Micah Robinson, a sophomore at TIDE Academy in Menlo Park, is doing something good for democracy this election season. But it's not campaigning for any candidate or political party: It's getting the word out about a serious national need for poll workers.
With the coronavirus still in full force as the Nov. 3 election approaches, Robinson said, many senior citizens who traditionally work the polls will elect to stay home. That's where Poll Hero, a national organization that Robinson joined this fall, comes in.
"The Poll Hero project is trying to get high school and college students to work the polls," he said. "They are less at risk, and they can help out."
When Robinson heard about Poll Hero through a friend, he was immediately excited about the idea.
"I've always been interested in democracy, and found this to be a really good cause," he said.
At 15 years old, Robinson is just below the 16-year-old cutoff age for being able to work at his local election station. But Poll Hero enlisted his other talents — video editing and social media marketing — and made him part of the team. Now he's helping to promote the project, which has spread across the nation.
"Elections can't happen without poll workers. And most poll workers are older and at a higher risk of complications from Covid ... Now is the time for young people across America to step up, serve our country, and make sure the 2020 election is a success," according to Poll Hero's mission statement on its website.
The organization cites places like Milwaukee — where on primary day 175 out of 180 polling stations were closed because there weren't enough poll workers — and Philadelphia, where 8,500 poll workers are needed, yet only 2,500 signed up to work.
The organization has launched a massive campaign that spread quickly across the country, bolstered by social media, since July, according to co-founder Avi Stopper. "The goal was to recruit a thousand poll workers and we reached that in a week," he said. "Now we actually just reached over 10,000 high school and college students recruited."
Stopper, who works in tech startups in Denver, said he was surprised when he came across the poll worker shortage. He had originally started a campaign to support vote-by-mail efforts, but he and his team's research discovered that the real need was a lack of poll workers, and Poll Hero was born.
He said that the success of Poll Hero is owed largely to young people like Robinson, who spearheaded the promotion efforts using only free social media services.
"We had literally zero budget," he said with a laugh. "It's all through the technology savviness of the young people on our team ... It's fascinating to see the convergence of the startup idea with the pure hustle of young people and their ability to tap into networks and create messages that are compelling."
Poll Hero is a dispersed project, started by Stopper along with a group of Princeton University and Denver East High School students. They now have a 75-member team in states across the country.
The project itself is simple. Once high school or college students arrive at the website — likely by way of Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter — they sign up and the group helps connect them with their local election official and guides them through the process of signing up to work the polls. Poll Hero also sends frequent reminders and updates to keep recruits engaged as November approaches.
In many jurisdictions, young people can even be paid for working the polls, Stopper said, and it looks good on resumes or college applications.
Robinson said that he plans to stay involved up through the election, and that the project has been a great outlet for him while having to stay home during these unusual times.
"For me, this is a meaningful experience, something I can do to help out," he said. "I'm meeting people, and doing my part for democracy."