When you work in election reform, often at the end of a panel discussion or a presentation you’ve just given, you’ll look out at a sea of people you’ve thoroughly disheartened as to the health of the republic, one of whom has just asked you, “But what can I do to make a difference?” Usually, the answer is frustratingly remote – join an advocacy group, lobby your elected representatives, try to draw attention to the chronically ignored and un-sexy topic of election administration. But in an election year like this one, the answer can become gratifyingly immediate: Go become a poll worker. Poll workers are those overworked, undertrained, usually somewhat harried people who check you in at the polls on Election Day and shepherd you through the voting process. Poll workers usually have to be registered voters in the county they’re serving in, and in many states, they must also be registered in one of the two major parties. It’s hard to find qualified, dynamic poll workers, especially given how little most states pay for the day’s work, and harder still to adequately train them in election law and procedures. Poll workers have to wake up at five in the morning to open the polls, stay at the polls late to process ballots, giving up an entire day, and spending a large part of that day being yelled at by disgruntled voters. But without poll workers nothing in the system works: Even if registration lists were perfectly managed, and voting machines 100% accurate, poorly trained poll workers can lose hundreds of votes in a single precinct.
In the long term, we need to figure out a way to recruit good poll workers. Current innovations include having high school students, many of whom would ordinarily be too young to serve as poll workers, staff the polls as part of their civics classes. We’d like to see other innovations: states could consider exempting poll workers from jury service for some period of time-surely many of you would rather serve one day than possibly get put on a weeks-long trial. Another innovation might be offering continuing legal education (CLE) credit for service at the polls. (Lawyers usually need to take some sort of continuing education classes to maintain their bar license, but often alternative activities such as judging moot courts or writing articles will count for credit as well.) Like jury service, CLE requirements can be a hassle to fulfill, and working the polls might be a nice alternative. In the credit framework, colleges and universities could also offer credit for work at the polls, either course credit or towards community service requirements.
But in the short term, anyone interested in electoral reform should consider taking that interest and dynamism and working the polls this fall. In a national election year, it can often seem like any real affect on the system or the outcome is out of the grasp of just one person, but there is something you can do to make real change now. Go become a poll worker.