During the 2016 presidential race, roughly 1 million election inspectors, or poll workers as they are often called, were needed across the U.S. to aid in the voting process. Despite that great need, the Election Assistance Commission said that 65 percent of jurisdictions reported difficulty in obtaining enough people to sufficiently staff polling places and that over 50 percent of the poll workers who did volunteer were over the age of 60. In 2020, the need is just as dire, but because of novel coronavirus pandemic concerns — like elderly populations being more susceptible to the disease — finding able-bodied and willing volunteers is as difficult as ever.
A low number of polling volunteers doesn’t just mean longer wait times at the polls, according to an ABC News report, it could result in a reduction of available polling locations. And in key swing states like Michigan where absentee ballots cannot be counted until Election Day, weeks-long results delays could occur like in New York, “where it took six weeks for workers to process absentee ballots to get the final results of the recent Democratic congressional primary.”
Ahead of the November presidential election, Between The Lines interviewed two experienced poll workers who made sure to volunteer their time in 2020 to help ensure that Michiganders both have their absentee ballots counted and have fair access to in-person voting.
“Democracy in Action”
Faye Schuett has been volunteering as a poll worker since 2013 after she retired from her teaching job. Never having had the time before, she said that she was motivated to help out because she loves seeing “democracy in action.”
“And I’m always impressed with the variety of people who come in and how earnest everyone is about voting. People come in on crutches, they bring their children, a lot of people, when people are first-time voters and recently naturalized citizens, they have tears in their eyes after they vote,” Schuett said. “It is the one activity that binds us as a democracy. Everyone, all of our neighbors and the people who we were work for and the people who we work with, that is one activity that we can share and that is democracy.”
Michelle Walters agrees. Over the last several years, she’s volunteered her time as a poll worker both in Royal Oak and Detroit. She said she’s not sure there’s anything she could do “that would make as big of an impact as working the polls” on election day.
But it’s not only seeing the voters come in that makes an impact on Schuett and Walters. Both are members of the LGBTQ community, and being active in the country’s political system serves as a reminder of those who have fought, and are still fighting for, equality.
“Being a woman and a lesbian, it’s been so important to protect our rights and that’s really the way to do it: to make sure you vote and vote in every election and make elections possible,” Schuett said. “I’ve always been impressed with the ladies and men behind the tables and you’d see them again and again — not always in good health — older retired people putting in a long day and helping people to vote. I always thought, ‘That’s something I’d like to do when I retire.’”
Walters said that the impact she makes by interacting with her fellow volunteers helps make a stand for equality, too.
“One of the things that I do like about it is often my experience with poll workers is that there are not many LGBT people working the polls, so sometimes it’s an to spend many hours in close contact with someone who might not have spent a lot of time with an openly gay or lesbian person,” Walters said. “If nothing else, that was probably a good experience for them to see that we’re active in the democratic process and we’re trying to help and to give them a perspective of what it’s like to be a lesbian. I talk openly about my wife and what precinct we vote at and why we’re there. And I think it’s a good opportunity to share my lived experiences with people.”
How to Volunteer
In Michigan, those who are interested in becoming an election inspector must fill out an application at Michigan.gov/DemocracyMVP. In order to start the process, applicants must be:
– At least 16 years old and a resident of Michigan.
– A registered voter in the state if at least 18 years old.
– You may not be a challenging challenger, candidate, member of the candidate’s immediate family or a member of the local Board of Canvassers. Those who are convicted of a felony or an election crime may not serve.
– Undergo a training session to help.
Applicants who successfully go through the process will be paid for their time at a rate not lower than the minimum wage, but in some precincts, like in Ann Arbor, the starting pay rate is $13 per hour.
To find out more information about how to become an election inspector, visit michigan.gov/sos.