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Opinion: Detroit needs young poll workers for election

Stuart Baum

Detroit needs thousands of poll workers for the upcoming election on Nov. 3. Let that sink in. The Nov. 3 general election is just months away, and Detroit still needs to recruit and train thousands of poll workers.

Tuesday, September 1 was National Poll Worker Recruitment Day, and in addition to Detroit, communities across Michigan need young people especially to heed the call and serve as poll workers for the November election.

Recruiting and training poll workers is a huge challenge that clerks around the state are accustomed to surmounting every election cycle, but nobody was prepared for the complications introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Legions of traditional poll workers in Detroit and around the state, with an average age north of retirement and heightened vulnerability to the coronavirus, have dropped out. Clerks are calling for young people, who are, as evidence suggests, more resilient to the effects of COVID-19 to fill their positions.

Precinct 282 poll workers Johnnie Wilford (right) and Stan Edwards register voters at Calvary Presbyterian Church as they are woefully understaffed on Tuesday, August 4, 2020.

Throughout our nation’s history, young people have been at the forefront of every movement to right our social wrongs and fight for democratic ideals. Now more than ever, we need to step up and protect our democracy from falling victim to this pandemic. The most powerful way we can do so is by joining the ranks of poll workers in November.

Michigan has moved fast to expand access to voting by mail, but come Election Day, many voters will still rely on in-person voting at their local polling locations. These locations need to be staffed, and many more additional poll workers will be needed to process and tabulate the anticipated deluge of absentee ballots.   

Thankfully, Michigan allows any registered voter to serve as a poll worker, and even 16- and 17-year-olds can serve as poll workers. Further, you do not have to live in Detroit to come and serve as a poll worker in Detroit. All of this means that young people all across the state can rise up and fill this crucial need for poll workers. And they should.

Poll workers are truly some of our most essential workers, and clerks are stepping up to make sure that all poll workers can work safely on Election Day. Providing poll workers with PPE, equipping polling locations with plexiglass dividers and cleaning supplies and creating new polling location layouts designed to allow for social distancing are just some of the ways that local clerks are ensuring that poll workers and voters can be kept safe on Election Day. 

Beyond just staffing polling locations and giving out the much sought after “I Voted” stickers, poll workers also serve as pillars of our communities. Voters have come to count on their local polling locations, adequately staffed, as an opportunity to connect with their community and catch up with their neighbors. Poll workers help keep our democracy alive, our voting secure and our communities connected. 

Having served as a poll worker myself for numerous election cycles since I graduated from high school in 2016, I have always gone back because I enjoyed connecting with my neighbors, gaining career experience, and earning a good paycheck — all while having a ton of fun, too.

Generations of young people before us have delivered when their country and communities needed them. We need to do the same now to fill the shortage of poll workers in Detroit and around the state. Sign up to be a poll worker today at MichiganVoting.org/be-a-poll-worker.

Stuart Baum was born and raised in Metro-Detroit and attended Wayne State University. He now works on the Voting Rights & Elections team of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

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