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Election officials trying to recruit younger poll workers in Kentucky

Polling locations, like this one at Shelby Traditional Academy in Louisville, are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. local time for the May 17 primary.
Polling locations, like this one at Shelby Traditional Academy in Louisville, are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. local time for the May 17 primary.

Kentucky election officials have been struggling to recruit poll workers and are trying to encourage more young people to sign up.

Poll workers are a vital part of the election process, helping people get to the right place on Election Day and making sure the voting process goes smoothly and securely.

Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins says there have been challenges recruiting poll workers after the 2020 election cycle.

“The COVID-19 pandemic still has some people afraid to serve. On top of that, the acrimony in the political environment has some people actually fearful to serve. I don't blame them to be honest. That's probably one of the main things I'm concerned about,” he said.

Poll workers have historically skewed older. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s 2018 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), states reported that roughly 58% of poll workers deployed during the 2018 midterms were aged 61 and older. 

Recruiting poll workers from younger generations has generally been a struggle, Blevins said.

“The millennial generation in particular was fairly disinterested in politics, but it seems like the ones that are coming after them are starting to get a lot more interested. The issue is the baby boomers are starting to really get old. So that's a whole generation of a lot of people that's going to be taken out of the picture,” he said.

Blevins says he’s noticing more people under the age of 50 signing up to work the polls since the 2020 election, but it isn’t an overwhelming trend.

Daviess County Clerk Leslie McCarty says she’s managed to get enough poll workers for the upcoming midterm elections. She says a reason why younger generations may not be as engaged could be because the baby boomer generation understood the fallout from choices that were made at the polls more acutely.

“A majority of poll workers this time are still retirees and over [age] 60. I think the generation that went through World War II or the Great Depression understands the importance of being on the front lines. We aren't that far removed from when women got the vote. I think the younger generation is a bit far removed,” she said.

Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams is trying to appeal to Gen Z and millennials by collaborating with wineries and breweries in what he calls the “SOS From Your SOS” campaign. Hang tags on wine bottles and beer growlers have QR codes directing people to the voter information portal where customers can apply to be poll workers. Adams’ office says they managed to recruit 5,000 poll workers through the initiative in the 2020 election cycle.

Joshua Douglas, an election law professor at the University of Kentucky, said the struggle to recruit poll workers has been exacerbated by widespread election denialism.

“When you start with people questioning the ballot casting and counting process, it makes people question the legitimacy of the election and it makes some poll workers feel like they don't want to put themselves through that,” he said.

Douglas said working the polls can be a valuable experience for younger generations, teaching them how the election process works and restoring faith in democracy.

“If you ever been in a polling place when someone who's 18 is getting to cast their vote for the first time, or someone who had been convicted of a felony has now been granted the right to vote back again, you can see how important the right to vote is for those people who have been denied,” he said.

“Being a poll worker is one of the best things that you can do.”

It takes about 15,000 poll workers to manage voting locations across the state.

The General Election is on Nov. 8, but voters can start casting ballots early in person starting on Nov. 3. The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 11.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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