Voting at an Election: Students as Poll Workers
By RUTH CHARLES
When you go to vote in an election, who helps you? I never paid any attention to the people who worked there until the 2000 Bush/Gore election. At that time I saw individuals on television in Florida who were looking at ballots and the “chads”, trying to determine a voter’s intent. These individuals were the people who could be deciding who my next President would be. Who were they?
It was at this time I learned that those individuals were poll workers/monitors or in Minnesota they are known as election judges. These individuals are public service employees who are employed at the polls and work to make it a non-partisan, democratic experience. When I saw these poll workers in action, I decided that I wanted to be involved. At the next election I applied and worked from 6 AM until 10 PM on Election Day. It was a hard day, but I was working with 80-year-old employees who did not complain! The average age of poll workers before the 2008 election was 72 years.
During Election Day I learned so much through my experiences about democracy I wondered, would my students learn as much? I am a professor of Social Work and teach policy analysis at Winona State University in Winona, MN a city of 25,000 two hours southeast from the Twin Cities metropolis. Two years later I made being an election judge an alternative assignment for a service learning component of my class. I had 10 students (out of 50) choose this for their experience. The next semester, when they were no longer in my class or influenced by grading, I interviewed them about their day and what they learned. All of the students had an extremely positive experience, learned so much from their day, and most importantly said that they would work in the polls during an election again.
As an instructor, I was amazed at their response. They all stated that they thought the other students should all experience this. The hands-on learning made such a difference to their exposure to elections and voting that they gained a true appreciation for the process. Seeing people taking voting seriously affected how they now saw the system. It was a pleasure to be thanked by students for giving them this assignment! The students stated that they would never have done this without being assigned the experience.
To expand the sample and to see if it would have similar results with a larger group, I recruited Dr. Kara Lindaman from the Political Science department at Winona State. We received a U.S. Election Assistance Commission “Help America Vote College Poll Worker” grant to help facilitate our experience. Notice that it is a priority for the federal government to train younger people to work in the polls. We had 75 students participate working in both rural and urban locations. Many worked in their home towns, while others worked in Minneapolis or local suburbs of Woodbury and Oakdale. This was a class assignment that all students had to complete. We had a few that were not able to do because of extenuating circumstances, but the vast majority participated. The students had to apply for a position at a location of their choice. If they were not able to find one, then we helped them locate a position at another location. Everyone had to be trained by the city/county where they would be working. A bonus to the students was that they were paid for their time being trained and working at the polls. It varied by location from $9-$15/hour. We had all of the students’ complete pre and post-test surveys which helped us measure their experience. We also did focus groups in our classes to process the experience.
Partisanship is a reason why many faculty and teachers do not get involved in election experiences, yet this activity in Minnesota must be non-partisan. When applying to work at the polls the applicant must state which political party, if any, of which they are a member. This is done to create party balancing at the polls, so that one political party will not have full control at a polling location. At the polls, all political activity must cease. The declaration of a party is necessary in case an individual voter needs assistance when voting. At that time one person from either of the two major parties will assist the voter demonstrating a non-partisan approach. At the polls fairness and the importance of human dignity regardless of the political affiliation is created.
To understand our sample, here are a few details. We had 75 students all full time undergraduate students with 80% of them 18-24 yrs old and 75% of them women. They were good students who 75% reported having A/B grade status. These students were busy with 79% of them being employed while going to school.
Of the students we recruited 34 were from the social work major while the other 41 represented a wide range of majors. As far as ethnic diversity, 87% represented the majority ethnic status with 13% from minority groups.
The goal of the project was two fold. First we wanted to bring students from the classrooms to the polls to learn about democracy. Based on the previous experience we wanted to see if when expanding to a larger sample it would be successful. The second goal was to create habit-forming civic engagement (Gerber, Green & Shachar, 2003). Key to many city or county auditors who hire poll workers is whether the younger workers would ever return and continue working in the polls. We also wanted to encourage students that participation is key to democracy.
The results of the 2008 poll worker group were that 97% had a positive experience and said that they would work in the polls again. The one person who said she would not do it again, stated she was from a very apolitical family who never voted but if she were called and asked to participate she would. Several students reported, “I’m going to be doing this the rest of my life!”
There are many myths regarding being a poll worker or election judge in Minnesota. First, you do not need to be a senior citizen to be an election judge. Several students received remarks that they were surprised that someone so young could participate as a worker in the polls. Secondly, working in the polls is not volunteering, but a paid position. Many students were thanked for their service and felt like people did not know that they were being paid to be there. Party balancing at the polling places does not mean that you need to promote a political party at the polls. Many of the students who were not affiliated with a party were concerned that they would have to speak out for candidates or be knowledgeable about their positions. They were pleased that this discussion was discouraged and not allowed at the polls. Finally, Minnesota law supports getting time off to work at the polls. Individuals have to follow guidelines for reporting it to work, but state law encourages participation.
As stated on the Minnesota Secretary of State web page, the majority of college students are perfect for being employed as a poll worker. The qualifications that are incorporated through introductory classes at the university include:
• Ability to communicate clearly with voters
• Physical and emotional stamina
• Attention to detail
• General math skills
• Fluency in a second language- a bonus but not necessary. (2010)
In conclusion, several lessons can be learned through this experience. First is that instructors need to be involved and developing new skills as this enhances your teaching. As we try to expand our students’ experiences, we need to be in the community increasing our exposure to new events. Second is that, as much as I do not like doing this, requiring students to do hands-on involvement seems to be a critical part of learning for students. They might complain about it, but in the end they will appreciate it. The majority of our participants would never have been an election judge unless it was mandatory. Hands-on learning can reinforce classroom learning but our experience demonstarted that experiential learning needed to be required.
Participating in the polls is a simple process that needs to be repeated across the country. As our population ages there is a continued need to encourage this participation. Key to the process is to incorporate working in the polls into a classroom experience, where students can process their experience and analyze their participation. We need to engage students, both college and high school, in being invested in the democratic experience as this benefits not only our classroom but our nation.
Gerber, A., Green, D., & Sacher R. (2003) Voting May Be Habit-Forming: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment. American Journal of Political Science, 47, 540-550.
MN Secretary of State (2010) Election Judge Qualifications Retrieved August 1, 2010, from http://www.sos.state.mn.us/index.aspx?page=585.
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