Federal officials estimate that about 2 million workers were needed to man the polls during the 2000 presidential election. But only 1.5 million volunteered. This time, the federal government is distributing more than $600,000 to 15 colleges and universities to recruit, train and pay students to work at the polls Tuesday. Cori Cohen, an 18-year-old freshman from Silver Spring, is one of about 140 students from the University of Maryland who have signed up to be poll workers in Prince George's County. Cohen spoke with staff writer Nurith C. Aizenman.

QHow important is the outcome of this election?

AI think it's incredibly important, especially for my generation. This election is really going to determine our future in terms of the wars we fight, the deficit we'll be paying off, the Social Security that's available to us, the education and health care our children get and the Supreme Court justices that make decisions affecting us. I think people are going to be really surprised at the turnout among young people this time. So many friends of mine are planning to vote. We understand what's at stake.

Do you have a preferred candidate?

I think it would be disastrous for President Bush to stay in office. I really dislike John Kerry, too, because I think his policies are very similar to Bush's. But anyone is better than Bush. He has completely undermined our relationship with the rest of the world, and his domestic policies have been terrible.

Will it be difficult to keep your political opinions to yourself while you're working at the polls?

The first thing they told us at our training session was not to let our views affect our work. We're not allowed to wear buttons or express opinions that [could] influence voters, and that might be a little challenging. But I'm going to be working in a very heavily Democratic area, so I think the results at the end of the night will make me happy.

How much will you be paid?

We're each getting $125.

What sort of training have you received?

I went to a meeting on campus that lasted a couple of hours. We went through this huge, 100-page manual with all the procedures we'll have to follow. I've been assigned to work at the Hyattsville Municipal Building, where we'll be using the new [touch-screen voting] system. So we practiced setting it up and getting the information off the machines. [Tomorrow] night, I'll be going to a final meeting at the precinct. I'm guessing we'll go over it all again.

What will you actually be doing on Election Day?

The polls open at 7 a.m., but we have to get there by 6 a.m. to set up. I'll be spending [tomorrow] night at my parents' house in Takoma Park so I can borrow my mom's car to drive to Hyattsville. I'll be waking up before 5 a.m. to leave enough time for getting lost -- which I have a tendency to do.

Once the polls open, my job will depend on what type of judge I'm assigned to be. If I'm a "book judge," I'll check in voters -- making sure they're on the precinct's registration list, verifying identification for first-time voters, that sort of thing. If I'm a "voting unit judge," I'll be resetting the machines after each person votes and monitoring them to make sure they're working correctly.

If there's a dispute or anything out of the ordinary, we're supposed to let the chief election judge handle it.

After the polls close at 8 p.m., I'll help read the vote off each machine, count the totals and make sure everything matches up. Then I'll help close up. That could be anytime from 9 p.m. to midnight, depending on how things go.

That's a rather early start to a long day. Are you a morning person?

No, not at all. But it will be worth it.

CORI COHEN