How Colleges Can Help Overcome the National Poll Worker Shortage

By Andrew J. Seligsohn and Emily Bottie

The opportunity for every American to vote in a free and fair election is at risk. In a typical year, 56% of poll workers (the people who staff polling places on election day) are over the age of 60. Because of COVID-19, however, these older Americans who carry most of the burden of keeping our polling places open must stand down to protect their health. Unless younger Americans who do not have complicating health conditions step up, the resulting shortage of poll workers could mean closed polling places and long delays in communities across the country. This reduction in ballot access is likely to be hit especially hard in communities of color and working-class communities, where residents are less likely to own cars, less likely to have discretionary time, and less likely to have access to good information about polling locations than residents of whiter and better-resourced communities. 

Campus Compact believes that higher education can play a critical role in protecting our elections by catalyzing student service as poll workers and as peer educators about the need to meet this challenge. That’s why we created the Safe Elections Project, which creates opportunities for key campus constituencies to contribute.

The Campus Compact Safe Elections Project is enlisting and training 300 Student Recruiters during summer 2020 to recruit their fellow students as poll workers for the November election. Campus Compact is training these Student Recruiters to be effective digital organizers and educators about the importance of poll workers for our democracy. 

These 300 Student Recruiters come from colleges and universities across the country, and they are mobilizing their campus communities and personal networks to step up as poll workers this fall. By educating their peers about the national poll worker shortage, explaining what poll workers do, and helping them sign up to serve, Student Recruiters are helping to solve the poll worker shortage and protect our democracy.

The Campus Compact Safe Elections Project also creates an opportunity for campus leadership and faculty involved in governance to create policies that will help ensure election day is safe, healthy, and fair for all voters.

Faculty members, particularly political scientists, can help by encouraging students to volunteer to serve as poll workers at www.PowerthePolls.org/campus. Service as a poll worker is a great way for students to get a first-hand look at the realities of voting in their communities. The experience can become the basis for presentations and class discussions, enabling students to learn from the experiences of their peers.

The Campus Compact Safe Elections Project also creates an opportunity for campus leadership and faculty involved in governance to create policies that will help ensure election day is safe, healthy, and fair for all voters. To that end, Campus Compact released the following statement:

In support of efforts across the United States to address the critical shortage of poll workers in the face of COVID-19, the Campus Compact Board of Directors calls upon every college and university to enact policies identifying service as a poll worker as a legitimate reason for students to be absent from class on primary and general election days in the fall of 2020.

Serving as a poll worker is one of the few ways for students across partisan divides to come together to strengthen our democracy. It is also a distinctive learning opportunity for students.

We at Campus Compact are happy to answer questions or help instructors find resources. Please contact Emily Bottie at ebottie@compact.org for more information.


Andrew J. Seligsohn and Emily Bottie are guest contributors for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.

Andrew Seligsohn is President of Campus Compact, a coalition of 1000 colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Minnesota.

Emily Bottie is the Director of Development at Campus Compact. She oversees the Safe Elections Project and manages the cohort of 300 Student Recruiters. She holds a BA in International Relations with a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Boston University.

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