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How COVID-19 has changed the face of US democracy

Peter Rölle-Dahl
October 31, 2020

As the pandemic rages across the nation, the fate of an election many Americans call the most important in their lifetime could hinge on a new generation of polling station workers.

A woman walking past a polling station
Image: Wang Ying/picture alliance/dpa

This is not how Dan Kortum imagined he'd spend this election.

When the former lawyer enlisted as a poll worker in 2016, it was to help break the bottleneck he had just witnessed at his local Pittsburgh polling station, with lines stretching into the night.

"These particular people working the polls, God bless them, were retired a long time. And, frankly, they weren't on the top of their game. And that was the bottleneck in getting through this process. There were voting booths still open, but the table where you registered was the bottleneck — it was the people. And I was frustrated by that," he reminisced on a recent Skype call from his Pennsylvania home.

Just four years later, Dan's faced with the irony that his own age could become a cause of similar chaos and frustration.

As the coronavirus pandemic has taken center stage this election, the 71-year old finds himself relegated to the back row, a spectator to a plot twist that has left millions of Americans on the edge of their seats.

Coronavirus puts a spanner in the works

The deadly disease has dealt a one-two punch to the gut of American democracy, sidelining hundreds of thousands of poll workers like Dan who are an essential part of the country's critical election infrastructure.

Read moreCan Americans have faith in their electoral system?

Praised as the unsung heroes of the democratic process, they help with everything from protecting voting equipment to registering new voters and making sure ballots are filled out correctly.

But they're also among the most vulnerable members of the nation's electorate. In recent years, more than half of poll workers were above the age of 60, placing them squarely in the high-risk group.

A poll worker with his daughter
Dan Kortum hopes that he can resume his duties in the futureImage: Privat

"I am clearly in the category of people who are potentially at risk. I have no significant underlying conditions that I'm aware of, but I am 71. As a poll worker, you're signing documents, you're trading pens back and forth, you're handing things off with the voters. 15 hours of interaction with the public in an enclosed space is more risk than I need. That's why I decided it's probably best that I sit this election out," said Dan.

In 2016, it took nearly 1 million poll workers across the country to shoulder the burden on polling stations as some 138 million voters turned out in one of the most bitterly fought elections in a generation.

Polling stations lack resources

This year, the pressure on polling places is likely to be even greater, with experts predicting a turnout rate not seen since 1908 as early voting in many states has already shattered previous records.

But with many of the country's most seasoned poll workers opting to be safe rather than sorry, election officials have been left scrambling to fill a hole that could risk sink voters' ability to exercise their democratic right.

When the first wave of the virus swept through the presidential primaries, many polling stations were hit severely. In Milwaukee, the biggest city in the key battleground state Wisconsin, 175 of 180 polling sites were shuttered due to staffing shortages. As tens of thousands of voters flocked to the city's remaining five locations, many waited for hours as lines went on for blocks. Others simply gave up, leading to a nearly 10-point drop in turnout compared to 2016, disproportionately affecting Black voters. 

Read moreUS election: Early voting shines light on fight over voter suppression

A new generation of poll workers

Fearing a similar scenario this time around, local election commissions and turn-out-the-vote initiatives have launched aggressive recruiting efforts, targeting a group usually disparaged for shunning polling stations rather than running towards them: those born after 1981, more commonly known as millennials and Zoomers.

One of them is Dan Kortum's own daughter, Katherine, a 36-year-old transportation engineer in Washington, D.C.

"I can't take my own dad's place, because I don't live where he does. But I could replace somebody else's dad. I'm a relatively low-risk person, so much better to have me get it than somebody else's high-risk parent from volunteering at the polls. I may not know the person here in the District that I'm taking the place of, but they're somebody's parents — and they matter to somebody. So, if I can keep that person from being at risk, I'll do everything that I can."

Read moreVoting in US elections: A tale of 3 states 

A Georgia state coordinator for the Campus Vote Project
Ciarra Malone says the younger generation is aware of its responsibilitiesImage: Privat

That's a sentiment that echoes with many young people this election, says 22-year-old Ciarra Malone, the Georgia state coordinator for the Campus Vote Project.

"Young people understand the importance of volunteering as a poll worker, especially this year," she said. "During times when it may typically be their grandmother that commits to this duty, now it is them. They want to make sure that she's safe, and that she has a precinct open to cast her ballot safely. Protecting your loved ones is a really powerful tool in making sure that young people step up, and do something they've never really necessarily done before."

Overcoming the poll worker crisis

This election season, Ciarra has also been working closely with Power the Polls, a social media-focused recruitment initiative, launched in June in response to the poll worker crisis. In less than 100 days, the group has nearly tripled its original goal, recruiting more than 700,000 new poll workers.

Assisted by similar big-name initiatives, such as NBA star LeBron James' We Got Next which has received prominent backing from Barack and Michelle Obama, most polling stations now say they're fully staffed, against all odds. 

That's music to Dan Kortum's ears, who says he's more than happy to pass the torch to the next generation. "If there are enough replacement volunteers, then any long lines on Election Day will be the result of enthusiastic turnout and not a shortage of poll workers."

Still, he says, he hopes to return to volunteering by the next election. "With some luck and God's grace, by then the COVID-19 virus will be but a memory."