We are less than 100 days away from a nationwide election and our electoral system is stumbling to respond to the demands of voting in a pandemic. Primary elections—which always have far lower turnout than the general election—have seen drastic, last-minute reductions in polling places, hours-long lines, and tens of thousands of denied absentee ballots. It is abundantly clear that these roadblocks disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous, immigrant, and elderly communities, further degrading equity in our politics.
The federal and state governments must invest in vote by mail, early voting, and traditional polling places to ensure that everyone can exercise their right to vote without putting themselves and their families at risk. There are also steps we can take as individuals. I am volunteering as a poll worker for the upcoming election, and I encourage every young, physically able person to do the same.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were critical shortages of poll workers. Poll workers check voters’ registrations and direct them to voting booths; they play an essential role in ensuring a smooth election and, if there are too few of them, it can result in long lines, confusion, and miscounted ballots. In 2016, two-thirds of jurisdictions reported problems with recruiting enough workers and, consequently, more than one million Americans showed up to the polls but were unable to vote because of logistical issues such as long lines and problems with their registration or IDs. Millions of Americans experienced these logistical problems, however, the residents of predominantly Black neighborhoods had to wait 29 percent longer to vote than those in predominantly white ones.
Such inequities have only become more pronounced during the pandemic as election workers—the majority of whom are 61 or older—have rightfully refused to put themselves at risk of infection by working at the polls. We’ve all seen the videos of hundreds of people lining up at the polls in Georgia. We’ve read about voters in Union City, an Atlanta suburb that is 88 percent Black, who waited at their polling location until 12:37 a.m. to vote. We’ve heard the mind-boggling statistic that all but five of Milwaukee’s 180 polling places were forced to close for Wisconsin’s April primary.
A shortage of poll workers is at the core of these issues. Without adequate staff or PPE, polling places have been forced to close, some the night before the election. Different locations get consolidated, confusing voters, increasing the stress on the remaining polling locations, and creating long, time-consuming lines.
Many proposed solutions focus on expanding vote by mail capabilities. While this is absolutely essential, vote by mail is not the blanket solution to voting in a pandemic. In Georgia, every registered voter was mailed an absentee ballot application and one million people ended up voting by mail, compared to just 37,000 people in 2016. And, still, polls were overwhelmed. Across the primaries, at least 65,000 absentee ballots were rejected for arriving too late and tens of thousands of absentee ballot requests were denied, with Black voters’ requests being rejected at disproportionately high rates. Furthermore, in-person polling places provide services that are impossible to replicate through the mail, including language help for non-English speaking Americans and accessible voting machines for disabled Americans.
With the politicization of vote by mail and lack of federal resources directed to elections, we can unfortunately expect these problems to continue into the November presidential election. This is unacceptable.
We need to call our representatives and our secretaries of state, urging them to support increased federal funding for vote by mail, early voting, and polling stations. And I call on young, healthy individuals who care about their communities and their civic duty—people like you and me—to volunteer as poll workers to help alleviate the stress on their local polling places.
As the late Representative John Lewis said, “too many people struggled, suffered, and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.” Let’s not forfeit that right this November.
Matt Vasilogambros, “Few People Want to be Poll Workers, and That’s a Problem,” Pew, October 22, 2018.
Evan Nicole Brown, “What It’s Been Like to Vote in 2020 So Far,” The New York Times, July 14, 2020.
Vasilogambros, “Few People Want to be Poll Workers,” Pew.
Richard Fausset and Reid J. Epstein, “Georgia’s Election Mess: Many Problems, Plenty of Blame, Few Solutions for November,” The New York Times, June 10, 2020.
Michael Waldman, “Protecting the Vote from a Pandemic,” Brennan Center for Justice, July 24, 2020.
John Whitesides and Jason Lange, “Georgia’s election mess offers a stark warning for November,” Reuters, June 10, 2020.
“About – All Voting Is Local”. 2020. All Voting Is Local. https://allvotingislocal.org/about/.
Want to become a poll worker this fall? Click this link for more information: https://www.eac.gov/voters/become-poll-worker