COVID-19 kept older poll workers away from the election. Young people are stepping up

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Posted at 11:43 AM, Oct 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-26 13:44:56-04

BOISE, Idaho — This article was written by Hayley Harding of the Idaho Statesman.

It was the same concern being felt around much of the country: The coronavirus pandemic meant that many people who typically staff polling stations on Election Day were staying home, and Ada County needed help.

Poll workers typically skew old. Pew Research Center found that 58% of 2018 poll workers were 61 or older, and more than a quarter were older than 70. During a respiratory pandemic that appears to put older people at more severe risk, staffing a polling station could potentially be dangerous.

That led to a shortage of volunteers. That could have meant fewer polling places with longer lines. So Phil McGrane, the Ada County clerk, teamed up with Republican and Democratic party leaders to ask Idahoans to volunteer as poll workers.

That’s when Edie Johnson, who turned 18 last month, joined the hundreds of teenagers and young adults working to support elections this year.

Johnson is a freshman at DePaul University in Chicago, but she’s living at home in Boise this quarter and taking classes remotely. She volunteered to be a poll worker after hearing concerns about mail delivery of ballots and about how many older people who typically volunteered were staying home.

“It was surprisingly easy to become a poll worker,” she told the Statesman in a phone interview. “In my mind, I was expecting it to be this very difficult job to get or something that required a ton of training, so it never occurred to me to even try.”

She learned quickly that the process is actually very easy. Applying is simple and can be done online. Poll workers must remain politically neutral, attend a training and agree to work an extended day.

Johnson was more than willing to do it. Come Nov. 3, she’ll run an “e-poll book,” an electronic version of the poll books voters may be familiar with, at one of Ada County’s 135 polling locations. She’ll help run the election during the first one she’s old enough to vote in.

She won’t be the youngest person staffing the election. In Idaho, people as young as 16 may volunteer as poll workers. In Ada County, dozens of high school students have stepped up.

“We’re going to have two high school students at every polling location,” McGrane told the Statesman in a video interview. Many of those students are doing it for class, he said.

The clerk’s office partnered with the Boise and West Ada school districts to get students involved. Students will help with new technology, like the poll book Johnson is operating.

Both Boise and West Ada schools are having a virtual learning day that day, which will allow students to take part while their school buildings are used as polling places. The University of Idaho’s College of Law is also giving its students an in-service day, allowing them to volunteer as well.

Danielle Strollo is one of 80 students from the law school volunteering in local elections around the state. She first got involved last year as a poll worker in Kuna, where she found her legal background was helpful.

She worked with faculty to see how it would be possible to get other students involved, and when Ada County announced it was going to need poll workers, she jumped at the chance to recruit others.

U of I law students will be able to count the day — which can often stretch longer than 14 hours — toward a graduation requirement to work a certain number of pro bono hours.

At 35, Strollo describes herself as an older law student. She estimates her fellow students average about 27 or 28.

“I think that if young people can see other young people exercise their rights, they’ll realize it’s really important to participate in the process,” she said. “From there, hopefully they get even more involved, maybe find a candidate they care about and go work for that person. Maybe I’m a naive optimist, but that’s my hope.”

Johnson and Strollo have said they are nervous about potential exposure to COVID-19, but they’re preparing with masks and by wearing other protective equipment that will be provided by the county.

One person at each polling place will serve as the “sanitizing clerk,” focusing on wiping down services at least every 15 minutes and keeping things clean. McGrane said.

Johnson said that while she understands younger people are still susceptible to the virus, she doesn’t want elderly people risking their health.

“I’m younger and decently healthy. That’s not perfect protection, but elderly people who usually work the polls are at a much higher risk,” she said. “At this point, I’m mostly just excited to be involved in democracy first hand.”

Chelsea Carattini, a spokesperson for the Ada County elections office, said that the county now has more than enough poll workers, but applicants may be tapped for future elections.