Election workers, in short supply, safeguard democracy

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Lynette Bagwell has worked at the polls during early voting and on election day in her home precinct in Bynum for more than a decade.

“It’s so important that we have honest elections,” Bagwell said. “It takes a lot of people to make that happen.”

Every year, the Chatham County Board of Elections holds recruitment campaigns to get local residents to help with its elections. In the age of COVID, many local elections offices are having a difficult time securing poll workers. The average age of a poll worker is in their 60s, an age group that is particularly vulnerable to the virus. Pandora Paschal, the executive director of the Chatham County Board of Elections, said her team had made a significant recruiting effort last year. In addition, she notes that the N.C. Board of Elections program “Democracy Heroes,” another recruitment project, has also helped.

But the county is still looking for workers.

For each election, poll workers greet voters at the door, check in voters on a computer, provide voters with the correct ballot, show them to a secure place to mark their ballot and stand at the ballot box to make sure the voter feels comfortable that their ballot is counted.

When Bagwell worked her first election, she described “huge books” that were used to check in voters. Poll workers had to find each voters name, confirm their address and have the voter sign in the book.

“It was crazy because everything was handwritten,” Bagwell said.

But the process has evolved since then.

“Then we had stickers and now we have computers,” Bagwell said. “Now it’s just really awesome for a poll worker. It’s so much more streamlined. It’s awesome.”

The next generation of poll worker

As elections become more dependent on computers, election offices have been trying to recruit the next generation of poll workers.

“Elections have gotten more technical,” Paschal said. “Younger poll workers, having grown up with technology their entire lives, can bring a different skill set to share with poll workers who have been doing it for years.”

For Chance Mashburn, his start with the Chatham County Board of Elections started with a discussion with a professor during his time at Guilford College. Mashburn is a Chatham County native who graduated in 2018 with a political science degree. After graduation, he began seeking out ways to serve his community. He saw on the county’s website that they were seeking poll workers and thought that a “great way to represent our county and serve our community was to be a poll worker.”

“It taught me that there’s a lot more that went into elections that I could have imagined,” Mashburn said. “And the hard work to put it together gave me enjoyment and the feeling of accomplishment of doing an important role.”

But for Mashburn, working during elections opened another door. Several months after the election was over, there was a job opening at the Chatham County Board of Elections. Mashburn applied and partially because of his experience as a poll worker, he was hired as a Chatham County Election Specialist.

“I would encourage younger voters to get the chance or opportunity to learn more about the election process,” Mashburn said. “They are truly wonderful people and working in the elections can open the door to a variety of opportunities and even careers serving our community.

“But more importantly,” he said, “you get to be part of this democratic process of elections that as American we hold dear.”

For both Bagwell and Mashburn, working during elections boils down to a sense of duty and civic pride.

“It’s necessary for people to get involved because the poll workers are the front line to help people vote on election day,” Bagwell said. “It’s a community thing. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t aspire to do something good for their community.”

Poll workers are often asked to work in their own precinct. Bagwell said it’s a great way “to work with your neighbors.” She believes it puts voters at ease when they come into the precinct and “see people they know” and a “diverse group of people working together.” Poll workers are recruited from all political affiliations in order to create a non-partisan voting experience. Paschal said she tries to “have equal balance with the parties” when staffing polling sites.

“When they walk through those doors, it’s non-partisan,” Bagwell said. “It’s stripped when you walk in and we treat everybody the same. In my opinion, our main purpose is to make sure that the voter has a good and honest voting experience. We want everyone to have a good experience. That is my objective when I walk in the polls during early voting.”

How do you apply to be a poll worker?

To be a poll worker, all an interested resident has to do is go to the Chatham County Board of Elections website and fill out a form. Those who work during early voting receive an hourly wage of $12.50 and hour while those who work on election day have a range of daily rates depending on the individuals role. This may be an opportunity for someone who is currently out of work due to the pandemic as Gov. Roy Cooper announced that working during the elections will not change that person’s unemployment eligibility or benefits.

Poll workers are provided free training to ensure they know all the ins and outs of the voting process as well as have familiarity with the voting equipment. Mashburn recalled his training saying he wasn’t sure at first how he would treated because he didn’t see anyone his age, but he said he fit right in of this group of all ages and shared a connection with them.

“They were all excited to see a young person, to see someone new getting into the process, and welcomed and shared their knowledge with me,” Mashburn said.

Mashburn and Bagwell each strongly urged residents to get involved in working during the elections.

“Elections are what we live by,” Bagwell said. “We gotta have them and we need people to make that happen. It’s just so important. Poll workers are the gateway to democracy.”

For more information on becoming a poll worker, contact the Chatham County Board of Elections at elections@chathamnr.org or by phone at 919-545-8500.

Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.

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