With a consequential election less than a week away, questions about voting — who, how, where — are on everyone’s minds. But for a dedicated group of Princeton students, the logistics of voting have taken up months of time and energy, and their efforts have garnered national praise.
It all started when a small group of Princeton students, working this summer on the Vote 2020 By Mail initiative, came face to face with a hard truth: states needed a lot more personnel, not just funding, for in-person voting plans. Without further support, the lack of poll workers would become “the biggest problem facing the election,” in the words of Kai Tsurumaki ’23.
In the primary elections, several states were forced to scale down the number of polling places available after thousands of poll workers resigned. In Milwaukee, Wis., the city government had to reduce the number of polling sites from 180 to 5, leading to long waiting lines and large crowds — an especially egregious problem amid a pandemic.
Historically, the majority of poll workers tend to be older. In the 2018 midterm elections, it was reported that about 58 percent of poll workers were 61 or older. According to the Centers for Disease Control, such an age group is at risk of suffering complications from COVID-19. This election would therefore likely see a drastic drop in the number of poll workers, as elderly volunteers would be forced to stay home for their health.
It was in recognition of this crisis that the Poll Hero Project was born. Joining Tsurumaki in the Project’s creation were other Princeton students, a group of Denver East High School students, and a graduate from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
The Project recruits young people to work at local polling places. In just a few months, the Poll Hero Project estimates to have signed up over 35,000 poll workers. Organizers largely target high school and college students, two demographics often criticized for their lack of political involvement.
In order to reach out to these younger audiences, the team developed a user-friendly website where people can register to be a poll worker; the team then works behind-the-scenes to ensure they are able to volunteer. According to Ella Gantman ’23, co-founder of the Project, this work includes research to learn local guidelines about how new poll workers register. After the Project’s research is done, they send the relevant paperwork to the prospective poll worker, who must simply fill it out and send it to their election official.
“We just want this process to be as easy as possible, and we want to limit the friction that the students have to go through,” said Gantman.
And, as they have discovered, there are many students who want to participate. With the rise of social media and increased political awareness in young people, more students are becoming politically active and getting involved in the election process, even when they are not of voting age. The Poll Hero Project is no exception: out of the 35,000 recruits, 20,000 of them are still in high school.
“There are many 16- and 17-year-olds who can’t vote, but they can work the polls,” explained Tsurumaki. “And even for those people who can vote, they want to take it a step further this year and actually do even more to help with the election.”
Kennedy Mattes ’23, another co-founder of the Project, agreed.
“Student opportunities to be involved in democracy are already so limited, especially for those who can't even vote,” she said. “So this being a unique opportunity where they can take on a greater amount of responsibility, I think that really helped us get the results that we did, just because students were so inclined to want to participate more.”
Young voices, the co-founders all stressed, are not just getting louder on social media feeds — they’re getting tangible results. With the March for Our Lives campaign, countless examples of social media activism, and many more, noted Gantman, Generation Z has been instrumental in moving the needle in the political sphere.
“It’s amazing to see what the youth can do in terms of organizing,” Gantman said.
Gen Z may be playing an outsized role in the Poll Hero sign-ups, but the interviewed students all pointed to a veteran poll worker and member of the Princeton community as an inspiration for their work. Laura Wooten, who worked in Butler College’s food service for 27 years, started to volunteer at the election polls when she was 18. Wooten would go on to be the longest continuously serving poll worker in the United States, having volunteered for 79 years. She died in 2019.
For Wooten, voting was paramount. “Don’t stay home and say your vote doesn’t count. Without voting, there won’t be any changes. Another vote makes a difference,” she said in an interview published on the University homepage in 2018. Wooten encouraged people who could not vote to become poll workers, partially inspiring the Poll Hero Project’s efforts today.
Thanks to social media, the group has been able to recruit more poll workers than they first thought possible. The group’s original target was to recruit 1,000 poll workers by Election Day. In three weeks, they had already signed up 1,500 volunteers. Spurred by this initial triumph, they expanded their efforts onto multiple online platforms and social media sites.
This pivot to new forms of recruitment proved crucial to their continued success. After a TikTok video about the Poll Hero Project went viral, the team received more sign-ups from that post alone than from all their efforts since the start of the project. Now, with over 35,000 registered poll workers and almost 14,000 Twitter and Instagram followers, their project has become larger than they could have ever imagined.
With the sheer number of people that the Project reaches, the team of 108 students — 11 from Princeton — has carefully divided up the work. To create an efficient model, they formed different squads that focus on specific cities and states. In the beginning, the Project focused specifically on areas where they saw the most need for poll workers: Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Phoenix, and a few others. But as Poll Hero has grown, so has their reach — they now have teams focused throughout the United States.
With just a few days until the election, the Poll Heroes are not slowing down. Along with maintaining their activity on social media and other platforms to keep recruiting new volunteers, they are also working to ensure that those already signed up actually work the polls.
Gantman explained how they motivate their participants: “first and foremost, by focusing on the election and for democracy, but we also want to give them another incentive if they choose to volunteer.”
These “incentives” include everything from creating an easy-to-use volunteer checklist called “The Journey” to teaming up with different organizations that can co-host Zoom calls with celebrities and give out prizes.
While the team is currently devoting its attention to the 2020 elections, members have begun to think about the future of the Poll Hero Project.
“We have been able to see what we can build up, and we don’t want to just let that go,” said Mattes.
The next decision about their future post-election involves deciding whether they should continue to focus solely on recruiting poll workers or expand their focus on other areas of the election that still are inaccessible to potential voters, such as their initial work with vote-by-mail.
Because each election cycle brings new challenges, the team is still unsure how their project will develop in the future. But, Tsurumaki emphasized, the team is committed to “continue the project to do all we can to help democracy and youth engagement.”
“We think we have something really special, and we want to make sure that we can continue it in a way that keeps our core mission alive,” Gantman said.