A military-connected nonprofit is killing two birds with one civically minded stone this election season.
Vet the Vote, a We the Veterans campaign, is aiming to pair veterans and military family members with a nationwide need for poll workers.
“As an organization, we learned of this shortage of poll workers ― that there was going to be a crisis for the 2022 election,” said Ellen Gustafson, a We the Veterans co-executive director and board member. “And we immediately said, ‘This is exactly the kind of thing that veterans and military families would be perfect to essentially solve.’”
Vet the Vote addresses shortage woes
Vet the Vote, created about eight months ago, said that approximately 130,00 poll workers have ceased serving over the past three midterm election cycles. A March 2022 survey conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 20% of local election officials said they were very unlikely or somewhat unlikely to remain until the presidential election in 2024.
Plus, the majority of poll workers are in the their 60s and beyond, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
If there are too-few poll workers, Gustafson said, democracy is certainly wounded.
“Especially in the last couple of election cycles, Americans are divided on many things, including whether or not our elections are indeed secure,” she said. “As a patriotic citizen, I want to see Vet the Vote help ensure Americans that whomever you vote for, our elections are indeed secure, free and fair. And you need poll workers for that.”
Who better to fill those empty positions, We the Veterans figured, than veterans and their families? That population, according to Gustafson, has already shown a dedication to defending America’s freedoms. She herself will be working at the polls on Nov. 8.
“The reality is, we [veterans and military families] volunteer at a really high rate, and we’re great members of our communities,” Gustafson said. “But this particular [problem] has not been the focus of any other organization, and that’s where we think we have a huge opportunity.”
Army wife Beth Conlin thought Vet the Vote’s premise was brilliant and reached out in June. One problem became apparent, however. She, like many military dependents and service members, is not a legal resident of the place she resides. In 22 states and two territories, legal residency is a requirement for poll workers, including Virginia where Conlin currently lives.
“I was shocked, like dumbfounded,” Conlin said. “I’m a bit notorious about forcefully removing obstacles I run into and will do whatever I need to make it easier for future military families.”
So she brought the issue to Vet the Vote’s attention. The group, Gustafson said, immediately began “looking to do a national push to get a national rule or exemption on that.”
“Because what an incredible population of people who could be serving in these needed roles,” Gustafson said.
Vet the Vote, already partnering with the NFL, hopes to eventually procure a nationwide exemption for military dependents to be poll workers, no matter their legal residency. Until then, Conlin plans to help in other ways, like driving voters to polling stations.
“Vet the Vote has the perfect combination: a long-term vision to solve an issue we have as a country, with the experience of being connected to the military community,” she said. “I think seeing democracy in action is never not exciting ― it’s what so many of our service members signed up to defend.”
Gustafson said her team hopes to see veterans and military family members making up at least 100,000 ― or approximately 10% ― of poll workers this year. Depending on the location, workers complete either a full or partial shift, and teenagers 16 years old and older can participate in certain states.
“We want this to become a new norm,” Gustafson said. “When you get out of the military, or if you’re in a military family, this becomes another way you can serve your country.”