Work the Polls looks to register young, diverse poll working corps


Photo courtesy Laura Mueller-Soppart

Laura Mueller-Soppart and Klevis Xharda, the two founders of Work the Polls, want to make it easier to become a poll worker across the country.

Marta Hill, news staff

After not being able to vote in the New York primary election because her ballot did not arrive in time, Northeastern graduate Laura Mueller-Soppart decided to testify in front of the New York campaign finance board. 

“I was really seeking recourse, like I wanted to know if we should go to the [Board of Elections] or what kind of recourse exists for a voter, especially because we were talking about a magnitude of 30,000 New Yorkers that didn’t get to vote in that primary,” Mueller-Soppart said. 

During her testimony, she heard from poll workers and was struck by the specificity of issues they faced.

“Because they were actually doing the tangible work of administering the elections, [the poll workers] had such clear suggestions,” Mueller-Soppart said. “It was to me quite obvious that if we could just make the poll worker corps more robust, and you could eliminate some of the issues — like [that] there simply weren’t enough of us —  that would make such a sizable impact on the election.”

After hearing the testimonies, Mueller-Soppart decided to create Work the Polls. Work the Polls is a grassroots initiative whose mission is to fully staff poll sites across the country with a young and diverse poll worker corps. Mueller-Soppart said she approached a few friends, including Northeastern graduate Klevis Xharda, and the organization was up and running within a week. 

“Work the Polls is really committed to making sure that young people not only are recruited [to work at poll sites], but also get through the training process,” Mueller-Soppart said. “We’ve been focused on little wins here and there as we go through, and then [we] want to recalibrate our efforts to reforming the application system.”

There are other organizations out there with similar goals, but Xharda said Work the Polls stands out because of how it approaches its mission. 

“I think where we differ a little bit is that the campaign has largely been focused on reaching out to our networks, to our friends, to people that we know and personalizing the experience or the process,” Xharda said. “We’ve taken the approach of not being too political and being more focused on the personal aspect of being a poll worker and what that means.”

Since its founding just a few months ago, more than 3,000 people have pledged to become poll workers, covering 46 states and more than 280 counties,  Mueller-Soppart said.

She said the goal is not to reach a certain number of pledges, but rather to alleviate some of the friction that is normally in the application process. 

“We try to have a little bit of a bigger share of voice by reaching out to counties,” Mueller-Soppart said. “They send us forms and things that we just pass on directly which honestly cuts the administrative time in 12, which is great.”

Beyond helping individual people register to be a poll worker, Work the Polls has been involved in large-scale operations as well. For example, in Los Angeles, the Board of Elections, or BOE, was updating the data management system, and in the process voided thousands of new applications from poll workers. Work the Polls helped notify people whose applications may have been voided.

“[The BOE was] doing good work, updating their management system … and we appreciate that they’re totally overwhelmed,” Mueller-Soppart said. “If we can help amplify what the next steps are, that’s what we want to do.”

The application process to be a poll worker can vary widely even within one state. Xharda said in Boston it is a modern, easy-to-use website, but in nearby Essex County there is just a phone number and email to reach out to, which may deter people from applying. 

“It just became so evident to us that because there’s no federal comprehensive federal election standards,” Xharda said. “It’s up to each individual county to create the app [for] the poll worker application process, and with over 3,200 counties that means that you have 3,200 different applications.”

While applying to work the polls in San Francisco, Xharda had to answer two odd questions at the end — one had a spelling error and one was similar to a math question on a standardized test. He said people were not told that if they answered either question wrong, they were automatically disqualified from being a poll worker. 

“I quickly contacted the Board of Elections in San Francisco and described my process and didn’t really expect that to go anywhere but I was on the phone with somebody the next day and that next day they changed the application,” Xharda said. “They removed those questions and so anyone applying in the city of San Francisco would at least get the opportunity to train.”

He went on to say that a highlight of his experience with Work the Polls has been just how receptive counties generally are to improving their systems. 

“Part of what we’ve discovered through this process is there just hasn’t been much attention around the issue in the past and so there’s never really been incentive to change the way that that counties work,” Xharda said. “It just takes somebody saying something.”

Mueller-Soppart said her biggest difficulty is ensuring potential poll workers stay engaged and helping them follow up with their counties. 

“I think the greatest challenge for me is staying optimistic,” Mueller-Soppart said. “I’m telling people [to] keep following up, keep letting BOE know that you want to work the polls, [and] eventually you will get through,” Mueller-Soppart said. 

For Xharda one of the hardest aspects of this election has been the dynamic between mail-in voting and in-person voting. He said mail-in voting is a really useful tool, but he tries to encourage voting in person.

“Part of that struggle is because you never want to advise somebody to put their health in harm’s way,” Xharda said. “But for a lot of young people if you take the right precautions …  you can go and vote safely in person.”

Mueller-Soppart said Work the Polls has focused on making connections with people who are pledging. After pledging, Work the Polls sends prospective poll workers emails periodically with more information about polling in their area. 

“It’s just about taking that extra little time to win one more poll worker,” Mueller-Soppart said. “I think that makes an incredible difference and then always reminding people, ‘Let us know how it goes, we want to hear from you,’ because it is a conversation.” 

While Work the Polls is currently focused on the upcoming election, Xharda said its work will not stop there. 

“We’re always going to need poll workers, so the application process I don’t think should ever stop. If you’re not a poll worker this election there’s another one coming up in two years,” Xharda said. “There’s no need for us to regress and go back to a system where poll workers are all over the age of 60 once again.”