Younger pollworkers bolster New Hampshire election day operations 

  • Connor Spern, left, and Gregory Naigles, right, volunteer at Concord’s Ward 4 on Tuesday. ETHAN DeWITT / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/13/2020 8:00:08 PM

The scene at Concord’s Ward 4 polling place looked about the way it always does on Election Day: a parking lot, a grass patch with sign waivers and local candidates, and a double-door entryway to the gymnasium of the city’s Boys and Girls Club. Except for one minor change, moderator John Williams noted.

“Our (average) age literally went from 72 years of age, in terms of the pollworkers, down to 28,” he said.

Around the gym were the same faces and a handful of the same officials as usual, including Williams. Sitting shoulder to shoulder were new volunteers, many in their 20s. It was a new experience for all of them.

Williams called it a welcome boon at a time of immense uncertainty around the election. But it wasn’t by accident. As New Hampshire elections officials have prepared for the state’s September and November elections at a time of a deadly pandemic, cities, town and political organizations have made a concerted push to head off potential staffing shortfalls and appeal to younger volunteers.

New Hampshire’s polling places, from community centers to schools, are often staffed with retirees, many with years of elections under their belt. The coronavirus, a respiratory illness that puts older residents most at risk, has scrambled that approach.

To prepare, amid an unusual cycle with expected high numbers of absentee ballots and the need for fully staffed locations, the City of Concord took to Facebook with a simple question. Older poll workers may decide to stay home due to the coronavirus; would any younger residents be free to volunteer themselves?

The call appealed to Connor Spern right away.

“It hadn’t even crossed my mind prior to seeing that post,” said Spern, 23, speaking from the Ward 4 locations.

“I had no idea that this was something you could just volunteer for,” she said. “I guess I just assumed that this was a city-run kind of thing.”

It wasn’t totally out of the ordinary for the coronavirus era. Spern, who works for non-profits, says that volunteer operations around Concord have been facing similar challenges: Older and retired volunteers have shied away from group activities, and the organizations have looked to younger help to step up in turn. With a new desire to join the election staff, she emailed the city clerk’s office and was quickly brought on board.

Now, Spern says it’s something she hopes to continue to do.

Erin Schaick also saw the Facebook post, and had an idea to help. As chairwoman of the Concord Young Professional’s Network, a group that includes Spern, Schaick, 30, spread the call to action among her members.

It was new territory for everyone, Schaick said. “I don’t think people necessarily think that there are ways to get (civically) involved, besides just voting,” she said.

Gregory Naigles, 26, was inspired to jump in after reading about the experiences in other states. Ahead of its state primary in June, Georgia began reducing the number of polling places available – particularly in urban areas like Atlanta, which closed nearly 80 polling locations alone. Kentucky, too, saw dramatic reductions in the number of polling places ahead of its June primary, though the state also threw its resources into expanded mail-in ballots to compensate.

“I didn’t want that to happen here,” he said. He was healthy, held a job that let him isolate. “I was a pretty low risk,” he said.

“So I figured: I should do this.”

Another force motivating Naigles to volunteer: the New Hampshire Democratic Party. The party had put out its own recruiting call for volunteers, urging them to sign up with them and be directed to polling places where they could start working. The party collected forms and passed them onto clerks across the state.

According to a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, the party recruited 1,000 volunteer poll workers across all age groups statewide, with 30 in Concord. The average age: 57.

A spokesman for the state Republican Party was not immediately available to respond.

Training for the new recruits was largely virtual. Naigles and others attended a Zoom session for how to check in a voter who is registered, how to register new voters and how to deal with absentee ballots. The process also involved pairing new volunteers with more experienced poll workers.

For Williams, the help has been invaluable.

“If it wasn’t for the younger generation, it would be Karen, myself, and three other people in the room having to process through the night,” he said. “So now, we have a full complement of people, and they come from very diverse backgrounds and occupations.”

At 11 a.m. on Election Day, Spern said the operation had been smooth, with just over 200 absentee ballots to process for Ward 4. By the close of polls, at 7 p.m., Concord was one of the earliest municipalities to produce results.

Of course, that was in the September state primary. Nov. 3, where President Donald Trump is up for re-election, promises to be a completely different ball game.

For that election, the number of absentee ballots for that polling place could swell to 2,400, Williams estimates.

Naigles is mentally preparing.

“This is kind of like a dry run so that we can all be really ready for November,” he said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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