Texas College Program Engages Young Voters, Offers Election Poll Work Experience

EPCC launched its Tejano Pollworker Fellows program this spring semester and its goal is to promote civic engagement as well as voter education.

Andrea Dominguez, left, and Mayeli Robles are among the El Paso Community College students involved with the Tejano Pollworker Fellows program that promotes voter education and civic engagement among young adult voters. (Daniel Perez/El Paso Matters)

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There are many reasons that young adults in El Paso County do not vote, but a program piloted by El Paso Community College will try to improve the situation through peer communication to include having students serve as paid nonpartisan poll workers at election sites.

The college launched its Tejano Pollworker Fellows program this spring semester. Its goal is to promote civic engagement and voter education, which includes basic information such as how to register, select a party affiliation, read a sample ballot, use a voting machine and the general electoral process.

“I know it sounds very simple, but people are afraid of looking silly and embarrassing themselves because they don’t know what to do as a voter,” said Crystal Robert, associate professor of speech communication at EPCC and the fellows program director.

A few young adults at EPCC shared reasons why their age group does not vote. They include divisive politics, lack of inspiring politicians, and being too busy with work, school and family to study issues and candidates. Some grew up in families that preached voting was a waste of time, while others were discouraged after their cause or candidate lost.

Robert said her plan is to register over the next two years at least 50 students per semester who will train as poll workers and, working with the County Elections Department, place them at polling locations. As part of their duties, they’ll learn how to set up a polling site to include the voting machines, confirm identification, hand out ballots and offer any necessary assistance.

Robert said that it is important for young people to see others their age at the polls to give them a sense of belonging.

Several fellows already served as poll workers during the March 5 primary and more will be trained before the May 28 runoff.

An election worker initials the successful check-in of a sample voter during a training by the El Paso County Elections Department ahead of the March 5 primary, Monday, Feb. 12. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso natives Mayeli Robles and Andrea Dominguez are among the initial EPCC poll worker fellows. They agreed that the experience was interesting, fun and lucrative. Election poll workers earn $14.50 per hour, and that wage will go up to $15 an hour in November. Participants also are eligible for a $200 stipend through the program.

During a recent conversation at EPCC’s Valle Verde campus, the two women spoke about their Election Day experiences, as well as how the program enhanced their political awareness and desire to share that knowledge with other young adults.

Robles, 19, is a biology major who graduated from El Dorado High School in 2022. She worked at the Family Youth Services Center polling site, 6314 Delta Drive, and spent much of her shift encouraging center visitors to vote. There were not that many young voters among the 103 people who cast a ballot there.

“I thought I was going to be really drained and overworked, but just seeing people exercise their right to vote, and being happy that a young person’s (helping) at the voting site made me happy,” said Robles, who works in the campus’ Writing Center. “It made me feel like I was doing something good for the community.”

Dominguez, 21, is a multidisciplinary studies major who joined the program to be more involved in the community. She has made several voter awareness presentations to EPCC classes where she encourages students to make the time to study issues and candidates.

“Being able to use my voice in a way that actually matters is really important to me,” said Dominguez, a 2021 Montwood High School graduate.

For the primary, she helped at the EPCC Rio Grande Campus voting site in The Little Temple, 906 El Paso St. Dominguez said she was thrilled to see the occasional young voter, but was just as happy to see any voter because there were times when the place was empty. The Elections Department recorded 156 votes cast at that location.

Dominguez said that the program’s value went beyond learning election law and how to be a poll worker. She said it taught her to be less judgmental of others’ political opinions. Beyond her classwork, and her campus job with Student Technology Services, she supports the League of Women Voters of El Paso. She called voting a way to communicate about important issues.

A civic responsibility

As someone familiar with the decline in young voters, Richard Pineda, chair and associate professor of communication at the University of Texas at El Paso, said that any opportunity to engage college-aged voters is important.

“These efforts remind students what’s at stake and are also a gentle nudge about civic responsibility,” said Pineda, a longtime political commentator.

“Often students are unaware of timelines for voter registration and the rules governing participation in an election. This is a great way to get that information out.”

Ricardo Sanchez, 20, said he grew up in a family that did not value elections.

Although registered to vote, he was unfamiliar with the process and was too intimidated by the unknown to participate.

“I was discouraged before because I believed that (my vote) didn’t mean anything,” said Sanchez, a 2022 Clint High School graduate.

Sanchez, an associate of arts in teaching major at EPCC, said his girlfriend explained the importance of elections, and the ABC’s of voting to him earlier this year.

As a result, he voted for the first time in March. He said it felt good to be involved politically.

Help America Vote

El Paso County has 503,059 registered voters. Of that number, approximately 120,000 are under age 30. According to the county’s Elections Department, only 3,325 of those potential voters cast a ballot on March 5. That’s almost 3%.

Those numbers are among the reasons why the U.S. Election Assistance Commission awarded the college a two-year, $49,000 grant to establish the program. EPCC is one of 14 national recipients of the Help America Vote College Program Poll Worker Grants. Awards in this category went to institutions of higher education as well as state and county governments.

EAC leaders said the Help America Vote program, made possible through a Congressional allocation of $1 million, comes at a key time for election offices across the country. It estimates that about 1 million poll workers are needed for a presidential election.

The commission awarded the grants in early February. EPCC started its program at the end of that month.

The Election Administration and Voting Survey reported that approximately 14% of poll workers in the 2022 general election were between the ages of 18 and 40. That is why the organization believes it is important to recruit, train and retain younger poll workers.

Brenda Negrete, who oversees the Elections Department’s poll worker recruitment and placement, said the fellows program will help ensure that her office can provide the necessary services to voters at the polls.

Negrete said she has a list of 500 trained poll workers, and expects to need more than 400 of them for the Nov. 5 general election. She said she would like to have a few more trained workers because additional personnel often are needed at polling sites or the department headquarters for elections.

The training, done at sites throughout the county, takes about four to six hours. Topics include election code, familiarity with election documents and voting systems, as well as how to set up a polling location. Participants also go through various mock scenarios. Negrete said some virtual training is allowed under certain circumstances.

“They need to know the do’s and don’ts,” said Melissa Martin, Elections Department information and resources coordinator, and the lead trainer.

This article first appeared on El Paso Matters and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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