The pandemic has introduced several unusual challenges — from remote learning and NBA “bubbles” to virtual graduations and socially distanced Real Housewives reunions.
More importantly, COVID-19 has highlighted our vulnerabilities as a nation and the many things we take for granted. Among them are election workers, 58% of whom were 61 years or older in 2018, an age group that is at greater risk of complications due to COVID-19.
Revall Burke, 60, a Chicago election judge, died of the coronavirus in April after working the polls at Zion Hill Baptist Church the previous month. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker responded to critics, who believed the March primary should be postponed, by saying that eliminating the public’s ability to vote in-person was unconstitutional.
While 16 states and two territories postponed their primaries, Pritzker maintained that attempting to unilaterally cancel in-person voting may set a dangerous precedent.
Pritzker emphasized that local election authorities were supported in their efforts to provide workers with PPE and hand sanitizer but that voters should try to prepare to vote by mail come November if possible.
So it seems that Gen Z has been given a unique opportunity to save the (election) day. Although not invincible, young and otherwise healthy people typically fall into the low-risk category for COVID, making many of them ideal candidates for poll workers.
For Sebastian Leder Macek, 22, who graduated from the University of Michigan last spring, the timing was perfect.
“My job has been delayed, so I don’t have a ton I need to do at that time,” Leder Macek said. “But the broader, sort of ideal reasons why I want to do it is mainly because I do think this is going to be a very fraught election. I think there’s going to be a lot of logistical problems.”
Poll worker shortages lead to long lines, delays and closures, which can prevent people from casting their ballots. Voters shouldn’t be held up at their polling place for hours on end due to technical difficulties, as seen in Georgia last June. That’s blatant voter suppression.
Early voting is already underway in states like New Jersey, Minnesota and Vermont, but there’s still time to apply to become an election worker at your local polling place. In Illinois, poll workers can be as young as 16, and mandatory training can be taken in-person or online once your application has been approved.
Additionally, students that are both U.S. citizens and currently enrolled in public or private Illinois universities or community colleges may become poll workers even if they aren’t registered to vote in the county.
Specifications may vary by county and state, so it’s important to check websites like eac.gov to learn more information, like hours, compensation and other requirements.
In response to the poll worker shortage, some counties in Illinois chose to raise their wages ahead of Election Day. DuPage County poll workers will receive $260 for working on Election Day and $20 per hour during the early voting period, which began on Sept. 24.
Chicago and Cook County followed suit. The city raised their Election Day wage from $170 to $230 while the county agreed to pay election judges $200 for working the polls on Election Day and $150 daily during early voting.
Lorrie Martinez, a former teacher, began working the polls in McHenry County, Illinois in 2018, was keenly aware of the poll worker shortage during the March primary, feeling the absence of fellow workers. “We probably had less than a half of what we should have,” Martinez said. “People canceled because of COVID.”
Approximately 24 million Gen Zers are eligible to vote this upcoming election and even more are able to participate in other meaningful ways, like volunteering to work the polls.
This is a chaotic, frightening and frankly dystopian time we’re all living in together. We’re fighting to preserve and protect each other, our planet and our futures, and we wonder what comes next. Many of us Gen Zers imagine the stories we’ll tell someday in vivid and broad detail. Perhaps one of them can be about the time we supported our community by becoming an election worker.
So if you’re willing and able, mask up, sign up and work those polls.