Students step up to work the polls during pandemic
Class on civic engagement leads to active participation
Following reports across the country of long lines at the polls due in part to massive polling site consolidations during this summer’s primary elections, experts feared for what November would bring. Polling sites were closed largely because of a lack of trained poll workers willing and able to work due to the coronavirus pandemic and concerns for their own health and safety.
Experts say that between 900,000 and 1 million poll workers would be an ideal target for 2020’s presidential election, based on numbers from 2016. In the 2018 midterms, 27% of poll workers were over the age of 71, with another 31% between the ages of 61 and 70, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Election Administration and Voting Survey. Young adults (aged 18 to 25) accounted for only 4% of poll workers.
With coronavirus still a real threat — particularly to the senior citizens who have historically worked at the polls — boards of elections and other nonpartisan organizations have turned to the youth to help make up the difference.
Class on civic engagement leads to active participation
Approximately 40 Binghamton University students have answered that call, participating in trainings to become poll workers in Broome County this year, both at the on-campus polling site in the Events Center, at other polling locations in the county and during the early voting period. Associate Professor of Public Administration David Campbell said that 20 of the 36 students in his Foundations of Civic Engagement class signed up for the training after he introduced the idea as part of his curriculum.
“The focus of this class changes each year,” said Campbell. Primarily offered to first-year students in the Hinman College Public Service Learning Community (PSLC), the course explores the core concepts of civic engagement — such as democratic participation, community organizing and civil society — and emphasizes ways students can become more active citizens now and in future career paths.
“This year I put more of a focus on voting than I might in an off year,” said Campbell. “We read a memoir about John Lewis, we talked about John Lewis as a change maker, and I had the students read an article about the dearth of poll inspectors because of COVID and the challenges that has created.”
In conjunction with this coursework, Campbell connected with staff at the University’s Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), who put him in touch with Sarah Knoell ’17, operations assistant at the Broome County Board of Elections. Knoell worked with the CCE as an Andrew Goodman Foundation Vote Everywhere Ambassador during her time at Binghamton University and worked at the polls while a student. She gladly agreed to speak with Campbell’s class and invited them to sign up for poll worker training.
“Their level of enthusiasm for this is amazing,” said Campbell. “They were totally into it.” Knoell wasn’t surprised.
“The electoral process affects us all,” she said, “so it’s only natural that younger people want to be involved. Too often young adults get overlooked because it’s assumed that they’re apathetic to the process.”
One of those who signed up is Garrett Barth, a first-year student majoring in business administration and living in the PSLC. He said he sees working at the polls as an extension of using his power as a voter to help others have access to and exercise their own power.
“Especially now, there are so many states and areas that are forced to close polling locations because they don’t have enough workers, which leads to voter suppression, a huge issue in our country,” said Barth. “So by [young people] stepping up to work in the polls, we’re able to open more polling locations or stop them from being closed, and then we’re really helping people use their voice and their power in the election.”
He understands that a lot of his peers are frustrated with the electoral system, but he doesn’t see that as a valid reason for not participating. “I recognize that it is pretty slow to enact change through voting and laws, but by abstaining from voting, you’re giving up your voice, and you’re giving up your power to other people to then dictate the laws of the country.”
Supporting the system as a poll worker is an obvious next step for him — one that will actually make a concrete difference.
“Right now there’s a lot of performative activism going on,” he said. “I think that working as a poll worker is that next step to ‘walk the walk’ as well, so you’re not just posting on Instagram about this candidate or that candidate, but you’re actually trying to make sure that everybody is able to vote if they want to vote.”
Student activists find value in supporting the electoral system
Bennett Owens, a senior double-majoring in political science and history, and Alexandra Barkan, a junior majoring in business administration, also signed up to be poll workers.
Owens signed up on the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles website after researching how to request an absentee ballot. As president of the Binghamton University chapter of March for Our Lives (MFOL), he encouraged other members to get involved as well.
MFOL is a student-led organization that aims to support legislation preventing gun violence in the United States. The organization was created following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Owens created the Binghamton chapter in the fall of 2018 and has focused on promoting civic engagement on campus since then. Like Barth, Owens and Barkan believe that it’s up to young people to step up right now and ensure their neighbors can vote.
“I think it’s important to be involved as poll workers because they help ensure that our election process is a success,” said Barkan. “Particularly during the pandemic, when there is a shortage of election workers, I feel that it is incredibly important to contribute to our democracy and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to vote in person.”