Wanted: Civic-Minded Drag Queens

America's poll worker shortage: the good and the bad

Welcome to Spenser’s Super Tuesday, a newsletter from a voting rights journalist and poll worker. Every week, I spotlight a new, under-reported topic in the fight for the franchise. Both the bad: what’s going wrong and ways to fix it. And the good: what’s going right and ways to support it. Today’s topic? America’s poll worker shortage.

The Bad

Understandably, no one wants to be a poll worker these days, and nearly every state is scrambling to find enough bodies and avoid what happened in Milwaukee for its April primary.

That day, 175 poll workers showed up for staffing. The city needed 2,000, so it shut down 175 of its 180 poll sites — and that was even with help from an unlikely source: the National Guard.

As I wrote about for The Guardian, Wisconsin, along with a few other states this primary season, tried to solve the poll worker shortage by calling up the military, which Ohio is already considering for November. Then and now, this makes me feel weird.

On one hand, service members are young, presumably healthy, and well-trained for these kinds of discrete, straightforward tasks, which can help cure ballots that might otherwise be rejected. For example, an election admin in rural Wisconsin told me that the Guard contacted all 75 voters with outstanding absentees, 45 of which were then returned. “If we hadn’t had that extra help,” she said, “we wouldn’t have made those phone calls.”

However, the National Guard is not your friend. Over the past few months, they’ve attacked protesters, tear-gassing Minneapolis residents in their homes and shooting and killing David McAtee while enforcing the curfew in Louisville. Thus far, they’ve always worked the polls out-of-uniform, but Trump has already pledged to send “law enforcement” to “monitor” voting sites, so forgive me for worrying that the president might abuse his power in order to terrorize minority voters.

And even if people don’t notice the surge in unusually young, fit, and buzz-cut poll workers checking them in, it just doesn’t look great to involve the military in elections. But, if it’s a choice between mobilizing the Guard and shutting down poll sites. . .

Thankfully, it’s not.

The Good

A lot of people are working on this problem (surely you’ve heard that today is officially National Poll Worker Recruitment Day).

More Than A Vote, a collective of Black athletes and artists headed by LeBron James, is recruiting poll workers in majority-African-American districts, Starbucks is encouraging its employees to work the polls, and California’s Secretary of State has even partnered with Drag Out the Vote to staff sites with drag queens.

Now, what could be better than an elementary school gym full of pussy cat wigs and suffragist-white body suits?

Zoomers (the answer’s always Zoomers). With their virile immune systems and natural tech savviness, teens are recruitment target #1 for states, but will they get the message in time? The clock is tik-toking away — except in one jurisdiction: Montgomery County, Maryland.

Through his Future Vote poll-working program, MoCo County election admin Gilberto Zelaya recruits sixth through 12th graders, especially those from households where the primary language isn’t English. As a result, 40% of the student poll workers are bilingual, and as a group, they can interpret for voters in 45 languages.

Overall, Future Vote has a roster of about 850 students who have been vetted and trained, but because of the pandemic, no one under 16 is being staffed for this election. Regardless, after more than 15 years of recruiting and engaging Zoomers, the program has created a pool of workers that’s both committed and resilient. Zelaya had all the staff he needed for Maryland’s June primary, and he says that Future Vote alumni from as far back as 2004 have signed up to serve in November.

So, when you go to the polls this fall, don’t be surprised if the person checking you in doesn’t look like your typical poll worker. In fact, she might be a 17-year-old dressed in a bedazzled Starbucks apron whose name is Caramel Elektra.

How You Can Help:

  • You know what I’m about to ask you. That’s right — for you to sign up to be a poll worker. Is it glamorous? No. Is it possible a newly-naturalized citizen will be voting for the first time and ask you to take her picture? Yes (I’m not crying, you’re crying). To volunteer, find your state here. If you’re interested in Future Vote, go here.

  • Do you know any youths who might make good elections workers? Better yet, are you a high school teacher or college professor who can incentivize poll working with extra credit? Better yet still, would you be interested in starting a program similar to Future Vote? LMK and I’ll connect you to Gilberto. He is a gift!

  • If you’ve got some money to spare, More Than a Vote isn’t accepting donations, but you can help Drag Out the Vote by giving here.

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Send questions, comments, viral dance videos, and a GIF of the drag queen who’d make the best poll worker to spensermestel@gmail.com.

Sashay away,