The Next Big Thing Students step up to work the polls


By Ilyne Junuén Castellanos

Read more about our Youth Civic Engagement series here.

It was getting late on Nov. 3, and after a hectic day of collecting ballots, helping voters and sanitizing materials, Franny Trinidad was glad to take a moment with her fellow poll workers for a couple of deep breaths. A senior at Notre Dame High School in Salinas, California, Trinidad was not yet able to vote, but that didn’t stop her from participating in the 2020 elections.

“I want to be more involved because there’s only so much you can do when you can’t actually vote,” said Trinidad, who has joined protests, fundraised for different social justice organizations and promoted her favorite causes on social media. After hearing about the opportunity to work as a student poll worker on social media, Trinidad became one of the 107 student poll workers who served Monterey County during the most recent elections.

With older people running a greater risk of contracting a serious case of COVID-19, calls went out around the nation for students and younger people to volunteer as poll workers. In past years, students have made up the smallest group of poll workers, but election offices, in collaboration with schools and nonprofits, have been trying to change that.

As the 2020 elections neared, Monterey County’s election officials grappled with the same issues faced by elections departments all over the country. In the 2018 midterm elections, the majority of poll workers in the county were older, with 633 out of 844 being at least 50. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018, “six in ten U.S. poll workers were ages 61 and older, including roughly a quarter who were over 70.”

Monterey County, along with other elections offices around California, has diversified its outreach strategies. “Efforts include registration drives, classroom presentations, presence at career fairs and reading events,” said Monterey County registrar of voters Claudio Valenzuela. “We also include volunteer information during California’s High School Voter Education Weeks,” referring to periods during the school year when election officials reach out to high school students to help with voter registration, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year olds and volunteer work.

Another incentive is that being a poll worker is a paid — not a volunteer — position, and some school districts offer youth poll workers community service credit.

During the 2020 election, the percentage of student poll workers doubled compared to 2018, and the number of poll workers rose as well. Fewer people sign up during midterm elections, but the age demographics of poll workers have generally remained the same. Although the amount of younger poll workers increased significantly, with people under 30 making up 32 percent of total poll workers in Monterey County, there was still a significant majority of people above the age of 50.

Gina Martinez, the assistant registrar of voters, said that students are trained alongside the county’s most seasoned poll workers and are given the same level of responsibility as their older counterparts. “In November, we witnessed our students step up in a considerable effort to alleviate the need for those poll workers who due to advanced age are vulnerable to the worst effects of the pandemic, from having to work this election,” she said.

Analy Gonzalez, a Spanish major at Hartnell College, took a temporary job working with poll workers at the Monterey County Elections Office during the election season and found it to be a very informative experience. “I thought it (voting) was just dropping off a ballot but I found out that there’s way more to it,” she said.

Becoming a poll worker is a good way for students to become civically engaged and can have positive long-term effects on their communities as well, according to election officials.

Young people can be more effective in getting other young people to vote, and according to the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, “young people are well-placed to pay extra attention to the participation of young people during elections. This means they can provide invaluable support in … reporting on youth-specific challenges.”

Gonzalez said her experience in the Elections Office was a real education. “Once I got to work behind the scenes, I saw that Election Day was only one part of the process.” Gonzalez, who started processing mail-in ballots weeks before and after Election Day, witnessed the vast amount of mail-in ballots that were turned in. Every registered voter in California received a mail-in ballot, contributing to the historical amount of ballots cast by mail during the 2020 Election.

“In November, we witnessed our students step up in a considerable effort to alleviate the need for those poll workers who due to advanced age are vulnerable to the worst effects of the pandemic, from having to work this election”
Gina Martinez, assistant registrar of voters

There was a national effort during the run-up to the November election to recruit young people as poll workers. Evan Wayne Malbrough, a recent graduate of Georgia State University, launched the Georgia Youth Poll Worker Project (GYPWP) in July 2020. The nonprofit aimed to recruit people ages 16-25 to become poll workers.

Malbrough said that the focus of their efforts to recruit young people was to “meet them where they are.” When it came to recruiting young poll workers, Malbrough and his team relied on the accessibility and wide reach of social media. “It is a huge part of our outreach,” he said. “That is where we post our ads, it’s where we have our recruitment links, and we use the content on Instagram to really inform people about what is going on.”

Some of the challenges faced by the GYPWP included difficulties in adequately training poll workers because of COVID-19 safety regulations and recruiting people on and off of social media.

The GYPWP was able to recruit 1,000 poll workers in different counties around Georgia. The organization’s efforts encouraged young people to apply to become one of the 29,000 poll workers needed in the state.

The GYPWP also helped recruit poll workers for the Georgia runoff elections in January, which was crucial to Democratic control of the Senate, and is working on a new project to help other organizations similarly recruit and train young poll workers  called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Starting a Poll Worker Project.” Malbrough and interns working with the GYPWP are compiling different resources and tips that they used during the last election.

“We’re trying to develop a comprehensive poll worker training program, which will help translate to the next election, a core of highly trained poll workers that can do every job in the precinct, allowing the polls to run more efficiently,” said Malbrough.

Implementing a program like the GYPWP in Monterey County could have the potential to recruit and engage more younger poll workers in the future even if there is no longer the same need to protect those most at risk for the virus.

Daniel Regalado-Ortiz, a graduate of Alisal High School and a linguistics student at UC Irvine, became a poll worker after seeing his friends share the opportunity on Instagram. “I think the benefits for young and student poll workers is gaining the experience and knowledge of how voting works, (gaining a) better understanding of elections and getting to see people of their community,” he said.

Regalado-Ortiz said that participating in this election gave him a greater insight into his community, and gave him a chance to see people he grew up with vote and be part of the electoral process.

Encouraging young people to become poll workers was a necessity during the 2020 election, but in future elections implementing programs specifically aimed toward young people can increase the diversity of people staffing polling places and promote youth civic engagement, even among those not old enough to vote, students and officials say. COVID-19 brought many challenges, but in the future, recruiting young poll workers can still make a difference in shortages and the well-being of others.

Younger workers stepped up because they wanted to make a difference, a sentiment that will likely last long beyond the pandemic. “We received early correspondence from people who had never served before asking how they can sign up so that those who typically work and are in the vulnerable population would not have to this time around,” said Valenzuela, the voter registrar in Monterey County. “There seemed to be a sense of personal and social responsibility being taken by the younger people in our community.”

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About Ilyne Junuén Castellanos

Ilyne Junuén Castellanos is a graduate of Everett Alvarez High School in Salinas and is pursuing a double major in political science and Spanish at Hartnell College. | Ilyne Junuén Castellanos se graduó de la Escuela Preparatoria Everett Alvarez en Salinas y está cursando una doble especialización en Ciencias Políticas y Español en Hartnell College.