Yale News

For some Yale students who volunteered to work at the polls for last Tuesday’s general election, their day began just shy of 5 a.m. and ended more than 15 hours later. 

They joined ranks of young people who stepped up — in many cases, for the first time — to help work their community’s polling sites during an untraditional election year. 

“I heard there was a national poll workers shortage, since a lot of older people who usually volunteer are higher-risk in the pandemic,” Monique Nikolov ’23 said, who served as a ballot checker in her hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut.

Nearly 60 percent of poll workers in the 2018 general election were over 60 years of age, according to a report issued by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. But since elderly individuals are at higher risk for complications with COVID-19, election officials forecasted challenges staffing voting jurisdictions this year.

This is the first time Nikolov has volunteered at the polls. She estimates there were around 1,000 voters at her site — more than she anticipated given the high proportion of absentee and mail-in ballots cast. 

“It’s important to be involved on behalf of others who don’t have the privilege to be [engaged in the electoral process],” Nikolov said. 

At multiple sites staffed by Yale students, lines were longest right when polls opened.

Processing ballots and guiding voters went “smoothly,” Danny Li ’23 said. His site at the New Haven Free Public Library only saw around 70 voters, but he said he had to redirect several New Haven and Yale voters to their assigned polling location after inaccurate polling location information was circulated by the New Haven Election Information website

Lee said that his fellow poll workers were “mostly young people,” including several other Yale students. 

Taking a leave of absence and not having to worry about attending class allowed Kara O’Rourke ’23 to spend nearly sixteen hours on Tuesday registering new voters and updating voter registration in her community, something she has never done before. 

O’Rourke — who worked the polls in her hometown of Darien, Connecticut — said that her polling site introduced standard pandemic precautions like six-feet social distancing markers, regular sanitation and plexiglass shields.

“Although I’ve taught civic education classes and have stood in the middle of Cross Campus asking people to vote, it was definitely exciting to enter actual voter registration information and wear a badge that said, ‘Election Official,’” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke also serves on the board of Yale’s chapter of Every Vote Counts, a nationwide voter education and engagement organization, and Yale Votes, a campus-wide coalition focused on increasing voter turnout at Yale.

In Darien, O’Rourke observed that a “surprisingly large number” of newly registered voters declined to register with a specific party. A high percentage were also New York City dwellers who left the city for the suburbs in the past several months. 

“If you can be a poll worker, it’s so worth it, because you’re interacting with your neighbors,” Olivia Sepe ’24 said. “I met so many neighbors from the three streets next to mine. It’s a great way to get involved in your community.”

Sepe has been a poll worker twice before, which qualified her to serve as a moderator overseeing a polling location in Cranston, Rhode Island. 

That meant that she picked up polling supplies at City Hall, helped set up the polls and technical software in the morning, made sure ballots were fed properly into the voting machines throughout the day and closed the polls after 8 p.m. She then had to submit all her ballots to the Board of Elections in secure ballot boxes, print several copies of the results and obtain signatures from election officials. 

“There’s been so much stress and animosity over voting and the safety of elections, so being able to tell your friends and family how safe and secure voting is means the world,” Sepe said.

Connecticut’s seven electoral votes went to President-elect Joe Biden.

Emily Tian | emily.tian@yale.edu