At a time when democracy itself appears fragile, it’s easy for ordinary citizens to feel overwhelmed, even hopeless. But there is a very simple, concrete step that almost any US citizen can take to play a proactive role in protecting our democratic institutions: Sign up to be a poll worker or observer.
Poll workers carry out the most basic task of democracy: operating election sites and ensuring that everyone who shows up to vote is able to. They check in voters, answer questions, and tabulate results. This year, amid a pandemic, they may also sanitize pens and watch out for possible crowding.
It’s hardly glamorous stuff. But staffing enough polling spots, keeping lines moving, and helping voters who are confused by the process are the building blocks of a free and fair election. That’s why it’s laudable that businesses like Target, Old Navy, and Warby Parker are giving their employees paid time to volunteer at the polls in this unusual election year.
Typically, many poll workers have been retirees. But that’s the age group most at risk from COVID-19; understandably, many of them are sitting out this year’s election. Younger Americans who are not at high risk and who can afford the time off need to step up. In Massachusetts, the secretary of state’s office maintains a list of towns seeking help; it includes Boston, Worcester, Springfield, and most of the state’s other large cities. It’s not necessary to live in a city or town to be a poll worker there, and bilingual workers are especially in demand. Even teens who aren’t yet old enough to vote can serve as poll workers in Massachusetts.
Rules in other jurisdictions vary; the US Election Assistance Commission publishes a state-by-state guide.
Poll watchers play a different but equally crucial role. Working on behalf of political parties or nonprofit organizations, they serve as independent monitors to ensure the integrity of the election. Rules vary widely between states. Groups like Election Protection and the presidential campaigns recruit poll watchers. Poll watching has a more checkered past — some partisan poll “watchers” have crossed the line into voter intimidation — but having third-party witnesses remains a vital way for the public to monitor and maintain faith in election results.
Attacking the legitimacy of the voting process has, sadly, become a routine part of elections in the 21st century, and President Trump in particular has elevated baseless claims of voting fraud into the mainstream. It’s part of his general assault on democratic institutions, from the press to the independence of the judiciary, abetted by irresponsible social media companies that have allowed the president and his allies to spread disinformation.
Cities and towns need help filling poll worker spots this year. Signing up will help other Americans cast their votes, and that’s a good thing in its own right. More importantly, though, the country needs the civic reaffirmation that will come from an election that validates and renews our faith in our most cherished democratic institution.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.