With poll workers across the country resigning at an alarming rate, efforts to recruit their replacements have grown increasingly partisan – a troubling trend that experts fear will serve to undermine Americans' faith in the vote.
This week, as part of National Poll Worker Recruitment Day, several state Republican parties issued rallying cries on social media meant to attract a new generation of poll workers. Their pleas included politically charged language, calling on followers to "join the fight," "combat Democrats" and "SAVE AMERICA!"
While political parties have long engaged in recruitment efforts, experts say these latest overtures mark a "notable" escalation in the way partisans solicit interest in these critical roles.
"It's only recently that I've started seeing widespread use of language that implies the other side is cheating, or that working as a poll worker could be characterized as joining a 'fight,' as opposed to an opportunity to serve the community and the democratic process," said Larry Norden of the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan think tank.
The politicization of poll workers reflects broader democratic challenges the country has faced in recent years. As the front line of election administration, these workers undertake the burden of ensuring a free and fair vote at polling stations in each community. The work is often described as tedious, but it is cited as among the most important jobs in a democracy.
In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, poll workers bore the brunt of false claims that the election was compromised by fraud. Many became targets of threats, and a survey from the Brennan Center for Justice found that one-third of election workers reported feeling unsafe because of their job. In some states, Republican lawmakers have proposed legislation that would impose criminal charges on poll workers for committing errors.
The fallout, combined with pandemic-related obstacles, has prompted a mass exodus of poll workers and raised questions about who would replace them.
"There is very much a coordinated effort underway to use criminalization of election officials' jobs, intimidation and violence to drive officials from their jobs and to replace them with partisan activists," said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
To offset the widespread resignations and spur recruitment efforts, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission last year dubbed Jan. 25 National Poll Worker Recruitment Day, "with the goal of encouraging potential poll workers to sign up to help America vote."
At least 19 state Republican parties from Connecticut to California promoted poll worker recruitment this week, and at least five injected their messaging with partisan overtones.
"Join the front lines of election security by being a poll worker! As @JoeBiden just stated, it matters who counts the votes. #LeadRight," read one tweet from the Nevada Republican Party.
In North Carolina, the Republican Party Twitter account called on supporters to "combat Democrats' unconstitutional assault on our most basic voting protections" by signing up to become a poll worker.
Democracy advocates have warned that a new generation of poll workers may put partisan loyalties above a commitment to democracy. This week they said the rhetoric used in Republican social media channels threatens to make that nightmare scenario a dangerous reality.
"The last thing we need are partisan appeals for non-partisan positions," said Nick Penniman, founder and CEO of IssueOne, a democracy watchdog. "Election workers may be Democrats or Republicans, but our elections work in this country because the workers who run them put voters first."