This Election Day, 17-year-old Rohan Rajesh will be on the front lines of American democracy. The high school senior, who lives in the U.S. eastern state of Maryland, plans to work at the polls.
“This year, I'm going to be an election judge,” Rajesh says. “During the election I'll be signing people in, making sure that their ballots are properly processed, and I plan on working the whole day from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.”
More than half of U.S. states allow students over 16 or 17 years old to work at the polls, according to the Election Assistance Commission. Rajesh believes his participation is especially important this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I understand that historically, poll workers tend to be older. And so, with it not being safe for them to be able to go outside, it’s our generation’s responsibility to sort of step up and take that initiative, that responsibility, to make sure that our elections are run well, smoothly, so that people are able to vote for the people that they choose,” he says.
Rajesh and the other Americans who work the polls serve as the guardians of democracy.
“They're essential workers in the democratic process. Voters check in. They are asked to provide an ID or any form of identification, or they give poll workers their name. Poll workers check their voter registration records,” says Lia Merivaki, assistant professor of American Politics at Mississippi State University. “They check whether that person is a registered voter and confirm their eligibility, and then they give them a ballot.”
Some poll workers volunteer. Others are paid modestly for the day’s labor. Historically, the most common poll worker is an older white woman, according to Merivaki. The largest group of poll workers is in their 60s, while the second largest group is over 70.
Poll workers also act as gatekeepers tasked with verifying the identities of eligible voters and preventing ineligible people from casting ballots. Polling experts say biases can seep into the process, consciously or unconsciously.
“New Mexico has found that when it comes to voter ID, poll workers were more likely to ask nonwhite voters for voter ID. And for white voters, they will not scrutinize them as much. My students also experienced that,” Merivaki says.
“Some poll workers were more likely to ask more questions to minority voters than to white voters. They were more prone to verify signatures and accept absentee ballots from voters that they knew. So, they would not consistently apply the rules,” she adds. “So, diversity is important, because not only from the matter of how the rules are going to be administered, but also on how voters experience their elections.”
Historically, the young and people of color are less likely to serve as poll workers. But experts like Merivaki expect more of both groups to work the polls this year, as many vulnerable older workers stay home to avoid possible COVID-19 exposure.
Among those new poll workers is Virginia teacher Sadia Kullane, an immigrant and a woman of color, who signed up to work on Election Day.
"I'm from East Africa. It will make a difference for immigrants, for not only people of color, it kind of helps them to see somebody who looks like them,” she says.
The mother of three also wants to set an example for her college-aged daughters.
“It is a patriotic duty. I have two girls. They were born here, but I'm an immigrant. I want them to see that women, especially women of color, even an immigrant, can do anything," Kullane says. "And it's my duty. If I can, if I'm healthy and I can do it, then, yes, I'm going to do it.”
Whether this more diverse group of poll workers will set a new trend for future elections is unknown. But once people have worked the polls, they are more likely to do it again, according to Merivaki, in part because election officials habitually reach out to reliable past workers.
Rajesh from Maryland will likely be back. He started volunteering at the polls in 6th grade to fulfill community service requirements for school and has returned every year since. He says he has also recruited some friends to work the polls with him.
“It's important for our generation that when they say that it's important to serve your country, that doesn't necessarily mean going to the military,” he says. “Going and working on Election Day, and making sure those elections run smoothly, is definitely a wonderful way to serve your country.”