A friend inspired English senior Suzette Sanchez to be an election worker this year to embrace the power of being a voter and recruit younger voters to do the same.
Sanchez, 24, also serves as a Work Elections Fellow for the Campus Vote Project. She recruits students at Texas A&M University-San Antonio and residents of Wilson County to serve as paid election workers.
“To be able to reach out to them [young voters] and get them involved is beneficial to voting and elections; there is a strong need for them during these pandemic times,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez and other young people have stepped up to work at polling locations during the pandemic. They follow health guidelines and not only make the process easier for voters at higher risk, but they also give respite to election workers who are older or more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
U.S. poll workers, many of whom are in their 60s or above, are experiencing the impacts of the coronavirus as the November election approaches. Masks, gloves and plexiglass windows are all that protect these workers.
Monica Alcantara, chair of the Democratic Party in Bexar County, said this election will be different; San Antonio has seen a decline in older people willing to work the polls, but younger people are stepping in to fill the gap.
“As the elderly workers working at the polls decrease, there is an increase in younger voters getting involved and volunteering at the poll locations,” Alcantara said.
“Over half of poll workers are over the age of 60, which is our most vulnerable demographic to COVID,” Sanchez wrote in an email to the College of Arts and Sciences on Sept. 30. “A lack of poll workers will lead to more polling places shutting down, which means that more people will have to drive further to vote leading to longer lines. Each of these consequences result in an increased risk of contracting COVID.”
The key to running an efficient polling station stems from the poll workers who sign up, but this year coronavirus may put the majority of those workers at risk.
“The majority of the workers we see are retirees, and of course because of COVID-19 there is a concern that their immune system could be compromised,” Alcantara said
Current and previous election workers talk COVID-19
In 2018, 58% of poll workers were over the age of 61, according to the Pew Research Center.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the older someone is, the greater the risk of severe illness from COVID-19. In the U.S., nearly eight in 10 deaths resulting from COVID-19 included people ages 65 and older.
Despite polling stations taking precautions to reduce the risk of contracting the virus, doubt still lingers in the minds of older people who would volunteer under normal circumstances.
Joel Mayer, a 70-year-old retired teacher, has served as a poll worker before and opted out this year due to the pandemic and being at higher risk.
“Without criticizing the Elections Department, who I’m sure are doing their very best to protect election workers and voters, there is literally no measure they could take that could induce me to go to a polling location, either as a voter or a worker,” Mayer, who taught at South San Antonio West Campus and MacArthur high schools, wrote in an email to The Mesquite.
Others, like Lilly Foria, a deputy early voting worker, are ready to assist.
Foria, who declined to provide her age, has worked the polls for six years. As a deputy poll worker, she is often sent to help different precincts and has seen the impacts of COVID-19 among poll workers first-hand.
She says that while safety concerns among poll workers are on the rise, it hasn’t stopped her or other poll workers from volunteering.
“There were some people that were scared but it wasn’t that many,” Foria said. “No one got sick and everyone was still able to work.”
Nowadays, wearing personal protective equipment and limiting direct contact with voters is a normal part of the job, Foria said in a phone interview on Sept. 21. She said some poll workers were concerned about volunteering at the onset of the pandemic but having safety guidelines in place at polling stations helps them feel safe.
“People were leery about working it but not so much anymore,” Foria said. “We are provided gloves and plexiglass to separate us from voters and that seemed to have helped ease concerns.”
Election involvement and recruitment
The general age of those willing to volunteer is 55 or older but that’s not because younger people don’t want to volunteer; it’s because poll workers are required to work long hours. Younger people have other responsibilities that keep them from being able to work the polls all day, Foria said.
Foria said that although she has not seen a decline in older people volunteering to work the polls, it is still important for younger people to volunteer. She says those generations can learn a lot about important issues in their communities by getting involved.
“They [younger people] can become more familiar with why it’s important to vote,” Foria said. “When you volunteer, you learn a lot.”
San Antonio election workers consist of diverse age groups.
“There is still a large group of 65-and-over election workers, but during this cycle there is a larger group of 21 and over that have stepped up to become election workers,” Alcantara said.
Alcantara said the Democratic Party is still taking names for those interested in working as clerks or judges and there are still classes available. She said the county is inviting youthful voters and college students to sign up to work or volunteer during this election cycle.
Some ways that students can get involved are: helping with phone banks, texting and calling voters.
“If you [know] students that want to make a difference, we absolutely need their help,” Alcantara said.
The Republican Party of Bexar County did not respond to The Mesquite’s requests for an interview.
Organizations strive to meet goals in election worker counts
Organizations such as Power the Polls are helping to advocate and make a difference in this year’s election.
Power the Polls is working with Bexar County Elections and A&M-San Antonio to recruit student poll workers so older poll workers can safely sit this one out.
Sanchez is encouraging young, healthy students to volunteer for paid poll worker roles this election. The goal is to recruit 250-plus student poll workers through a partnership with Power the Polls to safely protect in-person voting during the General Election.
”As young, healthy individuals, we have the opportunity to fill in for our vulnerable community members,” Sanchez said in her email. “To allow them to sit this one out means that not only will we be protecting our community, but we will be preserving the sanctity of fair and safe elections in their place.”
To sign up, email Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christopher McCullough contributed to this story.