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UNC students step up to work the polls for early voting and Election Day

Colin Lowe, a senior studying political science, stands in front of the First Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, where he will assume his post as poll worker come the Nov. 3rd election. Lowe was inspired to apply for a position as a poll worker after he saw how a shortage of poll workers in Kentucky and Georgia affected how many people went out to vote in the primaries. "People were waiting for 10 to 11 hours, so many didn't vote," Lowe said. "I'm passionate about getting more of my fellow students involved in the political process."

The North Carolina State Board of Elections previously reported a shortage of county-based poll workers for 2020 early voting and Election Day. Orange County now has a surplus of election workers — and among those to step up were UNC students with a passion for civic engagement. 

These students are now preparing to work the polls to create connections with young voters as the November elections draw closer.

UNC senior Colin Lowe, a political science major, works as a poll worker recruiter with Campus Vote Project and Power the Polls in an effort to reduce poll worker shortages across the country and prevent long voting wait times.

“In a typical year, a majority of poll workers are over age 60, but they are not signing up this year due to health concerns,” Lowe said. “Unless younger Americans step up, the resulting shortage of poll workers could mean closing polling places and long delays in communities across the country.”

Lowe said, in addition to social distancing, poll workers in North Carolina are provided with masks, gloves and face shields for their shifts. Single use pens are provided for counties, such as Orange County, that use hand-marked paper ballots. Precincts that use electronic ballot machines plan to use a cotton swab or disposable stylus in efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Sophomore Violet Kehoe, a psychology major, said she signed up to be a poll worker because she is not at as high a risk for COVID-19 as many people who typically work the polls.

“I believe student poll working is important because it creates a sense of connection between young people and voting,” she said. “In my experience, when peers see each other getting involved with the voting process and government, they follow one another.”

Lowe said he wants to get other students involved in poll working to prevent issues in voting that may disproportionately affect working-class people and communities of color. He said reduced and understaffed polling locations during primary voting can create long lines for voters, leaving them to wait several hours. 

Orange County Director of Elections Rachel Raper said Orange County currently has a waitlist of over 2,000 people to work the polls as "democracy heroes" this year. 

“I think that we are well positioned because we have a great college in Orange County,” Raper said. “I think that there is a sense of community where people want to give back, and I think people see poll working as a way to give back.”

In Orange County, poll workers are expected to complete training and commit to working on Election Day. Poll worker duties include reporting to the assigned polling place by 6 a.m. on Election Day and assisting in setting up the polling place, helping voters and closing the polls. 

Most poll workers are also paid for their work.

“Those who work the polls are on the front lines of democracy,” Raper said. “They work with voters and ensure that they have a positive experience and want to come out and vote in future elections.”

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