SUNY Fredonia Students perform essential work during general election

(FREDONIA, NY) – Several State University of New York at Fredonia students had the unique experience of being at ground zero – working lengthy 16-hour or longer shifts at polls in Chautauqua, Niagara and Cattaraugus counties – during the hotly contested general election.

Election volunteers are essential to ensuring the integrity of the election process and assisting voters at the polls, said Department of Communication Assistant Professor Angela McGowan-Kirsch. “Being a poll worker is a great opportunity for students to work side-by-side with individuals they may not have interacted with otherwise and use their critical thinking skills to solve problems and answer questions,” Dr. McGowan-Kirsch added.

“I also see working at the polls as a valuable job to list on a resume, as it demonstrates a person’s dedication to fulfilling a civic duty and desire to support our community,” McGowan-Kirsch said.

Onnalee Strong and Megan Strine answered the call that McGowan-Kirsch issued in her course, COMM 342: Presidential Campaign Communication, to volunteer at the polls in Chautauqua County.

Ballots in Niagara County were counted by a third student, Madeline “Maddie” West. Kyra Fowler was a greeter in Cattaraugus County.

Poll workers, usually women likely over the age of 61, were in short supply this year, according to the Election Assistance Commission, said McGowan-Kirsch, chair of Fredonia’s American Democracy Project committee.

Students fill important shoes

“The risk of illness from COVID-19 increases with age so many of the people New York state depends on to work at the polls were unable to, this election,” McGowan-Kirsch explained. “Consequently, I thought it was crucial to have students and young people step forward to volunteer their time to be poll workers.”

Heightened significance of this election spurred Ms. Fowler’s interest in becoming a poll worker. She wanted to be a part of and learn more about the election process. Her primary duty was greeting people as they entered the polling site, St. John’s Roman Catholic School, and making sure they were comfortable and practiced social distancing in the very long hallway leading to the voting room.

“The atmosphere was hectic about 90 percent of the time,” reported Fowler, whose shift at the polls began at 4 a.m. “We had more voters in our ward this year than any other year, especially new voters.”

Very calm and collected is how Fowler, a senior majoring in Communication: Media Management, with a minor in Leadership Studies, from Olean, describes most voters. Some were anxious or excited, she noted, and there were even a few who expressed their opinion on which candidate people should support. Of course, this was not the right time or place for that, Fowler said.

“My biggest takeaway from this experience was that even if you feel very strongly about something, it’s common decency to respect other people’s opinions in a respectful way,” Fowler said. “I know this is one of the most important elections, but sometimes it can be easy to forget that we are all human beings living in the same place.”

McGowan-Kirsch’s course in political communication raised Ms. Strong’s engagement in the election, and this was the first time she could cast a ballot. A senior majoring in Communication: Communication Studies, with a minor in Public Health, from Panama, Strong wore multiple hats at the firehall in North Harmony. She was a door person, controlling the number of people admitted inside, and a cleaner. “The whole room smelled like hand sanitizer; we were making sure everything was clean and ready for the next voter,” Strong said. She also oversaw the ballet machines, had voters sign the iPad and passed out instructions.

Strong would like to see more younger people – and people in general – working at the polls. Serving from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m., as Strong did, can be physically demanding, so more people should be willing to volunteer.

Would Strong be a poll worker again?

“Absolutely, I think it means a lot to be involved in the community as well as showing initiative in wanting to be involved in the election process. Being a poll worker gives a behind the scenes look at how much actually goes into just casting your vote at the polls,” Strong said.

Ms. Strine remembers accompanying her parents to the polls when voting booths had curtains. “I always thought it was the coolest thing. I think it’s important to be politically active, but being a part of the process is very fulfilling and rewarding in itself,” said Strine, a sophomore Psychology major, with a minor in Communication, from Ripley.

The first part of her almost 17-hour day at the elementary school was spent checking voters into the system, giving out ballots and explaining the process. She often switched the ballot machines to give assistance and pass out “I voted!” stickers. She, too, was on the clean-up crew, sanitizing the stations, ballot folders and markers.

Strine gave high marks to the voting setup, saying it was very efficient and allowed for social distancing. Thankfully, Strine noted, most people wore masks and were polite.

Poll workers must be nonpartisan

“When I was on the floor team by the ballot machines, a few people told me who they were voting for and would say something about the other candidate.” Strine recalled. “I kind of just had to smile and not give them the benefit of getting a reaction because workers have to stay unbiased.”

Serving at the polls is a lot of work, Strine said, but it’s not hard work. It’s also a very rewarding experience, and she would think about doing it again.

Younger poll workers were sought for a variety of reasons by the League of Women Voters of Chautauqua County. Since poll workers are often older and at a higher risk for COVID-19, the organization reached out to Fredonia to find younger volunteers, explained Mary Croxton, a member of the Chautauqua chapter of the non-partisan organization.

The typical shift of a poll worker is around 16-1/2 hours, so physical endurance is essential. Younger poll workers are more likely to be tech savvy. The technology used in the voting process has changed, from physical poll books to navigating a screen. “You would not believe how a good number of older people struggled with the stylist pens,” Ms. Croxton said. “I was glad to have someone in their thirties on my team,” she added.

“In my opinion I think if more college students were involved with the election process they would get some better insight into how the system works. I gain insight with every encounter with the BOE (Board of Elections),” Croxton said. “It is an eye opener to see how few people vote.”