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Becoming part of Connecticut's new generation of poll workers

This story is the first in a series on young poll workers in southeastern Connecticut.

Montville — Grace Carlos is civic beyond her years.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, working the polls has become a precarious task for those age 65 and older. That’s why Connecticut is seeking volunteers of all backgrounds, including the young, to help out with this year’s general election on Nov. 3.

“I knew that a lot of registrars needed help and were worried,” Carlos, 20, of Uncasville said of her decision to become a poll worker this year. “Robin Marquand reached out to me ahead of the August primary because they needed people. I said yes. I wanted to help the town.”

Marquand is the Democratic registrar for the town of Montville. Carlos added that she also viewed the experience as an opportunity. Before the August primary election, she had only voted once since she’d turned 18, and she hoped to be more actively involved in the political process.

Carlos, a sophomore at Three Rivers Community College, enjoyed her stint as a poll worker in August so much, she agreed to work the November election as well.

“At first I was really nervous because the one time I went, there were a bunch of older people, but everyone was super helpful, and we all worked together as a team,” she said. “There was a good amount of younger people there, I wasn’t even the youngest one. My cousin was there, and she’s 16. There were other people her age.”

While Carlos said everyone had their designated roles — she checked people in at the entrance, and her cousin cleaned an area each time after a voter left, for example — and they switched roles if need be, such as if someone had to go to the bathroom.

Her day as a poll worker prompted Carlos to try to get other young people involved. On social media she encouraged friends to become poll workers. She noted that she made $225 for her 6 a.m.-8 p.m. shift.

“I’ve been trying to share with people my age: You don’t know how much local politics affects you,” Carlos said. “I started really caring about it when I turned 18 because at Three Rivers they always have voter registration. So I registered to vote at school, I learned about local leadership, and I saw, ‘Wow, they have a lot of power.’ A lot of stuff doesn’t even go to state or national politicians. These are the people that are representing us and making the moves and changes in our area.”

Being a poll worker is only a small part of Carlos’s life. She works in the office of Three Rivers President Mary Jukoski; she’s a member of Montville’s Democratic Town Committee; she’s an intern to Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz; she is training to be a minister and she works on the side as her grandfather’s administrative assistant. Her grandparents, Johnny and Sharon Burns, are pastors at New Life Christian Fellowship Church in Ledyard. She lives in Uncasville with her parents, sister and brother.

Carlos plans on transferring from Three Rivers after this year to a four-year school to get her bachelor’s degree. She’s deciding whether to focus on business or political science.

As for interacting with a large number of people during a pandemic, Carlos said she feels safe.

“At the primary they had so many cleaning supplies,” she said. “After every single person, my cousin would go in and disinfect the whole area. We had Plexiglas at the table, and they had masks for us, and everybody had their own hand sanitizer and wipes, so I’m not really concerned about that because everything was super clean and disinfected every second.”

The pandemic altered this year’s presidential primaries and other elections throughout the country, causing long lines, canceled, postponed and more expensive elections, delayed results and expanded vote-by-mail options. The November election is expected to be busier than the August election.

Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill launched a poll worker recruitment program because of the possible loss of at-risk seniors who decide against working the polls this year. The program is described as a campaign to sign up and train new and young poll workers specifically for the general election. Merrill also joined the National Association of Secretaries of State, among other organizations, in promoting a recruitment effort called “Poll Worker, Esq.” It’s meant to appeal to attorneys and law students to become poll workers.

Although she has heard people bemoan political apathy among young people, Carlos said she doesn’t exactly consider herself an anomaly.

“I didn’t even know about the poll worker opportunity until I registered to vote. If you’re not a voter, you probably don’t know you can be a poll worker,” she said. “It’s just about looking for the information. When I first voted, I saw a lot of older people, but I also saw one person around my age. I was like, ‘I didn’t know younger people did this.’”

s.spinella@theday.com

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