Fear of COVID-19 is causing a shortage of poll workers. Young people can help

Even in this age of the coronavirus, when many are expected to vote by mail, some citizens will still prefer the public ritual of casting their ballot at their local polling station.

“For a lot of elders and immigrants, the idea of democracy, the idea of a ballot they can fill out in person, is very near and dear to them,” said state Representative Liz Miranda, whose district includes parts of Roxbury and Dorchester. “I anticipate that while we’ll get some mail-in voters, I do believe people are still going to go out.”

The lingering question is whether there will be enough poll workers to accommodate them.

RELATED: A new law allows Mass. residents to vote by mail. Here’s how that’s already changing things

As with everything else in American life, COVID-19 has created a national dilemma in this year’s elections. In Massachusetts, officials are so concerned about a dearth of workers to cover the state’s more than 250 polling places, they’ve loosened eligibility requirements to allow for more “flexibility,” said Debra O’Malley, spokeswoman for state Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees elections.

“Regardless of where they live, regardless of whether they’re registered to vote, whatever their party affiliation is, they can be a poll worker this year as long as the clerk believes they are competent to be one,” she said. That also includes noncitizens, who were previously allowed to serve only as interpreters. Poll workers can be as young as 16, and can apply online.

It’s obvious why there are fewer poll workers this year. The population that makes up a majority of workers is the same group that has been most susceptible in this pandemic. According the US Election Assistance Commission, about 58 percent of poll workers were 61 or older in 2018.

“Most of the poll workers I know in my precinct are over the age of 60,” Miranda said. “They have every right to feel a little overwhelmed with the idea that, ‘I want to help my community and democracy, but I can get sick.’ I think that’s a real fear in some of these folks.”

It certainly can’t help that, at least in Massachusetts, only poll workers must wear masks. For voters, mask usage will be “strongly encouraged,” O’Malley said, but not mandatory. Back in May, Governor Charlie Baker issued a mandate for masks to be worn in public. A polling station is no exception, and that order must be enforced — not just “strongly encouraged,” for the safety of voters and workers.

Historically, fewer poll workers has meant less efficient elections, longer lines, and greater burdens on voters. In some states, officials intentionally decrease the number of poll workers as a voter suppression tactic. This year, there’s something even more nefarious than voter disenfranchisement — a virus that has been confirmed to have infected more than 4.7 million people in this country, and killed nearly 156,000 of them.

That’s why there’s a national push for young poll workers. On TikTok, one user named @maya2960 encouraged her generation to get involved: “It’s not like we’re doing anything better; let’s help save democracy.”

Her approach is jokey, but the message is not. With voting and elections under constant threat from President Trump, Miranda sees this as an opportunity for young people to connect with the electoral process. And she would know: Before she won her first election, in 2018, Miranda was a poll worker for eight years.

Often she was the youngest person there; often she was the only one who spoke both Cape Verdean Creole and conversational Spanish. Her day would usually last 13 hours. Those experiences, she says, sparked her interest from handing out ballots to having her name on them.

“There was this line I saw [about poll workers]: ‘Even though they’re underpaid, they’re the gatekeepers of our fair democracy,’ ” Miranda said. “As much as we don’t realize it, when a person comes to vote, they may have never met me, they may not have met another elected [official], but they know their poll worker. And that experience is going to determine how confident they feel when they go into that booth and exercise their vote.”

Among young poll workers, she said, may lie this nation’s next generation of leaders.

“When I would sit with those elders, I would learn so much,” Miranda said. “They would talk about how long they had been doing this, the pride they felt, and the reason why they did this: to make sure every vote counts. I believe that where there is chaos, there’s also opportunity, and this could be an opportunity for young people to understand that the baton must be passed.”

Published on The Boston Globe