Earlier this month, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah aired a segment about young people signing up to work at polling places for the first time—hundreds of thousands of folks who had never even heard of poll working until 2020 had applied, in an effort to protect the immunocompromised, typically older populations that usually work the polls on election day, and to staff up voting sites that risked closure in the face of Covid-19. The movement had proliferated so widely by that time, it had already made headlines in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and on numerous news stations nationwide.
Daily Show correspondent Jaboukie Young-White sat down with Scott Duncombe, the co-director of a recruiting organization called Power the Polls, for what was ostensibly a humorous sketch ("I have a friend who I think this would be perfect for. He has way more time on his hands than me," Young-White tells Duncombe. "Um, do you know Trevor Noah?"). But it was also a very serious fund-raising effort, which brought in more than $10,000 and counting—and Power the Polls became a permanent link in the description box of subsequent Daily Show episodes on YouTube.
This marked a significant turn in the poll worker campaign, showing that what began as a grassroots effort had made it to the mainstream (Uber, MTV, and The Daily Show's network Comedy Central were also among the big-name brands that got behind recruitment). Simultaneously, smaller groups were cropping up—arguably doing the legwork on this effort by posting relentlessly on Twitter and Instagram, urging people to get involved in in this historic election and to fight voter suppression on a more local level. Friends and family members tagged each other in posts, spreading the message around to their immediate communities.
One such organization was The Poll Workers Project, which partnered with Power the Polls to inform first-timers about poll working. The cofounder of The Poll Workers Project, Noah Goldstein, said he initiated the program in May, when the Black Lives Matter movement, the coronavirus pandemic, and the primaries started to intersect. Around that time, Goldstein saw news stories concerning polling places in Milwaukee—which was forced to close 175 out of its 180 polling locations due to a lack of poll workers. In Atlanta, long lines at election sites had voters waiting for up to eight hours. And in Louisville—located in Jefferson County, an area that constitutes over half the state's Black population—there was just one polling location for 616,000 citizens.
"These shortages predominantly affect communities of color," Goldstein, 28, said, noting that during the Georgia primary, in communities that were 90 percent or more white, the wait time to vote was six minutes—versus communities that were 90 percent or more non-white, where people waited 51 minutes on average. "My wife and I were looking for something to do that would actually make an impact."
Since May, the Poll Workers Project has grown significantly: now, Goldstein works with six other volunteers, including his wife Isabel Oliveres Tarragona. There’s Tyler Bloom in New York; James Lengyel, based in Michigan; and Renée DuPree, Samantha Johnston, and Maurin Mwombela, all of whom live in California. Together with The Poll Workers Project and the numerous other local organizations with which Power the Polls has partnered, 700,000 poll workers have been recruited—for context, in 2016, there were approximately 900,000 people working at election sites.
"Donations felt like a drop in the bucket—none of these nonprofits are going to stop what they're doing because they don't get our $50," Goldstein added. "At the time, we lived in San Francisco, so opinions were pretty homogenous across the city and most of the state. We did everything we could think of, but it all felt pretty inconsequential. But this was one thing where it was a very direct thing, like, okay, this is something that you can do to help a lot of people vote."
Performing a civic duty and aiding others in the act of voting were key reasons Abigail Koffler and Francesca Hogi signed up to be poll workers. Both of them got involved through the Poll Workers Project—Koffler is friends with Goldstein, and Hogi went to law school with DuPree, who sent out an e-mail with a call to action.
"I've always loved voting," Koffler, who is a freelance food writer, said. "When I was a child, I would go with my parents and watch them vote. I thought it was fun. I wanted to take more of an active role in it, especially given the systemic issues that we're seeing—always, but especially this year."
For Hogi, stepping up to take the place of older folks in the face of Covid-19 was a no-brainer, and her desire to participate in what would be a landmark election either way it goes was also baked into her decision to pursue poll working. But a large part of her motivation was in hopes of not "feeling like I felt on November 9, 2016."
"That night, I was at the Javits Center in New York," she says from her home in Los Angeles, where she runs the podcast Dear Franny. "I think it was when the Florida results came in that it was an 'Oh, shit' moment. I don't know if you've ever been in a room with thousands of people where the energy just gets sucked out. Seeing how everyone was emotionally impacted, it increased my own emotional impact of it. This time around, I've been a lot more active in terms of my volunteering—helping a PAC to raise money, working to activate Gen-Z voters and in battleground states, particularly with voters of color."
When Goldstein saw the segment on Trever Noah's late-night show, he felt somewhat vindicated—here was a celebrity on a network television program backing the Poll Workers Project's thesis. In a way, it demonstrated that smaller, local-level grassroots organizations could work with the big guys to achieve a common goal. But their efforts are still ongoing—early voting has begun in some states, but we're still a week away from election day. The most important thing going forward, Goldstein said, is keeping these first-time poll workers engaged for the next election—whether it ends up being as monumental as 2020 or not.
"Because of Covid, voters are switching a little bit more toward absentee and mail-in," Goldstein said. "But in-person voting is still going to be huge. There needs to be an infrastructure for that. And that infrastructure should not fall on the backs of seniors and people of color, especially during a pandemic, but in the future as well."