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The midterm elections need workers. Teens, veterans and lawyers are stepping up

Suseela Kandasamy, left, watches Montgomery County Board of Elections official Ruel Michelin hand her 13-year-old son, Aadhavan Muralidharan, an application to be a student aide to poll workers in Wheaton, Md.
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for NPR
Suseela Kandasamy, left, watches Montgomery County Board of Elections official Ruel Michelin hand her 13-year-old son, Aadhavan Muralidharan, an application to be a student aide to poll workers in Wheaton, Md.

Help is wanted at many voting sites around the U.S. as the general election season gets underway this month.

In some communities, however, the ongoing COVID pandemic and current political climate are not making it easy to find paid and volunteer poll workers, forcing election officials to count on creative ways to staff up for democracy.

For the 2020 elections, some longtime poll workers dropped out of the ranks because they needed to quarantine or faced higher COVID risks related to their age, according to a report by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Special campaigns urging voters to serve at polls that year helped many officials find workers who stepped up.

This year, high school students, military veterans and lawyers are among the potential applicant pools some local and national recruiting efforts are targeting to make sure there's enough staff to check in voters, issue ballots and process votes.

Ruel Michelin talks to Keisha Tullonge about becoming an election worker at a recruiting table at the Westfield Wheaton Mall in Wheaton, Md. "I have a son, and he's African American," Tullonge says about why she's interested in becoming a poll worker for the first time. "I have to put forth the effort in helping to make change so he has a better life."
/ Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for NPR
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Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for NPR
Ruel Michelin talks to Keisha Tullonge about becoming an election worker at a recruiting table at the Westfield Wheaton Mall in Wheaton, Md. "I have a son, and he's African American," Tullonge says about why she's interested in becoming a poll worker for the first time. "I have to put forth the effort in helping to make change so he has a better life."

But making a call to serve can be tricky in 2022 with election officials and workers in many parts of the U.S. facing an unprecedented level of scrutiny — along with harassment — driven by election deniers.

"This is an unfortunate factor," said New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. "After 2020, we are now seeing an increased level of threats towards election officials and workers, which, of course, causes concern and hesitation for those who may want to serve."

For Anil Nathan, though, it's a source of motivation.

The former U.S. Air Force captain co-founded the nonprofit organization We the Veterans, which has started a new project called Vet the Vote to encourage former service members to work at polling sites.

"I think a lot of veterans and military family members would feel the same way about helping to continue to protect and serve the institutions and the process that we wore a uniform to support in our previous lives," Nathan said.

The American Bar Association is also trying to tap into its professional networks by bringing back the Poll Worker, Esq. initiative it used to promote poll working among lawyers and law students for the 2020 elections.

Oulimata Toure and Codou Wade-Drakeford sign up to work the polls for the midterm elections in Maryland's Montgomery County.
/ Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for NPR
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Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for NPR
Oulimata Toure and Codou Wade-Drakeford sign up to work the polls for the midterm elections in Maryland's Montgomery County.

In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Maryland's Montgomery County Board of Elections has been focused on younger demographic groups. Local teenagers ages 16 and up can serve as poll workers, and kids as young as sixth graders can volunteer as aides to poll workers the night before and on Election Day, when the county's public schools are not in session.

The student aides are part of Future Vote, a program that Gilberto Zelaya, the community engagement and public relations officer for the county's board of elections, started in 2004 in part to help out the workers stationed at polling places.

"They really like the fact that there's this younger generation handing out 'I voted' stickers, making sure that the signs are posted and that the tables are lined up," Zelaya said.

Sometimes, aides get on the floor of polling places with blue painter's tape to lay out arrows pointing voters toward the right direction.

"Our poll workers, especially our older poll workers, they prefer that the students do that as opposed to them because I'm 50 and my knees are starting to crack," Zelaya added.

Codou Wade-Drakeford turns in her poll worker application as her 7-year-old daughter, Touty S. Drakeford, grabs onto her with her nephew Mouhamadou Tall and sister Oulimata Toure watching. "I want to thank the country for allowing me to be part of the country," says Toure, who recently became a U.S. citizen and also applied to be an election worker.
/ Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for NPR
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Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for NPR
Codou Wade-Drakeford turns in her poll worker application as her 7-year-old daughter, Touty S. Drakeford, grabs onto her with her nephew Mouhamadou Tall and sister Oulimata Toure watching. "I want to thank the country for allowing me to be part of the country," says Toure, who recently became a U.S. citizen and also applied to be an election worker.

Sixteen-year-old Danny Dominguez, though, had something else in mind when applying to be an election worker — a more exciting way to rack up community service hours for a graduation requirement in Maryland.

"I've always been interested in how the election process works. And so for the 25 hours, I get to see how people come in, sign up for the elections and vote," said Dominguez, who recently stopped by a recruiting table at a back-to-school fair held inside a mall parking garage.

At the same event, Adaobi Oniwinde filled out an application herself and guided one of her sons toward one as well.

"Honey, I really want you to do this. This is the most important thing," Oniwinde said, eying 16-year-old Layi with a clipboard in hand.

This year's midterms will be the first U.S. general election Oniwinde's children will experience while in the country, after years of living abroad.

"The beauty about the system here is the fact that you really can get involved at any level," Oniwinde said. "People are going out with their kids. I love the way the system here allows everybody to be involved."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.