Younger poll workers paramount, as older volunteers cancel plans to work during pandemic

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- There is no denying poll workers are essential to the election process. However, the on-going pandemic is proving to be quite the challenge as older volunteers are canceling plans to work because of COVID-19.

ABC7 News learned in this year's general election, the recruitment of younger poll workers is paramount.

There has been no shortage of youth-driven movements recently. Both Gen-Z and Millennials have taken on monumental issues.

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For Palo Alto resident Michaela Fogarty, 20, her generation is taking on the general election. Fogarty is stepping up as a poll worker in Santa Clara County.

"Just everything that's going on, I think that it really strikes a chord with me that right now is a time for change," she told ABC7 News.

Fogarty is a Palo Alto High School alumna, and is currently attending Pitzer College.

She explained she recently worked for Campus Compact, a national nonprofit organization that works with colleges and universities to promote civic engagement.

"The point of the organization was to try to combat this issue of a poll worker shortage by rallying different college students and younger people to go work the polls," Fogarty said.

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In years past, polling locations have typically been staffed by older volunteers.

A Pew Research Data Analysis found that during the 2018 general election, 58-percent of U.S. poll workers were 61 and older. The analysis also found that 27-percent were over 70-years-old.

"I think that makes it really necessary for people who are younger and healthy to sign up and volunteer their time in order to kind of take that burden off of older folks who are more vulnerable," Fogarty told ABC7 News.

Without adequate staffing of poll workers, Fogarty explained, "I know that a lot of those consequences were already seen in primary elections in different states. There were a lot longer lines at polling booths and some polling booths were closed- different things like that."

During an Oakland town hall on voting rights, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told viewers, "Even if we had all the locations we could ask for, they're not that helpful to us if we don't have the volunteers to staff them."

He continued, "If you think about the people who have helped us administer elections in the past, a lot of senior citizens, a lot of retired folks, that frank- those are the ones that Dr. Fauci is saying stay home, protect yourself."

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The Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters office will open 100 voting centers on October 31st. For now, it's challenged with recruiting and training up to 2,000 poll workers.

"Those who are not able to work with us, they've called and they've told us, 'You know what? I'd love to help you. I've helped you so many years, so many decades. But I am at an age where I don't feel it's good for me to work,'" Precinct Operations Election Division Coordinator, Paulo Chang told ABC7 News.

Regarding volunteers, Chang said, "We actually still seeing a broad spectrum of all ages coming to us."

He admits the COVID-19 pandemic has led to challenges.

"We rely heavily on high school students to help us out," Chang said. "This time, though, we're not able to do as much as we did in the past, primarily because the high schools are closed."

Because schools are closed, Chang said staff was unable to visit and pre-register students to vote when they become 18-years-old.

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Additionally, he added, "We cannot go in and train them at schools. When we recruited those high school students, we would go to the school itself and teach them what to do on election day."

However, they've since had to adapt and can only accommodate a certain number of volunteers per training.

"If you worked with us in the past, you would come to a class of 60 people. Our classes are 30 people. For example, you basically stay in a pod that is 10-by-10. We have all the equipment you possibly can handle on election day in that pod."

Chang said more people are showing interest.

The number of volunteers must improve in order for the voting process to run smoothly.

"We cannot change human nature. So people will still wait until the last day to vote. This is the wrong election for anyone to wait to come and vote at the last day," he warned. "The last thing we all want to do is to come in a group of hundreds and try to vote at the last minute."

Fortunately, the volunteer gap is one that civic-minded, young voters like Fogarty can fill.

"I think it's really important to protect our democracy," she said. "And I think that a lot of students have more time on their hands to do that."

For volunteer opportunities at voting centers within Santa Clara County, click here.
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