Young Chicagoans are signing up in droves to work the polls this year compared to 2016, according to an age breakdown of a “record” number of applicants from the Chicago Board of Elections.

This story also appeared in WBEZ

CBOE is creating a list of back-up judges after already assigning 12,659 of them, with more applications still being processed. That’s a 20% increase in the total number of judges so far this year compared to the 2016 general election as a whole.

That increase has been driven by young people, between the ages of 16 and 44, and most pronounced among 25- to 34-year-olds, according to age-specific data from the CBOE provided on Oct. 2. For instance, in 2016, just 758 people between 25 and 34 signed up. This year, there are 2,015 judges in that age range.

High school students are also eager to work the polls. According to the CBOE’s data, there are 40% more high schoolers signed up to be election judges this year than in 2016 in Chicago.

Max Silverman, who will turn 18 just a week after the election, is one of them.

“I think that has been really important this year is that push to get younger people signed up to be election judges so that we can tell the seniors, … ‘Don’t worry. It’s OK. We can do this without you. Please… keep yourself safe,’ ” he said, referring to the increased risk of COVID-19 among seniors.

Keeping people safe

Election officials are taking several steps to ensure a safe Election Day, according to Board Chairwoman Marisel Hernandez.

Poll workers will be provided with masks, face shields, gloves and hand sanitizer. Voting tables will be equipped with plexiglass separating judges from the voter they’re checking in.

That has somewhat eased the mind of 68-year-old Evangelina Miller, who worked the polls in March (and every prior election in recent memory). She will be working the polls again this November.

“We had everything we needed at our disposal [in March],” Miller said. “I had never seen a gallon container of hand sanitizer. … But now that they’ve got a little a better handle on it,” she said, referring to the addition of plexiglass dividers.

Silverman reiterated that sentiment and is also reminding voters that it’s a BYOP (bring your own pen) situation.

“I want to stress really, …if people bring their own pens and bring their own Sharpies…there’s very minimal contact that will be involved,” he said. “We are trying to make this as safe as possible for the voters. … If you are a voter, please know that…we are poll workers. And we volunteered to be called poll workers this year, because we want to protect the voters.”

Concerns remain and judges are still needed

Still, Miller is concerned, uncertain about what Election Day will look like. That’s especially true after hearing from friends who didn’t want to sign up for this November. (Every age group over 44 saw decreases in applications this election.)

“I’ve heard some say the pay is not good enough for them to come out and risk their lives for the nominal amount that they pay,” she said. “It’s just not worth it.”

Even as public officials encourage those who can to vote by mail, Chicago has seen a huge increase of people casting their ballots in person during early voting this year. Many people on both sides of the aisle have described this election as the most important of their lifetimes.

“Truthfully … I am worried that there won’t be enough voting judges this year,” Miller said.

Even with a record number of applicants, and plans to create back-up judges, the Chicago Board of Elections is still in need. There’s a need for judges in Chicago’s 23rd ward near Midway Airport, in Belmont Cragin and in Jefferson Park.

Election officials are also stressing the need for Spanish, Chinese and other foreign language speakers. Election workers get paid $230. The Chicago Board of Elections is encouraging people to apply by Oct. 19 to ensure time for training.

Mariah Woelfel is a general assignment reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @mariahwoelfel.

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

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It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.