Young and first-time election commissioners are stepping up to man local polling locations Tuesday as national campaigns encourage electoral involvement beyond voting and concerns linger about older commissioners’ safety during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Nationally, election commissioners typically skew older; in the 2016 presidential election, data collected by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission showed 56% of poll workers were 60 or older and 18% were 40 or younger, based on data provided by states.
Lafayette Clerk of Court Louis Perret, who’s administered elections in Lafayette Parish for 20 years, said Lafayette follows that trend, estimating people 65 and older make up over 50% of commissioners. That’s changing this year; there’s been an obvious increase of younger applicants registering and attending commissioner classes ahead of Tuesday, he said.
Firm numbers weren’t available, but Perret said he’s confident the demographics of their poll workers this election have shifted.
“I think it’s a general awakening of public service,” Perret said.
“I firmly believe in my heart that the more people who participate in our representative democracy, the better off we are because it helps steer the country in what kind of leadership we need. It’s very important for that next generation to step up to help out. That’s the idea of America — being considerate of your neighbor and helping your neighbor,” he said.
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Lafayette will have roughly 900 election commissioners working Tuesday, Perret said. Having a strong base of commissioners is always critical to smooth elections, but there’s added importance this year because of additional safety measures being taken at the polls, he said.
The bump in interest from younger people interested in working on Election Day has been helpful because some older commissioners are sitting this year out because of the pandemic, Perret said.
Data on the current demographics of registered election commissioners statewide was not immediately available from the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office as staff worked to assess polling sites damaged or without power after Hurricane Zeta before Election Day, spokesperson Tyler Brey said.
Carlin Sekhani-Matthews, an 18-year-old Lafayette resident, is one of the young and first-time election commissioners stepping up this election cycle. The 2020 St. Thomas More Catholic High School graduate said she got the idea to work on Election Day while watching a 2020 graduation special on TV over the summer.
The national nonpartisan initiative Power the Polls was rallying recent graduates to apply as poll workers, and Sekhani-Matthews’ mother encouraged her to give it a shot. The 18-year-old researched poll working and then applied through the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office website, before taking an exam and attending a class with Perret’s office.
In October, she received an email assigning her to work at the Comeaux Recreation Center.
Below is a list of Lafayette area contests and issues on the ballot for the Nov. 3 presidential election.
“I felt like personally voting wasn’t enough. ... Voting was awesome, making my voice heard, but this was something I could do for the community to be part of Election Day and helping other people have their voice be heard. I just think it’s such an important civic duty, voting, and you need people to work the polls to help with that,” Sekhani-Matthews said.
Working as an election commissioner is also a way to contribute that’s nonpartisan. Sekhani-Matthews said she’s been unsettled by how divisive and ugly opinions and behavior around the election have become, even among friends and acquaintances.
Some of that negativity has been balanced by general positive messaging around voting. Sekhani-Matthews said she feels like there’s greater outspokenness about the importance of voting and she’s seen heavy social media activity encouraging voting education and enthusiasm around voting.
The 18-year-old didn’t want that energy from young people to only live online.
“I remember going with my parents to vote in 2016 and seeing older people as poll workers, and that’s typically the norm. I think there’s something to be said about being a fresh 18-year-old, this is my first presidential election, and I’m at my polling location and one of the workers at the polling location is 18 or in their 20s. It would give me a sense of how important this election is and to just be part of it in whatever way you can be,” she said.
Fred Sliman, spokesperson for the East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court, said they’re seeing similar enthusiasm from younger people. Around 500 new election commissioners have registered in the last two months, he said, including a nice portion of college students and some high school seniors.
“The communications I’ve had are just that they’re ready to jump in and help. They’ve been very eager. ... It’s just really a unified desire to help and help the system is what I’ve gotten from them,” he said.
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The large influx of younger people follows several years of lagging interest from poll workers under 40, despite recruitment efforts. Sliman said the surge makes him confident that even beyond the presidential election they’ll continue to see higher numbers of younger election commissioners as registered workers spread the word to friends.
Kellsie Gremillion, 30, is taking a day off work as a human resources manager to work the polls on Election Day in Baton Rouge. The 30-year-old said she has no family history of working elections and doesn’t know any friends who've answered the call.
Gremillion said she was spurred by social media posts from former CNN journalist Jessica Yellin, who shared information about national election commissioner registration drives. Gremillion sent in an application online and began the process.
Originally chosen as an alternate commissioner, she’ll now be working Tuesday after another commissioner had to back out. Sliman said East Baton Rouge Parish will have roughly 1,700 commissioners working Tuesday.
Gremillion said she’ll be broadcasting her Election Day enthusiasm through a voting-themed T-shirt while working the polls. The Baton Rouge native earned a government studies minor in college and said she’s always been cognizant of the importance of voting to fulfill the country’s vision of a representative democracy.
This year, she felt a calling to be a cog in the machine that helps make that vision happen, especially as concerns rise about voter intimidation and troubles at the polls.
“If (elections) aren’t administered fairly and judiciously, then there’s a lot of room for error. That’s a big weakness within our political process,” she said.