By MADELEINE MACCAR
In less than two months since its founding, the Poll Hero Project (PHP) has encouraged more than 15,000 high school and college students around the country to become active participants in democracy.
Bringing together a founding team from Princeton University, Denver East High School and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the nonprofit aims to fill the void left by older poll workers unable to oversee in-person voting because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Increasingly, we were talking to election experts across the country who were honing in on this problem surrounding in-person voting, which kind of took us all by surprise, because voting by mail has gotten so much press and there was so much discussion about it,” said Avi Stopper, one of the project’s co-founders and the lone Chicago representative on a team of nearly 75 people.
Their collective surprise turned to shock as they watched news unfold about municipalities that were both unprepared and understaffed for in-person elections — and they took action.
Stopper and his team widened PHP’s reach by reaching out to Princeton University students seeking volunteer and virtual internship opportunities, since he said “college students across the country saw their whole summer programming, their internships, just evaporate” this year.
Mt. Laurel resident Olivia Cao, salutatorian for Lenape High School’s class of 2020 and a freshman at Princeton University, was among those who answered the call.
“I knew I had to get involved,” she said. “Something that really works in our country is democracy, and the fact that everyone has a say in what happens. The election is when we see democracy at its greatest.”
Cao said the seismic societal shifts of a COVID-19 world, the Black Lives Matter movement and other changes she’s seen this year have inspired her to become active, educated and engaged.
“There are real real issues that we, as citizens, need to do something about, and it all starts with using our voices when we vote,” she noted. “With the pandemic, voting is kind of at stake because there’s not enough poll workers. We’re getting people to sign up to protect our democracy, in a way, because voting is where change happens.”
Stopper explained that Cao and her peers have taken ownership of the PHP initiative to become the driving force spreading the word about the need for poll workers this election season.
“Gen Z really steps up to the plate when it comes to leading,” he said. “Poll Hero Project’s success is the direct result of Gen Z and their ability to propagate an important message about democracy.”
Stopper credits the generation’s passion and ability to harness the power of social media for helping PHP benefit from “an incredible groundswell of support across the country” anytime they focus their outreach efforts in a certain geographic area.
“The best way to think of our project is that it’s a collection of tried-and-true startup methodology married with the kind of raw passion, enthusiasm, motivation and incredible technology-savvy of Gen Z to build movements around things that are relevant and important to democracy,” Stopper explained.
Cao recently turned 18, making Nov. 3 the first election for which she’s eligible to vote.
“I’m excited to vote in this election and encourage others to be a part of it,” the student said. “It feels so profound to be able to vote right now because there’s so much going on in the country.”
In addition to educating potential poll workers and PHP volunteers with the resources available on the nonprofit’s website, the collective rallied around the Sept. 1 National Poll Worker Recruitment Day, amping up their outreach to blow right past the organization’s goal.
“It was our best day to date, which put us over our 10,000 signups goal,” Stopper said. “It was really an encouraging day, with a lot of activist outreach and the surge of enthusiasm from this broad community of young people.”
As PHP continues to seek high school and college students to be active participants, Stopper said the project encourages him with not only its young team’s dedication, but that of longtime poll workers..
“Our Twitter feed is constantly filled with people saying, ‘I’m 72. I’ve worked the polls for the past 40 years, I’m not going to do it this year, but thank you for providing some inspiration. And that’s been incredible,” Stopper related.
Cao said that getting involved with PHP has helped her connect with people across the country who care about the same issues she does, with participants hailing from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.
But it’s getting involved and doing something that drives her to keep advocating for PHP’s cause.
“I don’t want people to feel like they’re waiting to vote for hours, and then voting becomes a chore since it’s taking so much time out of the day, all because the polls are understaffed,” she said. “We’re giving people a better opportunity to use their vote.”
And Cao’s perspective is one that Stopper has seen echoed in the PHP team.
“One of the things that has been most inspiring is to see the number of people who have reached out to be part of this, because this election is important for them to be a participant in democracy,” he said.
“Gen Z’s understanding that democracy is not a spectator sport is a fascinating reflection on this generation.”
Visit the Poll Hero Project website at pollhero.org to find out more or sign up as a poll worker.