.

Students participating in The Poll Hero ProjectCourtesy Kai Tsurumaki

Initially, the project set a goal of 1,000 sign-ups in the first month.

It blew that projection away, recruiting approximately 1,500 young people in approximately three weeks to become poll workers in their communities this November.

“It is exciting just because students have been so responsive to our project,” Princeton student and co-founder Kennedy Mattes, 20, said.

Poll workers in the United States historically tend to be older, with approximately 58 percent in 2018 being 61 and older, according to the Pew Research Center. And because older Americans are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, many opted not to work the polls during the primaries this year.

In April, only five of 180 Milwaukee voting sites were open because of the shortage of poll workers, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“Because of the huge shortage and the really incredible importance of this role of poll working, of making sure everyone can vote, I think the risks are way out-weighed by the benefits here,” Tsurumaki said. “Personally, for me, if I don’t do it, will there be enough people there at the polls? Is everyone going to be able to vote? Just thinking about that really motivates me.”

The project is straightforward. Once a young person signs up, the group helps connect them with their local election official and guides them through the process of signing up to work the polls. Poll Hero also sends frequent reminders and updates to keep recruits engaged as November approaches.

“We’re there to hold their hand through the sometimes complex, sometimes annoying, bureaucratic form-type processes of getting connected to the people they need to be connected with,” Avi Stopper, 41, another co-founder, said.

Although the project is unable to provide any safety equipment, according to its website, it has information about how poll workers can stay safe from COVID-19 while they work at election sites.

The Poll Hero Project is not the only group attempting to recruit poll workers. Power the Polls is another, and states like Iowa and Michigan are also making pushes to recruit young voters.

“Democracy is a team sport and election workers are our most valuable players. With the expected increase in absentee ballots for this year, as well as the need to replace veteran election workers who are older and more vulnerable to coronavirus, my team has been working hard this year to recruit election workers, particularly young people, for our Democracy MVP campaign,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in an email.

Benson added that since April, the Democracy MVP campaign has partnered with sports teams and employers to recruit more than 6,500 workers so far.

Poll Hero hopes to build on those efforts and use methodology its founders know will be most effective on their peers.

“We’ve been primarily communicating with college and high school students through social media and so, as you know, everything goes viral nowadays so quickly,” Mattes said.

That contact on social media, through platforms like Twitter and Instagram, has also been used to remind young people that working the polls isn’t just a way to help democracy — it can also be a way to earn money.

“They can participate in democracy, they also get paid in most cases for doing it because you get paid when you’re a poll worker, and it’s something our society desperately needs,” Stopper said.

He added that in the vast majority of cases poll workers who are over 18 will be paid for their work, and Stopper said often student poll workers, those under 18, will also be compensated for their time. Stopper said there are some jurisdictions, however, where student poll workers might not be paid.

“It’s also great on a résumé, and this is a really good way to demonstrate to colleges or graduate schools or employers that you are a participant in democracy,” Stopper said.

Those added benefits are icing on the cake to the students who spoke to NBC News and said they’re excited to be working the polls for the first time to help ensure the election in November runs smoothly.

“I’ve only very recently been able to vote as a 19-year-old,” Tsurumaki said. ‟To now take this next step to not only vote but to work the polls is very meaningful.”

For those not old enough to vote yet, signing up to work the polls feels like a way they can still make their voices heard.

“I think so many politicians and older people underestimate young people,” Margo Mattes, 16, said. “We do make a difference. We can be involved and, yes, I can’t vote but this is a way for me to do my part.”