By Meredith Jacobs
For decades, my great aunts Rosie and Ceel were election judges. Sisters, they both lived past their century birthdays. I say this only to emphasize their ages when they volunteered year after year to oversee the workings of their polling places. Yet, their ages should not be surprising to anyone reading this – traditionally, poll workers are retirees who step up to volunteer when younger citizens are at work.
I didn’t even know about Aunt Rosie and Ceel’s civic engagement until recently – stories about them always focused on their days in the Yiddish theater, how they took shots of alcohol each night before bed, and how they outlived their doctors. My mother shared this history with me when I called to say that my daughter, her granddaughter, had just switched her registration to the state where she quarantines with us so she could volunteer as an election judge.
Never one to be passionate about government, my daughter’s newfound civic engagement was a response to calls she has heard about the need for younger people to serve as poll workers this year. She knows, as much as we do, that we cannot rely on voting by mail. Efforts at general voter suppression, including states limiting vote by mail and disabling collection boxes, make voting in-person on election day that much more important. Setting politics and threats to voting aside, the dangers of exposure to COVID mean that we cannot ask our elders to be the ones ensuring our polling places are adequately staffed. Changes in polling places – from schools and nursing homes, to stadiums and convention centers – coupled with long lines, will make it more dangerous for older people to be poll workers.
The younger generation must step up in their place. For all of us who wear masks and have avoided seeing our parents in person in order to keep them safe, this is just one more thing we must do.
But here’s the thing – with employment so tentative now, our younger staff, those who are able bodied and low risk and may want to volunteer, may not feel comfortable asking for the day off. And, quite honestly, they shouldn’t have to. We should give them the day off – with pay. And, not dock it from vacation or personal leave. We should either close our virtual offices on November 3rd (and then close our actual offices on election days in future years) or simply tell our staff that anyone who wants the day to volunteer has it. No questions asked. It doesn’t matter for how long or exactly what they will do. They could take a shift or volunteer for the entire day. They could help drive people safely to their polling places or volunteer for a candidate they are passionate about. The point is, we need to make it easy for them to be involved. In fact, we need to encourage it.
As stewards of the Jewish community, this falls on us. We have an aging population we must protect. And, we have young staff, who, if they feel safe and comfortable doing so, may want to help.
I have learned many lessons from Great Aunt Rosie and Ceel – how to bake the perfect sponge cake, how a little schnapps may actually be good for you. And now – how we must do what we safely can to ensure everyone’s voice is heard this election day.
So, join me. Work will still be there on November 4th. There is something important we need to be doing on the 3rd.
Meredith Jacobs is the CEO of Jewish Women International (JWI), the leading Jewish organization working to build a safe and equitable world for all women and girls. Check your voter registration status, register to vote, look up your state’s registration deadlines and election dates, and much more on JWI’s voting resource page.