With the midterm election just weeks away, all eyes are on some of the most newly-engaged voters in the country: women. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, we’ve seen high voter registration among women, suggesting that we could see a record number of voters come November. While this story has dominated coverage the last few months, there are fewer headlines about the fact that many polling places in the United States aren’t sufficiently staffed to handle a spike in turnout. But it’s not too late to fix this problem: local election offices are already ringing the alarm about the need for more poll workers to staff polling places during early voting and on Election Day. The reality is, if women are going to show up in record numbers to vote, women are going to need to show up in record numbers to work the polls, too.
In August, just weeks after the Supreme Court’s historic ruling, voter turnout in Kansas broke records for a primary election. More than 900,000 Kansans cast a ballot—significantly more than have voted in any Kansas primary in the last decade and nearly as many who voted in Kansas’s last midterm election. Voter registration rates jumped in the run-up to this election as eligible voters wanted to voice their opinion on a ballot measure that would have amended the state’s constitution to say it does not protect abortion rights, clearing the path for lawmakers to restrict or ban abortion. In fact, the New York Times reported that in the week after the Supreme Court decision, more than 70 percent of newly-registered voters in Kansas were women.
With higher voter registration and turnout rates, poll worker shortages may lead to long lines and voter disenfranchisement, especially in communities of color and low-income communities. In Kansas, some voters waited hours in line during the primary. Just a few weeks later in Alaska, local residents of two small communities were left with no way to vote in-person when poll worker shortages forced the closure of the polling places on election day. Maintaining safe in-person voting is critical for areas without reliable access to mail service, voters with disabilities, those who need language assistance, or for voters who simply want to cast their ballot in-person as they always have.
Calling upon women is nothing new; women have been powering elections since before they had the right to vote. Now, women ensure polling sites are appropriately staffed to minimize lines and delays, prevent the closing of polling places and ensuring adequate early voting locations, keep technology functioning properly, and help neighbors in their communities navigate issues when voting. The 116,000+ polling places in the United States are, overwhelmingly, overseen by women. But poll workers are also aging: the majority are around retirement age.
In 2020, when COVID-19 prevented many senior citizens from re-upping as poll workers, young people like New York-based Megan Burnham stepped up to the task. Burnham learned about the impending shortage through Power the Polls, a nonpartisan initiative, where I serve as a senior advisor, that works with nonprofits, celebrities, corporations, and election officials to help recruit and place poll workers nationwide. She was inspired to sign up so she could help her neighbors. “We still didn’t have vaccines in 2020, and I know that most poll workers are older volunteers,” she told ELLE.com. “And as someone in my 30s, I felt it was my duty to help protect my older neighbors and help everyone have the opportunity to vote.”
While the challenges in 2022 look different than 2020, there are still jurisdictions that require additional volunteers as soon as possible. The needs aren’t just driven by older poll workers stepping back but also by new demands as elections change. As more and more election offices move to tablet-assisted voting or electronic poll books for checking voters in, they need poll workers who are tech savvy. These days, more jurisdictions are required to provide language assistance to eligible voters, necessitating additional bilingual poll workers. And all polling locations benefit from workers with customer service backgrounds who can support voters through processes that can be confusing or intimidating.
You can make sure your polling place is fully staffed for the November election by visiting www.powerthepolls.org and completing the online application. Your local election official will contact you if they need the help, so that you can be trained, placed, and paid for your time. Power the Polls has recruited over 125,000 potential poll workers in 2022 and is now working with local election officials to fill any remaining gaps and make sure every polling location is fully staffed so voters have a smooth, secure, and speedy experience. If the trend that started in the primaries continues, processing a record number of voters will only be possible if we also have record numbers of poll workers this fall, ready to help our neighbors and communities make their voices heard.
Ashley is a social impact strategist, civic engagement expert, and founder/CEO of the (nearly) all female firm, Impactual. Her work has been featured on The Washington Post, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Glamour, and Marie Claire.