“I can’t replace my father,” said Kortum, who will staff a voting station somewhere in the nation’s capital Nov. 3. “But if I can take the place of somebody else’s parent, I’m more than happy to. If I can be one extra body helping to make this election work — why not?”
Kortum is one of a record number of residents in their 20s and 30s who have signed up to fill jobs vacated by veteran poll workers, officials say, addressing an urgent need for the upcoming presidential election no one could have anticipated a year ago.
In the Washington region, like across the country, poll workers have typically been older residents who vote at higher numbers and tend to be more civically engaged than their younger peers. This year, however, the threat of the coronavirus caused thousands of these seasoned election judges to drop out. When officials scrambled for replacements, young volunteers came in droves.
Some never even knew about the job until they saw recruiting efforts from public officials or social media-savvy nonprofits. Others say they were motivated to sign up because of the increasingly polarizing presidential election.
An 18-year-old Black woman in Prince George’s County says she was inspired by the national reckoning on race. A 29-year-old former Marine in Fairfax County wants to ensure confidence in the election results. A 38-year-old Native American woman in D.C. wants voters to see more people of color at the polls than she did growing up in rural Wisconsin.
“They are willing to take on the risk, and it fits the pattern of young people getting more engaged,” said Michael Hanmer, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland. “One of the things that has started to become more apparent to people at a young age is what is at stake.”
Antonio Pitocco, 24, signed up to work at the polls after being laid off from his job as a brand manager at Nordstrom earlier this year. “We’re in a generational fight over social issues, and it’s one we have to win,” he said.
Thomas Dixon, a 35-year-old father of three who is studying construction management at Prince George’s County Community College, said he will work as an election judge in part to serve as a role model for his community.
“We are kind of at a pivot point,” Dixon, of District Heights, said. “It’s going to make a huge difference what happens in this election if people don’t find out about the facts.”
For Naomi Bilesanmi, a freshman at the University of Maryland, the need to volunteer could not be more clear. Bilesanmi, who grew up in Bowie, said she started caring about politics after learning about the 2015 death of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who authorities said hanged herself in her jail cell after she was arrested during a traffic stop in Texas.
“That definitely was a big catapult,” Bilesanmi said. “When it starts affecting you or people who look like you, that is where the connection came together.”
Many of the young poll workers say they feel relatively safe from the most devastating effects of the coronavirus, given their age and the precautions local election officials are taking, such as providing protective equipment and implementing physical distancing rules. But they also know being young does not make them immune.
In D.C., Maryland and Virginia, more than 130,000 people under the age of 40 tested positive for coronavirus as of late September, and at least 123 have died. Bilesanmi, who lives with her parents, plans to take every precaution she can on Election Day, including wearing a face shield in addition to a mask.
“There absolutely is a risk. More exposure is bad — we know that,” said Nick Mariani, 24, who is volunteering to work the polls in Montgomery County. “But the election is also a non-question. It’s fundamental to keeping a democracy going.”
In Anne Arundel County, 27 percent of election judge applicants are under the age of 40, compared to 15 percent two years ago, election director David Garreis said. In Fairfax, officials have had more than 4,000 first-time applicants, 35 percent of them younger than 40.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised . . . to see such a great outpouring from individuals in that younger category,” Angie Maniglia Turner, Alexandria’s election director, said. The city typically hires 300 poll workers for a general election but was able to double that number this year because of more first-time applicants.
Officials across the region have expanded early voting options, added ballot drop boxes and urged residents to vote by mail to avoid crowding at polling sites. But doubts over the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to deliver ballots on time means many are still opting to vote in-person.
In Maryland, there was widespread concern this summer about a shortage of poll workers, who were dropping out in the thousands because of coronavirus concerns. “It was an emergency,” said Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials.
The state’s decision to cut down on polling sites helped ease the problem, along with an unprecedented wave of volunteers. In Montgomery, the state’s most populous jurisdiction, more than 7,000 people have applied, exceeding the 4,300 needed to service the county’s early voting and Election Day sites.
“The presidential election has really fueled the interest and enthusiasm in this election,” said James Shalleck, president of the Montgomery County Board of Elections.
Officials in both Montgomery and Prince George’s say they have enough Democratic judges but are still searching for additional Republican judges and those who speak languages other than English. Many election processes, such as the collection of ballots from drop boxes, require bipartisan teams of workers.
In the District, elections officials say more than 6,000 people have applied to be first-time poll workers — more than enough to meet their needs for the general election. A large percentage are between 25 and 45 years old, which the D.C. elections board attributes to community outreach efforts and national calls to volunteer.
About 500,000 people across the county have signed up for election duty through Power the Polls, a social media-focused initiative that is encouraging people nationwide to work on Election Day and is asking businesses to give their employees the day off so they can do so.
Among those inspired by the nonprofit is Kelsey Wolfinger, 29, who watched a young influencer promote it on TikTok, a social media app she downloaded to pass the time during Virginia’s “stay-at-home” order in April. Wolfinger, a former Marine who now works as a civilian employee for the Air Force, registered to be a poll worker in Fairfax. “I’m a young, healthy citizen — why not?,” she recalled thinking to herself.
“The president has said that he’s worried that if he doesn’t win, that it means the election is rigged,” she said. “Well, I want to contribute to the fact that it’s not rigged.”
Power the Polls co-director Scott Duncombe said the effort — touted by former president Barack Obama on Twitter and Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show” — is not just focused on young people because they are less likely to become severely ill from coronavirus. It is also because they are more tech-savvy and more diverse than those who have traditionally volunteered as poll workers.
“When voters see young people working the polls who look like them, it can be a nice way to ease them into voting,” Duncombe said. “We are hopeful that this is the start of a new civic tradition.”
D.C. resident Mandi Lindner said the desire for more diverse representation was a large part of what led her to volunteer.
Lindner, who is Native American, felt powerless as protests about racial injustice and police brutality broke out nationwide this summer. She remembered seeing primarily older, White residents staffing the polls in her Wisconsin hometown growing up. She wanted this year to be different.
“I just wanted to be there for other folks who had similar experiences in their lives,” she said, “that they don’t see anyone like themselves that is helping to manage the process.”
Abigail Broussard, 25, of Fairfax, said similar thoughts ran through her mind. After months of being quarantined at home, “doom-scrolling” through news articles about the pandemic, protests and wild fires, Broussard, who is biracial, was itching for a tangible way to make an impact.
When she saw an Instagram post urging people to sign up as poll workers, she jumped at the chance. She said she hopes to convince her friends to sign up, too. Fairfax officials said they have far exceeded their target for volunteers but are still looking to recruit, worried a fall surge in coronavirus cases may cause some to drop out.
“For a while now, I’ve been frustrated with how on social media, it’s easy to say a lot but not follow through,” Broussard said. “This is one simple thing I can actually do to help.”
Others have less lofty goals.
Alex Lloyd, 21, said he signed up as a poll worker in Anne Arundel after learning he could earn up to $190 a day — nearly as much as he earns in a week as a contractor for the entertainment site Fandom. “I just need it for cash,” he said.
Lloyd also wants to see for himself what voting will be like this November. He identifies as a political centrist and is skeptical of liberals who have predicted supporters of President Trump might try to intimidate voters at the polls.
Lloyd said he does not intend to vote in the general election because he does not feel strongly for either presidential candidate — an example of the dispassion that has traditionally led to low turnout among the young. “It’s Maryland,” he said. “So no matter what I do, it wouldn’t make a difference.”
On Election Day though, he expects to be working the polls, helping others cast their ballots.