Isabella Pols, 20, feeds early ballots into a tabulation machine on Thursday at the Brunswick Town Hall. Pols, who is taking a year off college, is one of a group of younger poll workers helping sort thousands of early ballots this year. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

BRUNSWICK, Maine — All that leads up to Election Day is no longer a mystery for 20-year-old Isabella Pols.

She knows everything that happens to a ballot once it arrives at the town offices: from the initial process of checking a voter off, alphabetizing it and storing it in a vault, to when election workers open the envelopes and eventually feed them into a tabulation machine to await counting.

Pols was one of the younger workers when she first took a job working the July 14 primary, a gig she initially picked up because Town Clerk Fran Smith roped her in. She now leads a team of young workers, including high schoolers, who have been the behind-the-scenes engine making sure every ballot is ready for Tuesday’s election.

The town started processing 11,000 absentee ballots last Tuesday. By Thursday, they had readied 7,000 for counting on election night as the coronavirus pandemic has led to record shares of absentee voting ahead of the presidential election.

It was just a job for Pols at first. But with the pandemic upending a fraught election year, she and other young workers who have stepped up in place of older people this year say being involved in the process has made them feel more connected to politics.

“It’s been nice to know more about it,” Pols said. “This election is important to me and it’s cool to be involved in a way others aren’t.”

From left (clockwise): Ben Doherty, 24, looks at an early ballot while sorting them at Brunswick’s town hall on Thursday; Caitlin Kelly, 18, (left) and Ben Doherty, 24, open, flatten and sort early ballots at Brunswick’s town hall; Jessica Cleary-Reuning, a freshman at UMaine, registers voter Ryan Perry at Council Chambers in Orono on Friday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett & Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

Pols and other young people have been a boon to local officials who have long struggled to find election workers. Two years ago in the nation’s oldest state by median age, 88 percent of Maine poll workers were older than 40 and 60 percent were older than 60. Officials feared a coming shortage as those volunteers aged with few younger people stepping in to replace them.

But more look to have stepped up this year amid the coronavirus, which is particularly dangerous for older people. Voting groups have been working to encourage younger demographics to step up and help out. Gov. Janet Mills also loosened election laws to allow municipalities to seek poll workers from other counties if they could not find enough in town.

Smith said her young crew has been “instrumental” in getting Brunswick’s ballots ready.

“Not to take anything away from the other workers, but they’re really good with the [tabulation] machines,” she said. “They get the ballots in really fast.”

Some younger workers are able to do the job because the pandemic has disrupted other plans. Pols is taking a gap year from her classics studies at Connecticut College. Co-worker Ben Doherty, 24, is taking online chemical engineering classes at the University of South Florida.

Doherty, who has worked elections before in town, is now serving as an assistant clerk in Brunswick and will be checking in voters on Election Day. It is an odd and welcome change for him to work with people even younger than him.

“I always felt older because I would usually be the youngest person in the room when I worked other elections,” he said. “Now it’s more like working with peers.”

Madeline Hanlon, 20, a junior at the University of Maine from Rhode Island studying elementary and early childhood special education, started volunteering in Orono because the school has a program with the town to get young people involved in the political process.

From top left (clockwise): Abigail Grunwald, a freshman at the University of Maine, alphabetizes absentee ballots at Council Chambers in Orono on Friday; Jacob Chaplin (right), a freshman at the University of Maine, assists Shelly Crosby, Orono town clerk, with incoming check-in of voters on Friday at Council Chambers in Orono; Crosby, Orono town clerk, has trained numerous college students who are working or volunteering as elections workers at Council Chambers in Orono; Chaplin assists Crosby with incoming check-in of voters. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

She said she used to feel like politics had nothing to do with her. Working behind the scenes has changed that, and this year feels even more important because of the energy surrounding the election, she said.

“Everyone knows what is going on,” Hanlon said. “It’s not something you can ignore. Because of how accessible it is, you almost need an excuse not to vote.”

Jacob Chaplin, a first-year political science student at UMaine, said he felt motivated to help out because of concerns about the pandemic’s effects on older people. He will be one of the workers checking people in on Election Day and handing out ballots.

He was surprised about how many layers of security are involved in processing ballots, but it made him feel better when he cast his own before going to work the polls on Thursday. Chaplin said he was not surprised to work alongside younger people this year and thought maybe there was a chance the trend would continue.

“I think a lot of younger people are more politically aware this year between the schools closing down and the nationwide protests,” he said. “They’re seeing the pandemic play out right in front of them.”

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