RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There are labor shortages across the U.S. And that's a problem for this year's midterm elections. There aren't enough poll workers, so states are getting creative about how to recruit them. But the ongoing pandemic and current political climate isn't making the process easy. Here's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: What does a board of elections do to make sure it has some 3,000 workers by November to check in voters, issue ballots and process votes in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MARCHING BAND: Welcome back, back to school. Oh, oh, oh, oh.
WANG: Hit a back-to-school fair in Maryland's Montgomery County with a recruiting table, where Adaobi Oniwinde stopped by with one of her sons who's 16, the minimum age to be a poll worker here.
ADAOBI ONIWINDE: Honey, I really want you to do this. This is the most important thing.
WANG: In her hands are a pen and a clipboard with a poll worker application for this year's midterms, which will be the first U.S. election Oniwinde's children will experience while in the country after years of living abroad.
ONIWINDE: The beauty about the system here is the fact that you really can get involved at any level. People are going out with their kids.
WANG: In fact, in Montgomery County, kids as young as sixth graders can volunteer as aides to poll workers the night before and on Election Day, when public schools here are closed.
GILBERTO ZELAYA: They're always calling me. Do I have kids? Do I have kids?
WANG: Gilberto Zelaya is a spokesperson for the local board of Elections. Almost two decades ago, he started a program called Future Vote, in part to help out poll workers.
ZELAYA: They really like the fact that there's this younger generation handing out I voted sticker, making sure that the signs are posted and that the tables are lined up.
WANG: And sometimes getting on the floor with blue painter's tape to lay out arrows pointing voters toward the right direction at polling sites.
ZELAYA: Our poll workers, especially our older poll workers, they prefer that the students do that as opposed to them because I'm 50 and my knees are starting to crack.
WANG: Sixteen-year-old Danny Dominguez, though, had something else in mind when applying to be an election worker, a more exciting way to rack up community service hours for a graduation requirement in Maryland.
DANNY DOMINGUEZ: I've always been interested in how, like, the election process works. And so for the 25 hours, I get to see how people come in, sign up for the elections and vote.
WANG: Still, signing up more younger poll workers likely won't be enough to meet the needs of this election season.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DEBORAH ENIX-ROSS: Our solution is Poll Worker, Esq., because lawyers and law students are uniquely qualified to step up and serve.
WANG: That's why the president of the American Bar Association, Deborah Enix-Ross, has helped bring back a campaign that was rolled out for the 2020 elections, when the ABA partnered with the National Association of Secretaries of State, whose current president is New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way.
TAHESHA WAY: By trade, I am an attorney. So I understand the position of being a counselor. You are looking towards justice. But at the same time, you're also making sure that you're serving your community.
WANG: But making that call to serve at the polls can be tricky in 2022, with the country still dealing with COVID and poll workers in many parts of the U.S. facing an unprecedented level of scrutiny driven by election deniers.
WAY: This is an unfortunate factor. After 2020, you know, we are now seeing an increased level of threats towards election officials and workers, which of course causes concern and hesitation for those who may want to serve.
ANIL NATHAN: For me, it's a motivating factor.
WANG: Anil Nathan is a former captain in the U.S. Air Force and a co-founder of We the Veterans, which has started a new project called Vet the Vote.
NATHAN: I think a lot of veterans and military family members would feel the same way about helping to continue to protect and serve the institutions and the process that we wore a uniform to support in our previous lives.
WANG: Nathan says he and his wife are planning to get trained soon as election workers for the first time. And he hopes more military families will make serving at the polls a norm.
NATHAN: Just a natural thing that as you leave the service or as you are engaging more deeply in your local communities when you move from place to place that this is just a thing that you do. And that's part of us building that mindset. And that's going to take time.
WANG: Time that, for this year's general elections, is running out, with about two months before voting ends on November 8.
Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "I COUNTED THE TEARS")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.