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    Help Spread the Word: Critical Need for Poll Workers in Major U.S. Cities

    By John Lewis–

    I’ve been a “political junkie” since I was 10 years old and followed every presidential election closely ever since. Naturally, I was very excited when I could vote myself in the 1980 presidential primary in Illinois, where I was attending college in Evanston, just outside Chicago. I rose early to vote before going to class, but when I arrived at the polling place, the head poll worker greeted me with some very disturbing news: she had no record of my being registered to vote. I handed her my voter registration card to prove I was. She examined her voter list again and consulted with her fellow poll workers, but still found no record of my being registered.

    I knew I had registered and resolved at that moment that Cook County, Illinois, infamous for rigging elections in the 1960s under the influence of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, would not deny me the right to vote. Voting was sacred to me.

    The poll workers were very sympathetic and helped me in every way they could. I skipped my classes to make numerous phone calls and trips back and forth to the polling place, trying to prove I was legally registered. I had known that the City of Evanston could be somewhat hostile to students’ interests. I learned that day it also tried to make voting difficult for students in order to protect vested local interests. Local authorities conducted canvasses to verify voters during the summer to effectively cleanse voter rolls of many students, like me, who were away at that time of year. Unbeknownst to me, my name had been removed the previous summer.

    It took all day, but at 5 pm, I received a call from Cook County telling me that I had prevailed and was, in fact, entitled to vote. The County called the local poll workers separately as well.

    As soon as I stepped into the polling place to actually vote, all the poll workers rose spontaneously to give me a standing ovation. I’ll never forget that moment. I’m sure the other voters in line were confused about what was going on, but it was clear to me that the poll workers cared about my right to vote as much as I did.

    Forty years later, our nation faces an unprecedented shortage of poll workers because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We need people who care deeply about democracy to step up, just like the poll workers stood up for me back in 1980. The need is especially critical in cities like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit.

    A staggering 77% of polling places were closed in Philadelphia during the June 2020 Pennsylvania primary because of a shortage of poll workers. Closed polling places mean extraordinarily long lines and wait times to vote, and long distances to travel to vote. The result is thousands of people effectively being denied the right to vote.

    A repeat of the primary in Philadelphia at the general election would strike a mortal blow to American democracy in its very birthplace. Philadelphia needs thousands of city residents to sign up as poll workers as soon as possible. Likewise, in Milwaukee, only 5 of 280 polling places were open for the April 2020 Wisconsin primary. Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s chief election official, announced last month that the state “needs thousands of its citizens to step up and become poll workers for November.”

    To actually serve as a poll worker in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, or Detroit, you must be an American citizen who lives there. Specific requirements and compensation vary from city to city. However, all of us who care about democracy can help to spread the word.

    Stuart and I are volunteers for a grassroots effort based here in Northern California, to support local efforts to recruit poll workers in those cities. We’re spreading the word in every way we can, and in the internet age you can do so as well. Our local group’s efforts have already resulted in hundreds of Philadelphians signing up as poll workers.

    Anyone may sign up to be a poll worker in any location and get more information through the nonpartisan organization Power the Polls at

    My namesake, the late, great Congressman and life-long voting rights champion John Lewis, wrote in his posthumous New York Times essay: “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”

    Together, we must help to ensure that our fellow citizens do not lose that most powerful change agent—the vote. Please spread the word.

    Power the Polls:

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    Published on September 24, 2020