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Understanding the Benefits of Young People Serving as Poll Workers

Through a partnership in Minneapolis, we studied how youth gain skills, contribute to their communities, and increase youth turnout by working at the polls.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, CIRCLE has partnered with the Minneapolis Elections & Voter Services office, the YMCA of the North’s Center for Youth Voice, Auburn University, and a group of young leaders (i.e. paid Civic Scholars) to support and evaluate the influence of the youth poll worker program in that city. Together, we created the Minneapolis Election Judge Project, which conducted research in order to highlight the experiences and benefits of young people who worked the polls, understand the potential role of youth poll worker programs in creating a more equitable electorate, and to share lessons and recommendations for other communities who may want to start, improve, and better promote their own youth poll worker programs. This project was possible through generous support from the Democracy Fund and the Minnesota Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund

This project fits into CIRCLE’s overall election work as a part of our Growing Voters framework, which seeks to expose a more equitable and wider diversity of young people to elements of elections before they reach 18, as well as a focus on two central questions to broadening the youth electorate:

  1. How are young people of color, and those who are historically underrepresented in the electorate served by the election system and laws and in what ways can voter access be expanded?
  2. What lessons can we learn from analyzing data about and listening to young people who are underrepresented in the electorate, especially those who come from communities of color? 

We’re pleased to share the findings from that research, presented in three audience-driven briefs aimed at election administrators, educators, and communities/the media.

The 2020 election, which involved myriad changes to voting laws and processes across the country, underscored the importance of election administration to democracy. One key part of this election administration infrastructure are poll workers (known as election judges in Minneapolis) who staff polling places and assist voters with various aspects of the process. The COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate risk to older individuals reiterated that most poll workers tend to be older and drove home the need for youth poll workers. In fact, CIRCLE’s Growing Voters policy scan showed that many states allow for young people under 18 to serve in this role. In many communities across the country, young people answered the call.

Minneapolis has long had a successful student election judge program that deliberately recruits from the diverse communities, neighborhoods and high schools in Minneapolis. The program specifically engages young people, ages 16-17, to work at the polls, which is why high school partnerships are critical to the program. Through our collaboration, which crucially centered the voices and the work of young people themselves, we sought to better study and learn from this initiative. 

Civic Scholars worked with near-peer mentors and adult allies in generating ideas about potential projects and resources that would support youth-centered election administration and inclusive election participation, knowing that Minneapolis has a very diverse resident/citizen population. Reflecting on the past research in election administration, their own experience with poll work, and findings about youth voting and disparities among youth, the group came up with three objectives. 

  • Inform other teens about the youth election judge program and how to apply in a way that youth can relate to,
  • Help adults understand how to best work with young people as election judges, and
  • Evaluate and communicate the benefits of the youth election judge program.

With these objectives in mind, Civic Scholars took on various activities and learned and used their knowledge and skills along the way. Some of the activities included: learning about research and evaluation, reading journal articles, developing hypotheses and designing a survey based on research questions, writing survey questions, drawing conclusions from data analysis and asking more exploratory questions based on results, planning and producing videos, presenting to a public forum, developing products for specific impact goals, developing an argument using research, and writing research briefs specifically targeting key stakeholder audiences.    

Some of our major findings, presented across the three research briefs, include:

  • Nearly 70% of student election judges said the experience helped them understand the voting process “a great deal” and nearly 100% of those respondents who were at least 18 years old said they planned to vote in 2020.
  • Two thirds of young poll workers felt they were improving things in their community, 76% said they felt they were ensuring that all members of their community could vote, and 59% said they gained practical skills from the experience.
  • The number of youth election judges at a given Minneapolis precinct was significantly correlated with estimated voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds, and may have been especially important in more diverse precincts.

We encourage educators, election administrators, and other stakeholders to support programs that allow young people to serve as poll workers in their communities—and we encourage policymakers to establish these programs where they do not yet exist. We also believe that the media should shine a light on these programs, both to promote them as beneficial paid opportunities for young people and to tell positive, youth-centered stories about civic participation and democracy.