Identity

Stressed About the Election? Here’s How to Become a Poll Worker

It's an easy way to help with a fairer, smoother voting process for people in your community.
September 15, 2020, 3:03pm
How to Become a Poll Worker
Illustration by Nico Teitel
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While many Americans will likely vote by mail this election due to the pandemic (the New York Times predicts some 80 million mail-in ballots will be returned this year), others, fearing mail delays or simply opting for a familiar voting experience, will still head to their polling place to cast their vote in person. But a shortage of poll workers for the upcoming presidential election is yet another complication of COVID-19: Since poll workers (also referred to as election officials, election officers, election judges, and election clerks) tend to be older than 60—a high-risk population—many states are in desperate need of younger volunteers willing to hold down the polls. 

In order to mitigate some of the issues seen in the primaries—like long lines, confusion, and voter suppression—polling places need to be properly staffed with volunteer poll workers, who answer voter questions, test voting machines, check voters in, and help ensure a smooth voting experience. That’s where you come in. If you’re low-risk and/or live in a community with low COVID-19 transmission and are looking for  a way to get involved in this election (and earn a little extra cash), sign up to work the polls on November 3. (Companies like Old Navy, Target, Warby Parker, Starbucks, Twitter and PayPal are also promoting poll worker recruitment by giving employees paid time off if they serve as a poll worker.) 

Have more questions? Here’s what you need to know about working the polls this election.

How to apply to become a poll worker

To be a poll worker, you must be at least 16 years old in most states and a resident of, or registered to vote in, the county where you’ll be working. In California, green card holders can be poll workers. (You can find out more about how to register to vote here). In Vermont, due to the pandemic and the poll worker shortage, you can volunteer in a county where you aren’t registered, though you must be a resident of Vermont. Otherwise, you’ll need to submit your poll worker application to the county where you reside or are registered to vote. 

Many states and counties have online poll worker applications. New Jersey, Kentucky, California, for example, all have online applications where you’ll fill out your name, address, and county. These applications will automatically be sent to the county elections office where you live—they’ll reach out to you directly with more information on training. Other states, like Indiana, Colorado, and Wyoming, require you to apply to be a poll worker directly through your county elections office. Some counties may require you to fill out a hard copy of the application, so plan to print it out, complete it, and either mail it or drop it off directly to the county elections office. The county will review your application to make sure you’re not related to any of the candidates on the ballot or if you were convicted of a felony or are on parole for the conviction of a felony in states like Alabama, California, and Florida.

While there’s no set deadline for applications, get your forms in ASAP. You can look up how to apply to be a poll worker in your state here and your state’s requirements (and compensation) for being a poll worker here.

What to expect at poll worker training

Sometime before November 3, you’ll be expected to attend a training session (also paid), which will outline your duties for the day. (This will most likely be held online and may be hosted on its own dedicated website, like in Texas.) The training will include how to set up the polling place on Election Day, including placing signs and assembling voting booths; how to check in voters; how to assist voters who may be disabled or speak limited English and voters who are unsure if their mail-in ballot was counted (and how to deal with provisional ballots, in that case); and how to manage long lines. 

Orange County has a pretty comprehensive training video if you'd like an example of how the process works—but, remember, all states and counties will have slightly different training guidelines. Your county might also supply you with a “What If?” guide, which outlines what to do in certain scenarios, like if a voter’s name on their ID doesn’t match what’s in the poll book, or if a voter shows up to the polling place with their absentee ballot in hand.

What to bring with you when you’re working at the polls

Make sure you’ve got your mask (and a backup). If you have access to a clear mask that makes lip-reading possible, this is the time to wear it. While the CDC has advised polling places to have ample hand sanitizer and disinfectant on-site, these days, having your own supply of sanitizer is your best and safest option. 

Since you’ll need to report to the polling place at least an hour before the polls open and you’ll be required to stay as long as there are voters in line (and after to clean everything up), it’s a good idea to bring plenty of water and snacks with you, since once you're there, you'll be asked to stay at the polling location for your entire shift, which can be either a half-day shift in states like Missouri and Pennsylvania or a full day. You’ll get a break for lunch and dinner, and many places allow for breaks throughout the day, depending on how busy the polls are. Just make sure you get approval from your supervisor before leaving your post and taking any breaks.

Bringing your ID and phone is a solid plan, but check with your precinct deputy (the boss of all the poll workers) on the rules surrounding whether you can use your phone in the polling place.

This is a non-partisan job, so you can’t wear political clothing or paraphernalia advocating for any one candidate or party (or express any political opinions, for that matter) while working the polls. 

In a Reddit AMA, Ben Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, recommended poll workers bring a pillow for their seats—uncomfortable chairs are real. You can also bring a book to read, as long as it’s not political in nature.

What to do while you’re working at the polls

Upon reporting to your assigned polling place at the time you were instructed to arrive (it might be as early as 5:15 a.m.), you’ll begin setting up the polling place with your fellow poll workers. Depending on your assigned role, you may greet voters; check voters in and give them their ballots; assist voters who need help; disinfect polling machines, pens, and other surfaces; enforce social distancing; and dole out “I Voted” stickers. 

Throughout the day, try to keep talking to a minimum while people are voting, and avoid discussing politics in general. You have no authority over who can vote, and you should consult with a supervisor if you have any questions at all throughout the day. 

Once the polls close, you’ll continue to check in the remaining voters still in line, and continue working in the polling place until they’ve all cast their vote. After the last voter has left, you and your fellow poll workers will help clean up. Once your supervisor dismisses all the poll workers, you can go home! (And try not to doomscroll, since we likely won’t have definitive results for at least a few days after Election Day.)

Being a poll worker may seem like a lot of responsibility, but think of the payoff: You'll help facilitate democracy in action, as it's happening and be of service to your community. If that sounds like something you'd be into: Check your state’s requirements and apply to be a poll worker—the sooner, the better.

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