Patel, 21, is the Texas state coordinator for Fair Election Center’s Campus Vote Project and served as a poll worker in the March 2020 primaries. She plans to serve as a poll monitor in the November 2020 election. She spoke to Elite Daily News Editor Lilli Petersen about fighting for voting rights, why it’s so important for young people to sign up to be poll workers, and what young voters should know about their power to create change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The 2016 presidential election is one of the reasons I got so into voting rights work and especially voting access for college students. That year, I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin, and there was only one polling place on campus — and for almost all of early voting and on Election Day, the lines to vote were out the door and around the building. It was wild. You always hear things like, “Oh, young people don’t vote, young people don’t care,” but that was totally opposite from my experience! Everyone around me was so excited and so activated and so fired up about this election. But there were three-plus-hour-long lines to vote. I saw so many people who left the line and didn’t vote because they didn’t have time to wait that long. They had exams or class. Those lines were what started me working to get more polling locations on campuses.
I felt like it was really important for me to work at a location that primarily serves students, to help students see a friendly face at the polls.
After that election, I organized to advocate for a second polling location on campus, and we got it. In 2018, we had two on-campus polling places instead of one. That second polling location also saw really long lines at the end of early voting and on Election Day, which was super exciting. That led us to March, when we had two on-campus polling locations and a third off-campus location on Election Day. That location was packed, too — at our peak it had two-and-a-half-hour lines out the door and around the block. That’s where I served as a poll worker during the primaries.
I had signed up to be a poll worker in March because I heard rumblings about a shortage. This was even before coronavirus really hit hard, but it was a thing. Poll workers are generally older, and a lot of students and young people don’t really see themselves represented in the people running the polls. That’s why I felt like it was really important for me to work at a location that primarily serves students, to help students see a friendly face at the polls.
But as someone who advocated and fought long and hard for poll access for UT students, there was a bigger reason I signed up. I didn’t want to see the county take away those polling locations in the future, just because they couldn’t staff the locations. In my experience with voting advocacy, sometimes the pushback that we get is “well, we don’t have enough staff to work another polling location.” I didn’t want the reason that UT students lost a polling location to be because they didn’t have enough workers.
In 2020, we’re already seeing this happen in some places. During the Wisconsin primaries, there were supposed to be 180 poll locations in the Milwaukee area. There were five. Of course, that led to extremely long lines for voters.
It’s going to be a real problem in November. We’ve seen it happen in Kentucky and Washington D.C. and Georgia. Poll workers are either not signing up or signing up and not showing up. That’s why as many young people as possible need to sign up to be poll workers, since we are a little bit less vulnerable to COVID-19. About six out of 10 poll workers are older than 61. They’re the population that’s most vulnerable to COVID-19 — and they’re the people who aren’t going to want to be poll workers this November.
As a poll worker, you’re the gatekeeper. You have the power to keep those gates open.
It’s a justice thing. If election officials don’t have enough poll workers, they’re going to have to shut polling locations. And closing polling locations is, most likely, going to hit low-income communities, communities of color, and young people particularly hard. If young people can sign up in masses to be poll workers, then we can keep these polling locations open. And if we keep these polling locations open, hopefully there won’t be such long lines, and everyone will be able to vote.
The poll workers on Election Day are what’s standing between you and voting. As a poll worker, you’re the gatekeeper. You have the power to keep those gates open.
It’s super simple to sign up. People can head to Power the Polls, which is a website to recruit poll workers and volunteers nationally. You put in your information, and then you’ll get follow up emails about how to sign up locally. It’s powered by a site called Work Elections, which is a giant database of all the information for counties and states that need poll workers. Before, not all counties had information online about how to sign up to be a poll worker or what the requirements were.
The local election authority pays you, they train you, they teach you everything you need to know, it’s super easy, and — in my opinion — it’s super fun. I literally signed up the day before the election. Honestly, the hardest part was waking up early enough to open the polls.
I believe that democracy only functions when everyone participates. My parents were immigrants to this country, and I remember my dad going to vote for the first time after getting his citizenship. It never really dawned on me how much power people have, by virtue of being citizens of this country, to voice their concerns, speak up, and vote. We, as voters, have so much power. A lot of people who are citizens from birth, like me, take that for granted.
We should use the power we have to make change. I know a lot of people right now are frustrated with the system and think that voting isn’t the answer because it hasn’t worked for a long time, and I agree. Voting is not the entire answer. It’s just one tool in our toolbox. But it’s a way for us to change the system that currently exists, and make it into something better.