By: Geoff Tucker
It is no secret that the typical poll worker tends to be a senior citizen; indeed, the average age of those volunteering to work the polls is seventy-five. As new technologies are implemented for use in elections, however, there has been a growing push for younger volunteers who are presumably more tech-savvy. In efforts to recruit this younger demographic, California amended its election law statutes to allow high school students to serve as poll workers if certain conditions are met, including a minimum GPA and age requirement.
On its face, this law appears like an excellent way to encourage young people to volunteer to serve as poll workers, especially as they are compensated for their time spent both in training and on Election Day. However, one question that remains unanswered is whether high school students, and minors in general, are mature enough to handle the responsibilities that come with the position.
One incident from the November 4, 2014 election suggests that they may not be. In Orange County, a volunteer from the student poll worker program was removed after it was discovered that she tweeted obscenities about certain voters who came into the polling location and even posted pictures of them (which actually violates California law). This was not the result of misinformation or unclear rules, either; the Orange County Voter Registrar stated, “[Volunteers are] trained very carefully that this kind of behavior is unacceptable.” As this occurrence demonstrates, tech-savvy youth may not always make for the best poll workers.
On the one hand, this incident suggests that high school students, especially those under the age of eighteen, should not be trusted to serve as poll workers. Despite receiving training before Election Day, the teenager consciously chose to violate the rules, as well as California law, and exemplified the poor impulse control notoriously prevalent in this age group. Indeed, if minors cannot be trusted to vote, why should they be trusted to help run the process through which that right is exercised? Just as a person in California must be twenty-one to be a bartender, one might argue that a poll worker should be required to be at least eighteen in order to facilitate the election process.
Looking to the other side of the issue, however, this incident need not serve as dispositive evidence weighing against high school poll workers. California began the Student Poll Worker Program back in 1996, and this appears to be the only reported incident of misconduct from a high school student. One could argue that this actually serves as evidence supporting this program, as only one negative incident in eighteen years speaks to the notion that almost every other student worker is following proper procedure. Perhaps the aforementioned student was an isolated example.
Either way one approaches this, however, it seems clear that additional training, in addition to some other potential remedies, is needed to ensure that similar incidents do not happen again. As we appeal more and more to the younger generation to serve as poll workers—a generation that is much more likely to use social media—training should be modified, for example to emphasize what may or may not be posted to social media.
In addition, California can consider whether it wishes to adopt a policy limiting cell phone use for poll workers, potentially prohibiting workers from taking their phones with them while they work. While this will add to the administrative burden of the election process, and possibly deter younger poll workers from taking part, it has the potential to prevent future such events from occurring. Regardless of whether you believe the student described above to be a lone bad actor or representative of all high school poll workers, her actions highlight the fact that recruiting the younger generation will likely necessitate some change in the manner through which poll workers are trained and supervised.