Poll working, not watching, is the goal for a group of former troops and military family members seeking to get the nation's veterans to staff the polls this year, next year and beyond.
Ahead of National Poll Worker Recruitment Day on Wednesday, organizers for We the Veterans and Military Families, a nonpartisan nonprofit that aims to strengthen the nation's bedrock principles through civic duty and collaboration, announced it is expanding its effort to attract veterans to serve as poll workers. It will add education programs in several states to build a foundation of trust in the voting system.
Ellen Gustafson, a Navy spouse and the group's executive director, said the Vet the Vote 2023/2024 campaign will include a tour for veteran leaders and military family advocates in Maricopa County, Arizona, of the ballot-processing facility, as well as events for veterans in New Hampshire, Los Angeles County and Las Vegas to teach them about the voting process.
Maricopa County is home to the second-largest veteran population in the U.S. behind Los Angeles, according to Gustafson. It also was the site of mass protests by supporters of then-President Donald Trump the evening of and days following the 2020 presidential election.
In Las Vegas that year, GOP attorneys filed a lawsuit over more than 3,000 absentee ballots -- many of which were from military personnel, serving elsewhere in the country or overseas, who are allowed to vote in their home of record -- alleging they were wrongfully submitted.
Gustafson said the idea of these events is to provide "voting education" so military personnel, veterans and family members understand the process, have faith in it and spread the word about the integrity of the election system in the U.S.
"A great way to destabilize our democracy, if you're a foreign adversary, is to get people to not trust our elections -- the foundation of our democracy," Gustafson said in a roundtable with reporters Tuesday. "So, what we're addressing is that while foreign adversaries are trying to get to the hearts and minds of this incredibly trusted group, if we don't fight it for those hearts and minds, we're going to lose them."
In 2022, We the Veterans brought together a coalition of military and veteran organizations to promote Vet the Vote, an effort to get former service members and military families to volunteer on Election Day.
The campaign resulted in 63,500 veterans and family members volunteering last Nov. 8 in an effort to help fill roughly 130,000 poll worker positions left vacant as the result of retirements and the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept many older workers home on election day.
Gustafson did not give a goal for the number of poll workers the group hopes to sign up for the 2024 election, but said states need workers throughout the process -- for special elections and primaries in addition to the general election.
And in some states, she added, new rules have meant that election officials need to have their full complement of workers for the November 2024 vote at the start of the year, as early as January.
"That means that in November or December of this year, we're going to have to do big pushes in states like Florida, which I know has one of those rules," Gustafson said.
In 2020, Trump refused to concede the election and made false allegations over election results in several states, taking issue with electronic voting machines he claimed had erased votes for him and alleging that votes were lost.
His own attorney general, Bill Barr, said the Justice Department did not find any evidence of widespread fraud, and recounts conducted in the disputed states did not change the election results.
Trump and 18 others have now been indicted in Georgia for their alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election results in the state. The former president announced on his Truth Social network that he planned to turn himself in on Thursday.
Gustafson said the Vet the Votes campaign is apolitical and noted that working the polls is a "democratic and citizen" job that meshes well with service members' and veterans' desire to serve.
Joe Plenzler, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who serves as a We the Veterans board member and has volunteered as a poll worker in Charles County, Maryland, and Warren County, Virginia, said that throughout the process, poll workers leave their politics at the door.
"It is considered really bad form for election poll workers to discuss politics at all," Plenzler said.
"You get to know your community ... show me another place in American society where Republicans, Democrats and independents are all coming together to work together to do something productive for the country."
Tina Barton, an elections expert with The Elections Group -- a consulting company that provides guidance to local, state and federal election organizations -- and former senior program adviser to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission executive director, said that now, more than ever, the nation's election boards need volunteers who believe in the system.
With the average age of poll workers at or above retirement age (60% of poll workers are 61 or older), and some facing intimidation and threats as well as concerns over COVID-19 and other contagious illnesses, the need is tremendous.
And that gap, she said, "is ready to be filled by groups" like young people who have specific skill sets -- those who value teamwork and those who are dedicated and prize the democratic process.
To We the Veterans and Military Families and those considering volunteering, Barton said the effort is admirable.
"On behalf of all the election administrators in our country, I want to say a huge thank you. Thank you, thank you for your service to our government and to our country. But also thank you for filling this gap for us," she said.
For more information on becoming a poll worker, a paid position that requires a day of training, depending on location, followed by work on Election Day, contact your local election office or reach out to Vet the Vote.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.