‘Grown Ups Treated Us As Equals’: Desi American Kids On Poll Duty

Not old enough to vote, desi teens embraced a role in US election process – as poll workers and active campaigners. 

Published
The Indian American
7 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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Aanya reached the Foster City Community Center at 6: 30 AM on 3 November to help set up voting equipment. Citizens would soon start turning up to cast their votes, and Aanya, along with a group of volunteers, had to get the voting station ready.

A 12th grader at Hillsdale High School in San Francisco Bay Area, 17-year-old Aanya Chudasama is too young to vote. Politically engaged and not to be left behind, she enrolled to be a poll worker for the 2020 US Presidential election.

Ballot papers, sign-in sheets, clip boards, printers, stickers and flags were being readied by election workers for the most important event in their nation’s democracy. She worked the entire Election Day, managing a line of voters to ensure physical distancing, handed out sign-in sheets, helped voters understand their rights, and answered queries. She later switched to an outdoor ballot drop-off station, which was run by her and another high school volunteer.

‘Grown-Ups Treated Us As Equals – It Was A Once-In-A-Lifetime Experience’

Aanya always wanted to experience how elections work, more so as her older sister had volunteered similarly for an election.

“My sister had an amazing time being a poll worker. I made new friends working the polls. I definitely liked the way grown-ups spoke with us. They didn’t talk to us as if we were kids, they treated us as equals, and that made me feel more mature and at an equal level to them. It was very kind of them. There were two ladies – moms – who were volunteering with me; they are the nicest ladies I have ever met. All in all, it was an amazing experience, once in your lifetime kind. It gives you a different perspective of not just one person being in charge, but it being a big group effort. I feel lucky to have had this opportunity. I would do it again.”
Aanya Chudasama to The Quint

Aanya was one of the thousands of teenagers who staffed polling stations in their neighbourhoods across the US during early on voting and on Election Day. Except a few states, all US states’ Election laws encourage high school students to volunteer as poll workers. Some states allow students as young as 15 to join, but a majority of states accept students who are between 16 to 18 years of age.

Higher Interest Among Students This Year In Poll Work

Students from some San Francisco Bay Area cities signed up via San Mateo county’s ‘Student Democracy Program’, run with the support of local high schools. The enrolment process started a few weeks before the elections. Pamela Seligman, a Social Science teacher at Hillsdale High School, has been coordinating her school’s sign-ups since 2011.

Unlike in previous elections when her school would receive between 30 to 60 student signups, this year the interest was higher, and they received 119 applications.

Because the school had switched to remote learning since spring 2020, they had moved away from giving grade points, to an only pass-fail system. Hence, they did not have to scrutinise grades of the applicants. Along with age limits, the ‘Student Democracy Program’ requires students to be citizens or permanent residents, have a minimum GPA of 2.5, and have their teachers’ and parents’ permission to be a poll worker. Seligman hears about interesting experiences that her students have while working the polls:

“The County Election office wants students to work at the polls. My students have met some fascinating people who lived through interesting experiences of living through a war, been married for 62 years, etc. Spending the day with someone of a different age and culture would be the highlight for some. One of my students had a memorable experience while waiting for voters, sitting empty for some period of time – an elderly gentleman taught her how to dance, and they were doing the jitterbug!”
Pamela Seligman to The Quint

Keeping Voting Area Non-Partisan: A Challenge Faced By Student Poll Workers

The Student Democracy Program was launched in 2004, to allow students to experience how democracy works at the local level, and encourage young citizens to engage in voting and registration. Chief Election Officer of San Mateo County, Mark Church, described the job:

“Students receive training, work at the polls, and are paid a stipend, just like our adult volunteer poll workers. Their duties can include setting up equipment, checking in voters, answering questions, line management, and staffing our ‘curb-side drop-off’ service. Students do not count ballots or handle confidential voter information.”
Mark Church, Chief Election Officer of San Mateo County to The Quint

These teenage poll workers go through a couple of hours of training at the local Election Office to prepare them to be a poll worker, protect ballots and voting equipment.

A resident of Bay Area’s Foster City, Daniel Donskoy, a 12th grader, worked at an early voting location. The training that he received helped him tackle various scenarios that might occur at an election location:

“In the event that someone came wearing something that portrayed a candidate or a proposition that was on the ballot, we would request them to change, or provide an alternate t-shirt. I learnt that canvassing is illegal, and anything political or on the ballot being represented within 100 feet was illegal. We would provide masks to voters who did not have a mask. I learnt behind-the-scenes tech to print ballots on location.”
Daniel Donskoy, a 12th grader from Bay Area’s Foster City to The Quint

One of the challenges these young poll workers interested in politics and democracy face is to keep the situation in the voting area non-partisan, and ensure that no voters voice their strong inclinations.

How Do Parents Feel About Kids Doing Election Work?

At no time during their shifts at a voting location, were they supposed to be manning an area by themselves. They had to ensure that there were at least two volunteers at a ballot drop-off space at all times. There was no heavy security presence around the voting areas in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a police officer would drive by occasionally, with an aim to protect the ballot box.

Student poll workers learn firsthand how elections are run, and end their day with a better understanding of the importance of voting and the vital role poll workers play in making US elections run smoothly.

The US has a strong tradition of volunteer service. Civic engagement is encouraged through school years and beyond. Some high schools have mandatory community service hours.

College applications read more attractive if such passions shine. Parents are concerned for the safety of their teenagers at poll stations, and for the classes the students miss during the time spent as poll workers, but parents also realise the long-term benefits of this electoral experience.

Most Indian American high schoolers are strong students, able to coordinate their assignments to avoid academic losses, and desi parents encourage civic participation.

Aanya’s mother Niraj Chudasama felt that missing a school day to be a poll worker was appropriate:

“It is a privilege to get to work the polls and it is an eye opening experience, and it is also kind of like a family tradition, your maasi and naanima worked them as well. I think that young women should definitely be encouraged to participate as much as possible in crucial and impactful decisions.”
Niraj Chudasama to The Quint

‘Students Acted Very Professionally... Voters Were Impressed Too’

In the 2020 Presidential Election, these young poll workers had a vital new function in sanitising equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Election workers, including students, sanitised all voting equipment after each use. Chief Election Officer of San Mateo County, Mark Church, commended the involvement:

“The students acted very professionally, and I know the voters were equally impressed with their demeanour, competence, and efficiency.”
Mark Church, Chief Election Officer of San Mateo County to The Quint

Before each statewide election, thousands of Californians sign up to help put on this important event. County elections officials depend on reliable, dedicated teams of volunteers and high schoolers. In the last many elections, the main pool of poll volunteers have been senior citizens.

Election offices all over US realised that the pandemic will put senior poll workers at risk. They really needed young people to be incentivised and urged them to give back to senior citizens for their years of service, so that the latter didn’t have to work in the 2020 election.

In the months running up to the election, city governments ran social media campaigns and put out advertisements seeking young poll workers.

US Election Work: A Financially Lucrative Opportunity For High Schoolers

San Mateo County doubled the pay that they used to offer in earlier elections and added more shifts for high-schoolers than in previous elections, to protect the vulnerable elderly.

Teenagers who worked all the permitted shifts made USD 580. Along with getting an insider’s look at American democracy in action, being essential members of the Election Day team also turned out to be a financially lucrative opportunity for high school poll workers.

Not old enough to vote in the 2020 Election, Indian American teenagers embraced a role in the political process, not only as poll workers but also as active campaigners.

Thousands of desi teenagers knocked doors, wrote post cards, distributed fliers, made phone calls and sent texts in an election which saw an unprecedented voter turnout.

(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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