Gen Z Has a Plan to Save the Election—Starting With the Polls

By Gilad Edelman

Evan Wayne Marlbrough was into working the polls before it was cool.

Last fall, while still a senior at Georgia State University, he wrote an essay for the Black culture site Blavity urging his fellow young people to volunteer at the polls. He laid out a case that, if you’ve been following election coverage at all, will by now be familiar: Most jurisdictions have trouble recruiting enough poll workers, and the ones they do get tend to be old; 77 percent of poll workers are over the age of 61. A lack of people staffing polling sites contributes to long lines and, in turn, voter disenfranchisement. Becoming a poll worker, Marlbrough argued, is a “little known—and vital—way for us to participate in and protect our democracy.” On top of that, he added, young digital natives could provide useful tech support as more states modernize their voting systems.

The article would soon prove prophetic. That January and February, Marlbrough trained as a poll worker in Atlanta in anticipation of Georgia’s presidential primary. That vote, originally scheduled for late March, was delayed until June as the pandemic took hold. The state did not make excellent use of the extra time. The primary made national headlines after voters in predominantly Black jurisdictions, including Atlanta, were forced to wait as long as four or five hours to cast their ballots—a result of fewer polling locations, compounded by malfunctioning machines.

The episode played into a long-running history of Republican efforts to make it difficult for left-leaning groups, especially Black people and young people, to vote. But from his vantage point as a poll worker, Marlbrough could see there was another, more prosaic problem: There weren’t enough people working the polls. Plus, he noticed, some of the older folks who were brave enough to show up, despite the coronavirus, struggled with the new technology the state was deploying.

“I realized a lot of the issues we saw on the news were because of staffing,” he said a few weeks ago. “We didn’t have enough young people, enough people in general, and enough tech-savvy people to staff our precincts.” It was the precise thing he had warned about in 2019, just accelerated dramatically by the pandemic.

This worried Marlbrough—and it gave him an idea. On July 1, Marlbrough, now 22 years old and a recent college graduate, launched the Georgia Youth Poll Worker Project, with the goal of recruiting at least 1,000 young people to staff polling sites in the general election. In addition to shoring up polls that went understaffed even in ordinary times, the idea is that young people have less to fear from the coronavirus. They could also use some extra income, especially given sweeping youth unemployment due to the pandemic. (In many places, including Georgia, people can make a few hundred bucks working the polls.)

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And don’t count out the role of technology. In Georgia, as in other states, poll workers now check in voters using tablets, not paper voter rolls. It’s not an entirely intuitive system. “If someone just puts that machine in front of you with little to no training, you’re not going to be able to get it, at all,” said Marlbrough, who now trains poll workers himself. He offered the example of a Democratic primary voter who decides midway through voting that they’d prefer to start over and vote in the Republican primary. “If you open the screen to do that, there’s two questions: ‘Cancel voter check-in’ or ‘Spoil ballot.’ Your first instinct is to spoil the ballot, which is correct. But you also have to cancel their check-in so their position is reset in the rolls. If you don’t cancel the voter check-in, the card isn’t going to work.” Little tech snags like that can add up to major delays at precincts. It’s not purely an age thing, of course—without training, even a Gen Zer could easily get confused. But all else being equal, it doesn’t hurt to enlist more digital natives.