In the middle of a pandemic, young people are stepping up to work the polls this election season — some for the first time ever. In Washington, D.C., we spent time with two millennial women who are first-time poll workers as they put on masks and headed to voting centers for six-hour shifts.
In the early morning on the Friday leading up to Election Day, Carly Manes, 27, settled in for the start of her third shift at an early-voting center.
Manes, who works in politics, got time off from her day job to work several poll shifts. She describes herself as a queer, full-spectrum doula.
At the recreation center where Manes is working, at least 15 poll workers assume various roles, from greeting people at the door to wiping down electronic voting machines.
Manes sits in a row of about six other poll workers — all women — who will be checking people in when they arrive. At her table, she sits behind plexiglass with an iPad, a stack of provisional ballots, hand sanitizer and screen wipes in front of her.
At 8:26 a.m., a steady line of voters arrive. Manes pops up to stand, waving over a voter. She always tries to avoid referring to people as “sir” or “ma’am,” to avoid assuming their pronouns.
“Hello, good morning, do you have anything with your name on it?” she asks the first voter. Another poll worker suddenly calls on everyone to stop: It’s still 8:27 a.m. and the computer system won’t begin accepting voters until 8:30 a.m., when the polls officially open for the day.
According to Manes, the opening-hour rush has been the most busy. “Then it’ll be dead,” she says. While she waits for the system to boot up, Manes makes small talk with the voter. Then, 8:30 a.m. hits and Manes starts the check-in process.
Between each voter check-in, Manes wipes down the screen of her iPad. Sometimes she has to ask people to repeat themselves; it’s hard to hear them behind a mask and plexiglass.
The pandemic is one reason Manes is taking hours out of her day to work the polls. “It’s normally older folks who work the polls,” she says. A Pew Research Center analysis from 2018 found that roughly 58 percent of U.S. poll workers were over the age of 61. To be able to work the polls in their stead can mitigate their risk, Manes says.
The other reason she says she wants to be a poll worker is to help minimize voter suppression. When people arrive, “we do everything in our power to make sure they can vote,” she says. Manes never wants to turn a voter away, so this morning, she asked a site supervisor what to do for someone who is unhoused and doesn’t have an address.
“I love to give people this ticket to go vote,” she says, gesturing at a machine on her table that prints out a number for people to take when they go to fill out their ballot or into electronic voting booths.
She calls it a privilege to take time off work to work the polls. Next to her, poll worker Rebecca Sternhell, 37, nods. Sternhell, a government employee, is using her furlough days to work the polls. In the mornings, she drops her kindergarten-age daughter off at school and then works a shift.
“It feels like I’m contributing something to this process,” Sternhell says as there’s a lull in voters. She recently explained to her daughter that she was a “helper” for voters.
By mid-morning, someone is coming in every few minutes. Manes says to voters: “You came at a great time. There’s no one here. We’ll get you out in five minutes.”
It’s Halloween and 26-year-old Aparna Raj is heading to her polling location. She thought about wearing a costume to her shift, she says, but decided against it — instead opting for all-black with a red floral mask.
Raj works for a food equity organization and is involved in various community organizing groups.
“If Trump is president or if Biden is president, there will still be people who are homeless or food insecure,” she says.
It’s only Raj’s second shift. On her first day, she worked as a door greeter, welcoming people in as they arrived and pointing them toward the registration clerks. Today, though, she’s doing registration.
The Halloween morning shift doesn’t bring many people in at first, so Raj checks people in sporadically. After one of the first voters she checks in completes her ballot, another poll worker makes an announcement: They’re a first-time voter. Everyone in the gymnasium begins clapping. Raj smiles through her mask; they do this with every first-time voter.
As the workers wait for voters to arrive, Raj says she’s been a bit surprised. “I anticipated it being super busy,” she says. “I hope that means a lot of people did mail-in ballots.”
According to D.C.’s Board of Elections, more than 125,000 people have voted using ballot boxes and more than 61,000 have sent their ballots via the U.S. Postal Service as of Oct. 31.
Raj sees working at the polls as an important part of her work in equity and as a woman.
“Women aren’t a monolith,” she says. As an activist, she says, “it’s really important to get as many diverse voices and as many diverse representations of womanhood” as possible. When she thinks of voting, she thinks about counteracting the hundreds of years of law created predominantly by White, wealthy men in the United States.
“For me, it’s not just about women, which is really important, but specifically also women of color, queer women, trans women, immigrant women,” she says.
Raj can point to specific moments in her life that influenced her decision to get involved in the election this year, including living through Bush v. Gore in 2000. She was only 8 at the time, but when she later began to fully understand how that election had played out, the outcome bothered her. Raj also says the 2008 recession was a radicalizing moment after her dad lost his job and her brother graduated into economic insecurity. The rise in Islamophobia after 9/11 and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina also stick out to her. “All of that made me really interested in politics growing up,” she says.
The poll workers read, check their phones, or chat with one another as the stream of voters slows to a halt mid-shift. They’re all sitting several feet apart from one another, so they have to raise their voices a little to talk. Raj says, having trained in a room with 40 other poll workers, her personal anxiety around the pandemic has lessened a bit. She points out the safety measures around the room: space between people, plexiglass, wipes and open doors to ensure airflow. Still, for Raj, who says she is taking as few risks as possible, it’s her first time spending time indoors with people since March.
A woman edges up to Raj’s station. After checking in, the woman asks Raj: Should she vote by electronic voting machine or fill out a paper ballot?
The woman eventually settles on the electronic voting booth and walks off to vote. The gymnasium is nearly empty, save for the poll workers, so it’s easy to hear when a ballot clerk stands up and announces, “Hey, she’s a first-time voter!”
Raj, along with the others, begins to clap.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Rebecca Sternhall as a federal employee. She works for the city of New York. We reg