Long lines, late starts, polling site closures, and the COVID-19 pandemic put a strain on the November election. After the chaotic Texas primary election, these problems were already visible.
Prior to this election, it was clear that the nation needed a change in who worked the polls, adjustments in how to recruit and train workers, and dedicated focus on how to best operate a safe and fair election in the time of COVID-19. Where Texas counties were proactive and intentional about election planning, there were historic successes. Still, many counties refused to adapt and were inadequately prepared for the 2020 November election. Young people showed up to fill in the gaps when our state fell short.
One aspect of election preparation with special importance during a pandemic was targeted poll worker recruitment. Numerous articles were written outlining the threat of poll worker shortages, arguing for why people need to volunteer to help prevent mass disenfranchisement. Recruiting young people, with flexible schedules, better immune systems, and a tendency to be more tech-savvy appeared to be the most feasible option. In 2018, six out of ten workers were age 61 and older. And as we continue to live through this pandemic, older generations continue to be among the most vulnerable.
When I began my internship at MOVE Texas, I was put in charge of leading a statewide poll worker recruitment program. I had no idea how many barriers applicants would face. Recruiting is easy. Getting recruits through the hiring process is a much different story.
Texas alone has 254 counties that need intentional community work. While MOVE was founded in San Antonio, the organization has developed a presence statewide by amplifying youth voices and increasing their engagement in local politics. We work on over 60 campuses spanning eight cities. For months, MOVE urged Texas counties to prepare for elections during a pandemic. The ones that did came out on top, while the ones that failed to listen fell short.
An example of a well-executed election plan is Harris County’s SAFE Initiative, which includes Houston and surrounding cities. This ambitious plan called for an increase in the number of polling locations and 11,000 workers. Through an aggressive social media campaign and implementation of a student worker program, the county received nearly 40,000 applicants, 6,000 of them from high school students. Despite having a surplus of ready workers, Harris County continued recruiting and training through election day because overpreparation is necessary in this situation.
On the opposite side of the coin is the election execution in Bexar County. When I called the 300 plus people we recruited in this county to track where they were in the poll worker application process, not a single person I spoke to had been hired.
Digging deeper into why the process was breaking down, we identified numerous obstacles. The first being that Bexar County has failed to modernize the application process and required a paper application to be printed and mailed in. Many people do not have immediate access to a printer, especially during a pandemic. Several of those who were able to print and fill out their application had trouble receiving their voter ID number, a requirement from the county. Though Texas law encourages students 16 and up to work by allowing two excused absences a year for election work, one 16-year-old high school student was turned away because he did not have a voter ID.
While many applicants received no communication from the election administration, a handful were sent emails including a link to sign up for a training. That seemed promising except the trainings filled up almost immediately with no indication of when more would be available. Of the rare few who trained, the majority were, you could say, ghosted (never assigned to work).
It may seem like I’m singling out Bexar County, but some of these same retrograde systems are in place in other counties throughout Texas, like Webb and Guadalupe counties, where little communication and poll worker shortages were twin problems.
My favorite saying during election time is that “it’s not enough just to vote.” Despite the shortcomings in the system, it has been encouraging to watch a new generation of poll workers rise out of the pandemic-era election season. A great solution to many of the problems we saw that counties can learn from was the student-run polling site at Rice University. The on-campus polling location was entirely staffed by students in hopes to alleviate some of the polling issues students have previously faced and to increase civic engagement.
A core philosophy behind MOVE Texas is that as young Texans we should build a democracy that looks more like us. It’s why we register underrepresented youth as our state becomes more and more diverse. Recruiting young poll workers ensures another corner of our elections is representative of a rapidly growing, record-breaking, voting bloc – but we need to be prepared for them.