Poll Workers: Guardians of the First Amendment this Election

This column expresses the views of Elizabeth Dickson, director of development, Freedom Forum.

I was raised to understand the importance of voting and elections. This year, I’ve been moved to join in how that system works, as well.

Like many, I accompanied my parents every time they voted. As a young child, I still remember being excited when poll workers would also give me an “I Voted” sticker. At the time, I didn’t quite understand what an important service these individuals were providing to our country.

Voting is the ultimate expression of the freedom of petition, one of the five core rights protected by our First Amendment.

Often discussion around elections has been centered on registering and educating voters — and ultimately turning out the vote. And those discussions are still very important. The Freedom Forum launched our Freedom of Petition resources and programs to remind people how voting and the First Amendment go hand in hand.

A unique topic of discussion in the 2020 elections is the need for young people to become poll workers. Traditionally many of these volunteers are older, but with the global pandemic, many states sounded the alarm that their reliable volunteers of the past wouldn’t be able to participate this year.

I honestly had never before considered being a poll worker. I registered to vote as soon as I turned 18, I’ve volunteered for campaigns before I was old enough to vote and now, as a registered voter, I’ve consistently voted either on Election Day, early voting or absentee. However, the more I heard about the need for poll workers, the more I knew it was time to step up my civic engagement. What would happen if there weren’t enough poll workers? Would people have a harder time being able to vote and truly exercise their right to self-governance?

With that in mind, I went online and signed up. I am very fortunate that I am able take time off from work to do it: The Freedom Forum instituted a new policy that grants each employee two First Amendment Freedom Days per year to participate in First Amendment activities of their choosing. I was able to take in-person poll worker training and to reserve a day to be a poll worker.

The process has been interesting learning how to make elections run smoothly. In a mix of online and in-person training of about five hours, I’ve learned how voting locations are set up, how to check in voters, how to distribute the correct ballots and how to help voters ultimately cast their votes in elections from local to federal.

I’ve been encouraged to see the number of people stepping up to volunteer, many of them young people. It is also why I respect groups working to recruit poll workers, like Poll Hero, which is recruiting thousands of college and high school students to be poll workers this election cycle — a new type of civic engagement that gives me hope and empowers everyone to play a role in protecting the First Amendment freedom of petition.

It’s become apparent that poll workers will be the guardians that ensure voters can petition their government by casting a ballot this cycle. They will be on the front lines, ensuring that all who want to participate are able to do so, while reassuring the public that this election is being held fairly.

Am I nervous about this? 100 percent. Yes. Do I like the idea of being exposed to many people in the age of COVID-19? No.

But what I and many others know is that poll workers will be vital in ensuring that all who want to can cast their ballots, and in turn exercise their right to petition.

Also, being a poll worker is a reminder in these times that there are many ways for us to champion the First Amendment without being a journalist or leading a protest movement.

We all can apply the First Amendment by going to the polls, mailbox or drop box and voting — and then doing what we can to support other people in this process.

Vote, volunteer, use your speech to educate others. No matter the method, we can all be guardians of the First Amendment.

Elizabeth Dickson is the director of development at the Freedom Forum. She can be reached at [email protected]

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