Whether amid a deadly pandemic or catastrophic wildfires, the November general election must go on, and this year, more and more younger citizens are expected to help registered voters participate in their democracy by working at in-person voting centers.
"A lot of college kids, 18 to 24 years old, are stepping up during this time," said Evelyn Mendez, public and legislative affairs manager at the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters.
This year, Santa Clara County will have around 100 full-service voting centers, with fewer backup voting centers than usual due to COVID-19. Each one will be staffed by around 15 to 20 people, Mendez said.
In normal times, these polling locations are typically staffed by older and retired people. Data analysis by the Pew Research Center found that 58% of U.S. poll workers during the 2018 general election were ages 61 and older and 27% were over 70 years old. But this election season, these groups of people are opting out of volunteering and staying at home due to the health risks associated with the coronavirus.
"They're a little more hesitant to go out there into the community," Mendez said.
This includes people like Lee Zulman, a Palo Alto resident of four decades, who chose to spend some of her time volunteering at her local polls after she retired as a software engineering development manager for Sun Microsystems.
"I came to this country as an immigrant, and I came from a family where my parents, because of their (Jewish background), were not allowed to vote in the countries in which they lived," Zulman said. "So I did not see voting as something that was optional — for me, this was mandatory."
Zulman was one of about 600,000 poll workers who helped during the 2018 general election and would have been eager to volunteer again this year, when the stakes are much higher with a presidential race.
But the longtime Palo Alto resident is now 75 years old. She takes immunosuppressant medication, which makes her that much more susceptible to illnesses and she recently lost her cousin to COVID-19. He was just a few years older than Zulman.
"I don't want to go through that," she said. "I've watched people disintegrate very slowly. If I have a choice, then that's not what I want."
With the election coming up in less than 50 days, the county now faces the challenge of getting at least 2,000, healthy community members trained and prepared to staff over 100 voting and backup voting centers that will open on Oct. 31.
As of Monday, Sept. 14, the county has met about 50% of its staffing goal. Mendez said she is confident that the community will meet the demands. Most people typically sign up closer to Election Day, she said. But if they don't?
"We would have to operate with what we have and the lines will be really long," Mendez said. "We really don't want that."
Part of that staffing expectation comes with the adoption of the Voter's Choice Act in 2016, which replaced traditional polling places with modernized voting centers fully equipped with touch-screen ballots and staff that can provide assistance in multiple languages. (Mendez said the county will accept all the bilingual speakers it can get, but is short on Japanese and Khmer speakers in particular.)
Voting centers will also need staff to face the unique challenge this year of helping people cast their ballots while minimizing health risks and maintaining a 6-foot distance. This includes distributing personal protective equipment and hand sanitizers as well as providing curbside assistance to accommodate people who might refuse to wear a mask indoors, said Mendez.
Where older volunteers like Zulman won't be able to help meet the demand this time around, a new generation of young, civic-minded voters like Michaela Fogarty hope to fill in the gap.
"I think it's really important that, as young people, we step up and take some of the burden off of older people, who have done it for so many years and help protect our democracy," said Fogarty, 20, a Palo Alto High School alumna.
Now back in Palo Alto for virtual classes with Pitzer College, Fogarty is using her spare time to encourage her peers to register to vote and go the extra mile by working at their local voting center.
The effort began as a project with Campus Compact, a national nonprofit organization that works with colleges and universities to promote civic engagement, but will continue on her own through the general election season.
For recruitment, Fogarty said she's been emailing local high school faculty members, taking Zoom calls with students, meeting with high school groups she once was a part of and reaching out to her peers through social media — an effective way to tap into an audience the county registrar's office may not have easy access to now that students are learning at home.
"It's a bit of a challenge to recruit students right now," Mendez said. "They're at school doing Zoom, so we're not able to go on campus."
In March, about 500 high school students signed up to work at county voting centers and about 300 of them showed up, according to Mendez. As of Monday, Sept. 14, around 31 students have signed up and still need to complete a three-and-a-half-hour training process, which Mendez said is in person, but "COVID-friendly" because they'll be training by themselves in individual pods.
Mendez suggested that one way to encourage people to volunteer is to remind them that the process is safe and paid. All staff members, including high school students 16 years or older, will be given a stipend or hourly pay depending on their job.
But for Fogarty, her motivation for volunteering aligns with Zulman, in that voting is a coveted right people shouldn't take for granted.
"I think democracy is something everyone should be passionate about," Fogarty said. "That's why this project isn't about (partisan) politics. It's about making people's right to vote more available to them."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.