The coronavirus isn’t only a threat to our lives, it’s become a threat to our democracy. Voters are feeling unsafe about going to the polls this fall. Many people don’t understand how to use the absentee ballot. And, town and city officials are worried about recruiting enough poll workers to keep our most sacred American right a safe and rewarding activity. How can we protect that right?

We can do it by recruiting a whole new generation of poll workers. Currently, most ballot clerks are in the 60-plus age bracket — one of the most vulnerable to COVID-19. They have been stalwarts of our local elections for decades. But this year, as with practically everything else in our lives, things are different. Town and city officials report that many of these election veterans are choosing to bypass the next one. This will leave polls shorthanded. It could make wait times and lines longer than usual.

How do we meet this challenge? Let’s make a historic effort to engage our teens and young adults in this leadership effort. They can help in two specific ways and, as they do it, learn the rewards of grassroots participation in American democracy.

First, let’s organize young people to use their social media expertise to help people understand how they can vote via absentee ballot. As many people as possible should take advantage of the absentee ballot. It totally avoids risk from the virus. It’s a reliable, secure voting method with a paper trail that can be checked and re-checked if necessary. But many people don’t know how to get or use an absentee ballot. Young Mainers can help their elders directly in this effort.

Meanwhile many people prefer to vote in person. Mainers have proudly voted at one of the highest rates in the country. Let’s enlist younger Mainers in continuing to lead the nation. Town and city officials can reach out to high schools, colleges, and local service clubs to recruit a new generation to help at the polls and keep voting alive. Our youth are energetic and available; they’re our future as a state and nation. Our younger generation will learn firsthand how the electoral process works and will feel the rewards of serving their communities.

What could be a better entrance into becoming a lifelong voter than to actually help the country vote, voter by voter, precinct by precinct? What could more powerful than knowing that you, a high school junior, senior, or college freshman or sophomore, helped a historic election take place with the highest election turnout in the last 100 years?

Some action steps a Maine resident who is 17 or older can take to help:

1. Contact your local election clerk or town manager and find out how many poll workers may be needed this fall, and how many extra hands could be used to process the huge expected increase in absentee ballots prior to election day. To find out how to get in touch with your town or municipal clerk go to the website for the Maine secretary of state’s office.

2. If you work at or attend high schools or colleges throughout Maine and are a Maine resident, gather a small group of friends and contact your local election clerk or town manager to offer your help. You could assist through using social media, helping to verify absentee ballots, and working the polls on Election Day.

3. If you are a school administrator make sure students who volunteer on Election Day have the day off and can get community service credit as well as credit for fulfilling at least two of Maine education’s guiding principles: “Each Maine student must leave school as a creative and practical problem solver who perseveres in challenging situations, and as a responsible and involved citizen who participates positively in the community and designs creative solutions to meet human needs and wants.”

4. If you are an election clerk or town manager, contact your local high school and college. Ask to make a presentation on how elections work, Tell them how they can help in the fall.

5. If you are a state legislator, help the towns in your district make those connections with schools and youth groups to recruit a new generation of poll workers and hopefully lifelong voters.

Involving our youth in the electoral process advances and enhances democracy. Young people can have powerful, positive impact. We need their help now! For support and troubleshooting, please contact us at [email protected]

Emanuel Pariser, Ph.D., of Waterville, is an education consultant at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. Gordon A. Donaldson Jr., Professor Emeritus, University of Maine, is a resident of Lamoine.


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