If you vote at your local polling place long enough, you will probably begin to recognize some of the people that continually serve as poll workers. In many cases, they might be your friends, family members or neighbors. You see them at the grocery store or the park. These individuals are an emblem of our rich democratic history, and an important reason why our elections are so strong.
Last week, we recognized National Poll Worker Recruitment Day and Help America Vote Day, which celebrate poll workers and encourage Americans to work in their communities to help run elections. Without the hundreds of thousands of volunteer workers needed to staff the thousands of polling places across the nation each election season, our system of self-government would not be possible.
Adequately staffing polling places has always been a challenge. Yet, as we prepare for the November midterms, we are seeing an alarming nationwide shortage of poll workers. A variety of factors have contributed to this: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has meant that the group most traditionally relied upon to be poll workers, the elderly, has been reluctant to volunteer.
The pandemic also changed how many of us vote, with Americans in many states embracing mail-in voting for the first time, requiring additional staff to help process these ballots efficiently. And, unfortunately, political disinformation about our elections has led to harassment of some of our election workers, discouraging new volunteers.
For too long, we’ve taken poll workers for granted. When an election runs smoothly, you might not think much about how things are run or what goes into the process. But poll workers are trained to ensure that voters are able to cast ballots without problems. They set up and prepare each polling location, welcome voters, verify voter registration, issue ballots, make sure the public understands the voting process, demonstrate how to use voting equipment, and so much more. Without them, our elections simply would not function.
Poll workers are not some group of “others.” They are us, they should look like America and they represent the astounding diversity of experiences, perspectives and backgrounds of America. Our elections, after all, are meant to be an expression of who we are as a nation.
I am the proud daughter of Chinese refugees. I know how precious the right to vote is. But I also know that not enough people that look like me, or millions of other Americans, are involved in the process.
They need to be. I’ve seen firsthand that when voters experience diverse poll workers, they feel more confident in exercising their right to vote, and encouraging their friends and family to as well. And our country is stronger for it.
Being a poll worker is challenging, but immensely rewarding as well. Election days start early and end late, but nothing compares to the many little moments where you get to help people exercise their most sacred and fundamental right: to have their voice heard in the democratic process.
Many Americans are unsure of how the process works — and that’s okay. What’s not okay is doing nothing constructive to ensure that our system remains open, free and secure. I especially encourage anyone who might be skeptical about the system to take part in it by volunteering. The system is not closed off to you. See for yourself how many checks and balances there are in the system. It’s important that poll workers from all sides, both parties, and all communities participate in the process.
As voters prepare to cast their ballots in this year’s critical midterm elections, it’s up to all of us to ensure our democracy is one we can be proud of. There’s no better way to do that than to volunteer as a poll worker — a most noble job that protects and upholds the collective will of the American people.
Virginia Chau is a corporate attorney by trade, AmeriCorps VISTA Alumni, 2022 Outstanding Woman in Business Award winner presented by Good Business Colorado, and currently runs a tech startup. In Denver, she supervises her local voter service and polling center, which is one of the highest in-person voting and ballot drop-off sites in Denver County. She is a member of Issue One’s Faces of Democracy, a campaign of election officials and workers to strengthen U.S. elections in 2022 and 2024.