America has an army of older volunteers keeping its electoral system running

The US needs all hands on deck.
The US needs all hands on deck.
Image: Reuters/Nick Oxford
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With millions of Americans heading to polling stations in the presidential election today, chaos is kept at bay by hard-working volunteers.

Tens of thousands of workers in each state—some ballot-markers, ushers, scanners, and interpreters—are expected to work from after 5am until canvassing is complete, usually between 6pm and 9pm depending on the state. Since people are allowed to vote as long as they are in line by closing time, workers may have to hang back for over 15 hours at busier polling stations. And all of this for little compensation.

In New York, poll clerks and information clerks earn $200 for the day, in addition to the $100 (pdf) they get for passing a test and attending a 4-hour training session—but that’s as good as it gets. In Los Angeles, people were paid a mere $80 a day during the last election cycle. In Oklahoma, the stipend is $87 this time around, according to the state’s election board.

In Oklahoma, less than 3% of the state’s poll workers were under 40, which is not uncommon across the country. A National Social Science Association estimate pegs the average poll worker in the US at 74. Senior citizens increasingly dominate the pool of workers at a time when state-of-the-art technology like electronic or optical-scan ballots are making their way to voting booths.

Since Election Day is not a national holiday, much of the workforce is not available to volunteer. Though there’s a test and interview process, there are no set national standards. Once election officers are selected, training procedures vary from state to state, and a handful of them don’t even require it. While poll workers are being trained for extreme scenarios like mass shootings at voting booths, basic training seems like it still needs work.

By 2014, the Federal Election Commission recognized that fewer people want to be poll workers over the years. This is in part because those who may have previously volunteered, like stay-at-home moms, have moved into the workforce. The low pay is another discouraging factor. An Iowa country saw recruiting get easier once it upped the hourly pay from $3.50 to $6.00—but a 71% increase does not suit most budgets. And smaller raises hardly proved to be an incentive, the FEC noted.

It seems like the government’s hopes of drawing in more young polling officers is picking up steam in 2016.

In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Quartz employee Beth Ponspot said it was “definitely was a younger poll worker crowd” than she had ever seen before. However, the inefficiencies of understaffing and poor training, which President Obama pointed out when he took office in 2008, still plague polling centers. A worker, who has assisted in several elections, told Ponspot that the Williamsburg polling station was short-staffed today. One of the Spanish translators there was also looking up district numbers for people. “It was a bit of a mess, because she kept getting called over to translate things,” said Ponsot.

On the West coast, high school senior Jennifer Lontok is a poll worker in LA county. “This is the first election I’m really aware of,” Lontok told Quartz.  The 17-year-old was recruited through her school and said nearly 80 other classmates of hers were also volunteering today. The kids just needed permission from their teachers and parents to be excused from their academic routine. Each student had a two-hour training session where they were taught to set up voting machines, learn how to use them, address any possible problems, and pack up at the end of the day. For her 6am to 9:30 pm shift, with a short lunch break, Lontok is expecting to be paid over $120.

Only one student volunteer was embedded within each precinct’s voting station. Some of the other workers with Lontok were, as expected, well over the age of 40.