In a year marked by intense political divisions, one element of the election has been largely overlooked: a record number of people stepped up to help with voting, local elections directors say.
Before the pandemic hit Minnesota in March, the average age of applicants for poll workers in Ramsey County for the presidential primary was 68, mirroring the statewide norm. Because elderly people face a greater risk of complications from COVID-19, elections officials warned about a shortage of poll workers.
Instead, municipalities were overwhelmed with applications. In Ramsey County, the average age of those workers during the general election dropped to near 40 years old. After nearly doubling its usual number of assigned poll workers, the county still had 700 people on a waitlist, said Ramsey County Elections Manager David Triplett. In Minneapolis, at least 4,000 excess applications rolled in, said Grace Wachlarowicz, assistant city clerk for elections and voter services.
“Everybody wanted to work in this election,” said Triplett. “We didn’t even have to do any recruitment efforts, people were signing up.”
As 2020 comes to a close, local elections managers like Triplett are just now getting a break. At its peak, the Ramsey County elections office had 212 workers averaging 55-hour weeks as they processed an unprecedented volume of mailed-in ballots and documents such as same-day registration filings for weeks after the election. The work continued through mid-December, until the office could go back to its normal staff level of about 10 permanent employees. “I have a chance to get home on time now,” Triplett said.
Though this year’s election lingered in the spotlight longer than most, beneath the noise workers carried on as in years past. “Everyone is hyper fixated on this particular race and election cycle. But I have to remind folks, this isn’t our first election ever,” said Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of Common Cause, a non-partisan voting rights nonprofit that oversaw hundreds of volunteers this year. “We’re that steady calming voice that says, ‘Nothing to see here folks, we’ve done this before.’”
‘Ecstatic … to be able to help’
Election officials say Minnesota’s 2020 voting was smooth, with an unusually quiet Election Day due to a record vote-by-mail turnout. “Every election comes with unforeseen events,” Triplett said. “It might be as major as a pandemic, or a candidate passes away a week before the election … I think most of my colleagues across the country would say election administrators are very good at adapting on the fly.”
Once again, Minnesota led the nation in voter turnout and set a new state record of nearly 80 percent of eligible Minnesotans participating — a rate not seen in 60 years. Fifty-six percent of these voters opted to mail in their ballots.
Of Ramsey County’s 297,000 voters, just 102,000 voted on Election Day itself — roughly 140,000 fewer voters needed to process than on Election Day in 2016. “We noticed that definitely, absentee voting made for a very quiet election day,” Triplett said.
With 2,108 people, the county nearly doubled the number of poll workers for Election Day itself from 2016 — in part to handle the safety precautions for the pandemic, and also because they had already been running early in-person voting. “There was a lot of talk about vote-by-mail, which was huge, but what we saw was more of a rush to vote before Election Day,” Triplett said.
Among Ramsey County poll workers, 1,000 were first-time participants. Minneapolis maintained a strong return rate with its judges, in part because of its decades of outreach recruiting younger poll workers, Wachlarowicz said, but the city still had 521 first-timers, including about half of its 359 high school student election judges.
St. Paul resident Frederic Posine, 48, became a poll worker this year for the first time in the United States — he had previously worked polls in his home country of France before immigrating here in 2000.
“I had a lot of reasons to not participate earlier,” he said, noting he had young children. “This year, I didn’t have any. And when I heard the call, saying, ‘Hey, most poll workers are elderly and at risk, so we have a shortage,’ I pitched in.”
Posine took the day off from his usual job to work a 14-hour shift at the polls. He rotated through various stations, mostly greeting and checking in voters from a safe distance, sanitizing and answering occasional questions, which usually pertained to properly filling out the ballot, he said.
“I appreciate being paid for the time I spent, but I do it to support the democratic process of voting,” he said. “It’s rewarding, it is helping … a democratic process that needs to be done. People need to be there to do it.”
Common Cause Minnesota’s Belladonna-Carrera oversaw roughly 600 volunteers stationed at poll places across the state. Dubbed “election protection volunteers,” they took questions from voters, which often center on finding directions to the correct polling place. Volunteers also call in to notify Common Cause staff of any irregularities or issues, which the organization records and tracks.
One of those volunteers was Erika Fisher, 32, who said her decision to work with Common Cause was prompted by concerns over President Donald Trump’s rhetoric around “election security.”
“I had nothing but awesome experiences,” Fisher said. “Everybody was in good spirits, there was just a really strong sense of community that day. Just seeing people repeatedly take time out of their day to vote was just a great change in morale for me, because everything’s been so stressful with the pandemic.”
Fisher said she also got the idea to volunteer from seeing her peers do the same via social media. Her former high school classmate Laura McCabe used her expertise as an attorney to answer calls from voters across the country through We The Action, a non-partisan organization that connects lawyers with volunteer opportunities.
“I’m a big believer in process. I think that protecting our democratic values — the right of people to vote, the efficacy of our voting system, access to information that’s clear and unbiased — is really important to me,” McCabe said. “I had been looking and hoping for an opportunity to do that in a safe way … I was frankly ecstatic to have an opportunity to be able to help.”
Fisher says she’ll be back next time. “I couldn’t imagine not getting involved on Election Day in the future,” she said. “It’s an antidote to everything I was feeling before — that we were all feeling on either side. So much stress. It was the opposite feeling of all of that — it was community, it was activism, it was joy.”