The strength of our democracy may hinge on our response to COVID

The strength of our democracy may hinge on our response to COVID
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As we learned this week that our President knowingly hid how dangerous COVID-19 was from the American people, many of us are feeling demoralized and angry at the lack of federal leadership that has contributed to the loss of nearly 200,000 Americans, the vast majority of whom are people older than age 55. By not being candid about the known impacts of COVID-19 sooner, he left us to believe that he and other elected leaders simply do not value the lives of older adults.

This is particularly ironic considering our democracy hinges upon the civic role that has for so many decades rested in the hands of older adults, as they make up the majority of poll workers.

As the leading multidisciplinary organization in aging, the American Society on Aging is proud to see the way the American public is responding to the devastating gap COVID-19 is leaving at our polling places this election season — and we call on all to step in to fill the poll worker void left by older adults.

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In the 2018 mid-term elections, nearly 60 percent of poll workers were ages 61 and older. But with COVID-19, far fewer older adults are volunteering to work the polls. Even without a pandemic impacting elections, nearly 70 percent of jurisdictions reported that for the 2018 elections it was difficult to recruit necessary poll workers. Now it is predicted that a whopping 460,000 poll workers will be needed this year. These poll worker shortages have voting rights advocates concerned that this could mean longer lines, more problems at the polls or fewer polling places come Election Day.

Recognizing this void left by older adults at the polls, the American public is stepping up to save our democracy. States are being more intentional about recruiting poll workers. In Michigan and Iowa, there are public campaigns to recruit more poll workers. Ohio and Alaska are incentivizing their states’ employees with paid time off and poll worker pay. In Florida, where counties are responsible for poll worker recruitment, the state is running ads to reinforce the safety and security of their election system.

Despite pop culture’s obsession with generational warfare, Gen Xers, Yers and Zers are rapidly replacing Boomers at the polls. Young adults are activating their networks to inspire friends and classmates to become poll workers, citing the stipend or work experience as incentives. One such group, Poll Hero Project, has already recruited 10,000 young adults.

With an eye toward ensuring that everyone who wants to vote can vote, sports teams and their athletes are stepping up in unprecedented ways. More Than A Vote, a voting rights organization led by the Lakers LeBron James partnered with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to attract poll workers. The Election Super Centers Project has teams from the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL preparing their arenas and stadiums to be converted into polling stations.  

And while companies are often the last to recognize the power of the older consumer, such organizations are taking action. Power the Polls is partnering with more than 70 companies to find volunteers looking for election day opportunities. Citing COVID-19’s impact on older poll workers, Power the Polls through its corporate partnerships has more than 350,000 people signed on to help with the election. Similar efforts have been created by Time to Vote and Civic Alliance, which have convinced more than 800 companies to give time off for employees to vote on election day or work the polls.   

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It’s not just corporations rising to meet the challenge — as the leading nonprofit association of professionals in aging, we know that older adults are vital to our democracy working. That is why the American Society on Aging announced that any employee wishing to work the polls will receive paid time off for doing so. We encourage others to join us in this fight to keep older Americans safe, but also in this fight for our democracy.

Please consider offering your employees paid time off to serve as poll workers this election season, as we all step in to play new roles in this time of uncertainty. COVID-19 has already taken so much from us. We cannot allow it to steal our democracy.

Peter Kaldes is president and CEO of the American Society on Aging.