Youth Poll Worker Programs are a Key but Underused Way to Grow Voters
Lead Author: Ruby Belle Booth, Elections Coordinator
Contributors: Alberto Medina, Sara Suzuki
Every two years, more than 500,000 Americans serve as poll workers or election judges, performing critical work before, during, and after Election Day to facilitate the democratic process. Many who serve in these roles are older volunteers, and in 2020 there was an acute need to recruit younger poll workers who were not as vulnerable to COVID-19 as older populations. Tens of thousands of young people stepped up to fill these roles, but young people remained vastly underrepresented among poll workers, despite these positions offering valuable opportunities for electoral engagement and for growing voters across the country.
On this Help America Vote Day, which serves as a national poll worker recruitment day, we’re looking back at data on young poll workers from the 2020 election and on the potential of youth poll worker programs to strengthen democracy:
- In the counties where data on poll workers by age is available, 9% of all poll workers were under age 25, and 3% were under age 18.
- California had the highest rate of young poll workers: 22% under 25 and 13% under 18.
- Rural counties tend to have fewer young poll workers, highlighting geographical inequities in youth civic learning and engagement opportunities.
- Our 2020 study of the Minneapolis Election Judge Project found that precincts with a diverse population had higher youth voter turnout (ages 18-24) when they had multiple young poll workers.
Untapped Potential To Engage Youth As Poll Workers
Our analysis of young poll workers in 2020 is based on findings from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), which asks jurisdictions to self-report data about election proceedings. In the 30 states for which there is county-level data on poll workers by age, 9% of poll workers were under age 25, and 3% under age 18. The vast majority of states (44) allow youth under 18 to serve as poll workers or election judges.
There is wide variation by state: California had the highest rate of young poll workers in the country, in both the under-25 (22%) and under-18 (13%) age groups—nearly double the percentage of teen poll workers of any other state.
In seven other states (CO, DE, IN, MO, NV, TX, UT) more than 10% of poll workers were under age 25. Meanwhile, the percentage of under-18 poll workers topped 5% in just five additional states: Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas. On the other hand, in 14 of the 30 states with full age-specific data, less than 2% of poll workers were under 18.
There were also some trends by urbanicity. Our county-level analysis of the data found a statistically significant association between rurality and having fewer poll workers under age 25. Young people in rural communities are more likely to say they live in civic deserts where access to civic learning and engagement opportunities can be limited.
However, we also saw some positive outliers in the data: rural Costilla County, Colorado, reported a total of five poll workers, four of whom were under age 25. Some larger rural counties, like Franklin County, Indiana, also had a high proportion of young poll workers: 70% of their 99 poll workers were under 25 years old. Because elections happen everywhere, the opportunity to serve as a poll worker—especially when intentional recruitment reaches young people—can be an excellent opportunity for youth to engage with and learn about the electoral process, including in rural communities.
The fact that some states and counties, even in smaller rural communities, were relatively successful at recruiting young people to serve as poll workers in 2020 suggests that there’s interest from young people. Our surveys also bear that out: CIRCLE’s pre-election poll of 18- to 29-year-olds in 2020 found that, while 8% of young people reported having served as a poll worker or election judge, 33% said they would if given the opportunity.
Two-thirds of the 18- to 29-year-olds who reported serving as poll workers in our survey were in school (whether still in high school or in a higher education institution) part- or full-time. On the other hand, while close to a third of young people not enrolled in school said they have interest in working as a poll worker or election judge, only 5% had done so. While recruiting through schools and colleges can be an important and fruitful strategy, this data suggests that election administrators must look beyond campuses to advertise opportunities for youth to serve as poll workers.
As we detail in the CIRCLE Growing Voters report, it’s not enough for opportunities like youth poll worker programs to be technically available. Elections offices, local governments, schools, and other community institutions must work to ensure these opportunities are accessible to a wide range of youth, that all youth are supported, and that there is a culture that promotes and encourages participation. That may mean expanded and diversified outreach and recruitment efforts that reach all communities; paying poll workers so that youth who cannot afford to volunteer their time are not excluded; and creating an inclusive, welcoming, youth-centric environment in elections offices.
Benefits for Youth and for Communities
Beyond the obvious benefits for election administrators, who often struggle to recruit enough poll workers, both young people and communities derive myriad benefits. In 2020, we partnered with Minneapolis Election Services for a study of its student election judge program that highlighted many of these benefits.
The hands-on experience of serving as poll workers can improve young people’s trust in and knowledge about elections—which is often lacking in young people’s civic learning and development. For example, just 25% or fewer youth who worked as 2020 election judges in Minneapolis said they had learned in school at least a moderate amount about how to register to vote, how to request an absentee ballot, or where to cast a ballot. However, after working as election judges, 97% said they improved their understanding of the voting process.
Young poll workers also reported other benefits. More than half said they had gained practical skills and learned how to communicate better with older adults. More than two thirds said that they felt like they had made a positive contribution to their community and had helped ensure everyone was welcome at the polling place.
The latter can be critical for young people, especially those from underserved or marginalized communities. Our 2018 study with OYUnited of youth from low-income backgrounds found that 15% said poll workers didn’t understand or care about them, and 59% said election officials don’t make an effort to ensure people like them can vote. Young bilingual poll workers can also improve language access at the polling place.
Our 2020 analysis of youth voter turnout in Minneapolis bears out that young people may indeed have made polling places more welcoming to their peers—especially in communities of color. In Minneapolis precincts with more diverse populations, youth voter turnout (ages 18-24) was 46% if the precinct had 0-1 student election judges, but 56% if it had 2-3, and 66% if it had 4 or more. In less diverse communities, precincts with 0-1 young poll workers had 69% youth turnout, and those with 4+ student election judges had 91% youth turnout.
A key part of the Minneapolis program’s success has been its collaboration with schools and other community stakeholders. Leaders in the city’s student election judge program shared a series of insights and recommendations for election administrators and for teachers to establish or strengthen these programs and partnerships. They inform and complement the recommendations for election officials in our CIRCLE Growing Voters report.
CIRCLE Growing Voters
Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively.