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Maine looked poised Tuesday morning for record voter turnout in the 2020 election, with an unprecedented tally of more than 500,000 absentee ballots returned and long lines reported at some polling places early in the day. It’s a testament to the level of engagement across the state and across the political spectrum, and to the poll workers of all ages who have helped make sure the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t get in the way of democracy.
Poll workers are a critical, if sometimes overlooked, part of any election. There was concern earlier this year about a potential shortage of poll workers, both here in Maine and across the country, in part because many poll workers tend to be older and older people are more at risk from COVID-19.
In 2016, nearly 90 percent of poll workers in Maine were older than 40 and 60 percent were older than 60. Similarly, an analysis from the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of poll workers nationwide during the 2018 election were 61 or older.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, and approximately eight out of 10 of the country’s reported COVID-19 deaths have been people among people age 65 and older. Even with the personal protective equipment, plexiglass barriers and other safety measures smartly implemented at polling places in Maine and elsewhere, there has been legitimate worry about older Americans manning their normal stations at polling places across the country, and a legitimate need for younger people to step up and step into these roles. Certain voting groups have been encouraging this, and Gov. Janet Mills relaxed some restrictions to allow municipal clerks to recruit enough poll workers.
Thankfully, Mainers — many of them younger — answered the call to help at the polls.
Jacob Chaplin, a first-year political science student at the University of Maine, told the BDN that he felt motivated to help at the polls in Orono because of concerns about the pandemic’s effects on older people.
“I think a lot of younger people are more politically aware this year between the schools closing down and the nationwide protests,” he said. “They’re seeing the pandemic play out right in front of them.”
In Brunswick, Town Clerk Fran Smith called a team of young workers “instrumental” to the process of getting that town’s ballots ready for election day.
“Not to take anything away from the other workers, but they’re really good with the [tabulation] machines,” she said about the younger workers. “They get the ballots in really fast.”
Maine isn’t alone in this encouraging example of younger people joining the poll worker ranks. Katherine Kortum, a 36-year-old engineer in the nation’s capital, spoke with the Washington Post ahead of the election about her plans to work at a D.C. polling location. Her father, a 70-year-old retiree in the Pittsburgh area, was unsure that he would be volunteering at his local polling place because of concerns about the virus.
“I can’t replace my father,” she said. “But if I can take the place of somebody else’s parent, I’m more than happy to. If I can be one extra body helping to make this election work — why not?”
Young people, particularly young women, have been stepping up across the country.
“They are willing to take on the risk, and it fits the pattern of young people getting more engaged,” Michael Hanmer, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, told the Post. “One of the things that has started to become more apparent to people at a young age is what is at stake.”
The significant need for more poll workers here in Maine predated the pandemic, and we’re hoping the willingness from young people to serve in these roles will outlast the pandemic as well. The more engaged voters involved in the democratic process, the better.
Isabella Pols, 20, started as a Brunswick poll worker in the June primary. She now leads a team of young workers.
“It’s been nice to know more about it,” Pols said. “This election is important to me and it’s cool to be involved in a way others aren’t.”
Pols and poll workers of all ages deserve our gratitude for helping to make this election proceed as safely as possible in the middle of a pandemic. That’s a cool thing to do, no matter how old you are.