A Case Study in College Poll Worker Recruitment: Chicago, 2014-15

Devin Race
Chicago Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law


Election jurisdictions have strong reason to recruit college students to work at the polls in order to provide a service learning opportunity for the students and increase the quality of elections. This paper uses data from the largest college poll worker program to date (over 1500 students, with around 50% from community colleges), run in Chicago over the course of three elections. The scale of the program and empirical methods used make it unique in the current literature on these programs. The results show that bilingual students and community college students were uniquely engaged, email and in-person recruitment was the best way to reach students, and that election efficiency was improved, as measured by the time it took precincts with college students to perform technology-intensive tasks. This research guides service-learning practitioners seeking to run and advocate for student poll worker programs.


Poll workers are the backbone of the voting process in America. They are the people responsible for checking in voters, ensuring that election procedures are followed, and delivering the results to the election authority. College student poll worker recruitment has positive benefits both as service learning for the students and as a way to improve election efficiency.

Students learn the role of “street-level bureaucrats” who are responsible for the details and decisions involved in the final stages of implementing law (Cobb 2006). Recent randomized field research also suggests that participating in a civic activity like this—even if it is done without previous political interest—acts as a catalyst for adopting new civic attitudes and potentially greater civic participation (Olson 2015).

The civic engagement of serving as a poll worker is especially important for the traditionally less engaged population of community colleges, who were a focus of the program in Chicago that is studied in this paper. Seventy two percent of the 120,000 students at the City Colleges of Chicago are Black or Latino and 69-92% receive some sort of financial aid (Diversity 2015, College Navigator 2015). Being low-income or a person of color (and especially both together) is associated with reduced civic participation (Frasure & Williams 2002). That disparity is fueled by differences in who gets asked to participate: African-Americans and Latinos are less likely than whites to be asked to engage in civic life (“Unequal Opportunities” 2006). Election authorities and program managers can choose who they ask to participate, and they should take the opportunity to ask for the participation of those who are traditionally less engaged. College student recruitment programs provide that opportunity.

President Obama’s Commission on Election Administration—established in response to widespread administration problems in the 2012 election—recommended that election jurisdictions recruit college poll workers (Bauer & Ginsberg 2014). According to the Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC’s) 2014 National Election and Voting Survey (EAVS), 45% of jurisdictions report that finding sufficient poll workers is somewhat or very difficult (EAVS 2014). The technological sophistication of voting machines demands new skills from poll workers, which makes recruitment even more difficult, and many older poll workers express lower levels of comfort with election technology (Cobb 2006).

Recruiting college students to be poll workers taps a new source of poll workers, and they may also bring skills needed to deal with the modern technology that they grew up with.

This paper evaluates a college student recruitment program run in Chicago for the 2014 General Election and the 2015 Municipal and Runoff Elections. The non-profit organization the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (CLCCRUL) went to college campuses to recruit the students and delivered the applications to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners (Board of Elections) which trained the students and placed them at sites on Election Day. Students were paid $170 for attending a 3.5-hour training session plus working all day on Election Day. Students were placed into the city’s standard poll worker job, which involves setting up the polling place at the start of the day, checking in voters and handing out ballots, and then packing up and transmitting the election results from their precinct at the end of the day.

CLCCRUL recruited at every college and university in Chicago, with an emphasis on community colleges—the program collected 3,535 applications and 1,578 students served on election day (49% of whom were community college students). Over 500 students served two or more times. The recruitment program was managed by one full-time staff member at CLCCRUL and a variety of outreach methods were employed to contact students, from emails to in-person events. A full breakdown of methods is included in Part V.

This program is unique because it is larger than any of the programs funded by the Election Assistance Commission’s grant program for projects of this kind, and most likely larger than any such program to date (compared to all the federally funded programs for which reports are available (“Help America Vote College Program” 2015)). Moreover, students were tracked over the course of three elections in the same program, allowing researchers to measure factors associated with remaining committed, not just with showing up once.

Research Questions

There is currently little evidence to back up the claims of the benefits of college poll workers and to guide program managers seeking to run these programs, aside from small-scale reports and subjective survey results (“Central Connecticut” 2013; “Central Ohio” 2010; Cobb 2006; “Help America Vote College Program at the University of Baltimore” 2009; Getachew & Senteno 2008; “Golden Key” 2009; “A Guidebook” 2007; “Henry Ford” 2009; Israel et al. 2006; Jones 2009; “New York Public Interest” 2009; “Show-Me New” 2009). This paper supplements the existing literature by using the extensive dataset from the Chicago Program to answer the following questions:

  • Which recruitment methods are the most effective for reaching students and getting them to show up on Election Day?
    • The best recruitment methods were email, in-person recruitment tables, and referral from a friend (in that order of priority)
  • What types of students are likely to serve as poll workers and to remain committed to further service?
    • Bilingual students and community college students were uniquely likely to be highly committed.
  • What impact do college student programs have on the efficiency of election administration?
    • Students were able to solve staffing shortfalls in three city wards and were able to do technology-intensive tasks more quickly.

The questions and answers here have practical implications for program managers and election jurisdictions, but they will also be of interest to scholars interested in seeing what this program tells us about patterns in who is civically engaged among American youth.

Recruitment Methods

At most schools, the recruiter attempted to use every method, often starting with an in-person event and then using the time on campus to connect with professors and administrators.

Figure 1: Number of Poll Workers by Recruitment Method

This shows the number of students who actually served on Election Day, broken down by recruitment method. Recruitment table should be distinguished from career/service/involvement event. Both involve standing at a table, but career/service/involvement events involve many other people also standing at tables nearby.

Emails were more effective than the other recruitment methods. Emails sent to the entire student body were the most effective, although program managers should pursue every channel (the Chicago Program also sent out through student service/activity offices, academic departments, student government, and public relations staff). The 480 students recruitment through this method were recruited through a total of 20-40 emails sent out each cycle.

The second best recruitment method was a tabling. Program managers should note that big activities fairs were no more effective (and often less effective) as just setting up a table in a well-trafficked area of campus. Students at the activities/involvement events were likely in the mindset of eating the free candy and signing up for everything without much thought to whether they’d actually follow through. It is advisable to do a tabling event of some kind even if the program managers have already sent an email to students: the Chicago Program often found students who hadn’t heard of the program even after sending out an email.

The third most effective method of recruiting poll workers was through referrals from friends. The Chicago Program offered incentives for referrals: Anyone who recruited a friend was entered into a raffle and the person who recruited the most friends won a prize. These prizes were modest ($30-$50 cash or gift cards) and required only the time necessary to send those emails and to update students about who was currently winning the “best recruiter” prize. It was a non-time intensive way to get over a hundred additional poll workers.

Program managers and election jurisdictions should know that many college students who sign up initially don’t show up, and should plan accordingly (or find a way to re-confirm those who have signed up). Regardless of recruitment method, around 40-50% of students who signed up actually turned up on Election Day (except for students recruited through involvement events, which had even higher rates of attrition).

These results contradict some commonly held assumptions about recruitment that exist in the literature right now and point toward effective strategies for recruitment.

Most of the reports and research about college student poll workers (and poll workers in general) claim that “face-to-face recruitment and personal contact are the most effective and successful recruitment methods” (“A Guidebook” 2007). Similar claims are repeated in many of the existing research reports (“Central Ohio” 2010; “Golden Key” 2009; “Show Me New” 2009). That claim is backed up by research on other sorts of political activity, like protest or demonstrations, where repeated empirical study shows that personal connection truly is influential (McAdam 1986; Schussman & Soule 2005).

But those results are misapplied in the context of recruiting college poll workers. Non-in-person methods recruited more people, and the applicants they brought in were just as likely to show up after applying as those recruited through personal contact. It could be true that personal contact is more influential than email for motivating a randomly selected person to show up at the polls. However, program managers do not have a practical interest in maximally motivating randomly selected people. Instead, they have a practical interest in using methods that reach a large number of people who turn up on Election Day.

In the case of more ideological political activity, personal contact may be crucially important because one needs to be motivated into action. But that kind of motivation is less important for poll workers. Students get paid to work at the polls, which may be all they need to motivate them after being informed of the opportunity (Israel et al. 2006).

The order of the recruitment methods in Figure 1 is the rough order of priority that program managers should follow in planning recruitment. The methods with the highest volume of applicants were also time-effective: sending out an email has an immediate huge reach. Standing at a table in an area of campus with heavy foot traffic produced a very reliable 50 applications per two-hour engagement.

Civic Engagement and Student Attributes

Civic engagement differs according to various features of a student’s background. These patterns should be helpful to guide program manager’s recruitment priorities. Prioritization decisions can be made on the basis of normative concern for who ought to be offered this opportunity or the pragmatic need to recruit large numbers of people. The results presented here show that these normative and pragmatic concerns are both well-served by recruiting community college students and bilingual students.

CLCCRUL was particularly interested in recruiting community college students as an effort to close the civic engagement gap that exists by race, income, and level of education. As a pragmatic matter, program managers have an interest in recruiting students who will serve in multiple elections because those students are a better return on the investment necessary to bring them in. Community college students were the best source of poll workers who would commit to serving multiple times after serving once: 51% of community college students who served in one election served in another one (329/651) compared to only 32% (219/688) of other students.

Several factors could explain these results:

  • Community college students are more likely to be from the local area, and so may feel a stronger connection to it (“College Navigator” 2015).
  • Community college students may be more interested in earning money for the day than students from four-year colleges who may have families paying their way (“Increasing College Opportunity” 2014).
  • The staff at Chicago’s City Colleges were excellent recruiting partners. At several of the colleges, the Chicago Program was able to recruit via a recruitment table and a campus-wide email for both election cycles.

Recruitment of community college students thus promotes civic engagement in underrepresented groups and is a way to find students who will commit to multiple terms of service.

To support a healthy democracy, we must have bilingual workers at the polls to ensure that voters who speak a language other than English have equal access to their right to vote. Bilingual workers are also legally required in some jurisdictions by section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Moreover, there exists a civic engagement gap in immigrant populations similar to that for African-Americans and people of color, which is produced in part by the failure of traditional civic institutions to ask for the participation of immigrant communities (DeSipio 2011).

Many election jurisdictions struggle with bilingual worker recruitment (EAVS 2014, 255-58). College campuses are excellent sources of bilingual students. In Chicago, 25% of college poll workers were bilingual (378 students—the data does not allow us to know whether the bilingual students are immigrants or what their first language is). There are many culture-specific academic departments, offices, and student groups on campuses that make it easy to find bilingual students who are excited to serve their community. The results also show that these students are particularly likely to turn out multiple times and to be highly engaged.

Figure 2 displays the engagement of bilingual students by showing that a higher percentage of those students turned out at least once, served in all three elections, and were “highly engaged.” Here, “highly engaged” is measured by whether the student provided in-depth answers in response to an optional survey aimed at improving the program. It turns out that in the Chicago Program, the differences between bilingual and monolingual students was being driven by the Spanish-speaking students, who comprised the large majority of bilingual students.

Figure 2: Spanish-speaking Student Engagement

  Serve 1+ Times Serve All Three Times Highly Engaged
  No. % No. % No. %
Spanish-speaking 279 53.1% 43 72.9% 50 17.9%
All others 1,090 44% 128 63.7% 148 13.6%
Percentage Increase for Spanish-Speaking Students Over Others   +9.2%   +9.2%   +4.3%

This table shows the number of students who met each engagement benchmark, and the percentage within that group that met the benchmark. Students were designated as “highly engaged” if they gave in-depth responses to an optional survey. Across all these measures of participation, Spanish-speaking students were more engaged.

An explanation for higher levels of engagement is that bilingual students felt connected to the community they were serving and felt that serving as a translator was a vital service. The following student survey responses are illustrative. Students are listed with their university and the neighborhood where they served:

For me the best part of my day being an election judge was being able to assist Spanish-speaking citizens and also see the enthusiasm in people coming out to vote… that is what [influences] us young adults to be involved in politics and expand our knowledge on it.

(Northeastern Illinois University Student), Little Village

I was very excited to be part of Student Leaders in Elections and to be a judge because I recently became a US citizen. I was influenced by seeing how my Mexican community needs  more involvement in the elections and signed up as a bilingual judge.

(Harold Washington College Student), Pilsen

Even though the ballots had Spanish translations, I enjoyed reading the ballots for those who did not understand English or were unable to read small letters.

(DePaul University Student), Humboldt Park

Being one of the election judges in my precinct showed the difference that I made in my community as I was able to help both voters that spoke English and Spanish.

(DePaul University Student), Back of the Yards

Though we do not know how many of the bilingual students were immigrants, the quotes from students above are consistent with research on civic participation in immigrant populations. Analysis of National Exit Poll and Census data finds that immigrants who become citizens are more likely to vote than U.S.-born citizens and second- or third-generation immigrant citizens (DeSipio 2011, 1189-213). People who went through the onerous naturalization process have done more to gain their right to participate, and so may be more inclined to exercise it.

Jurisdictions already have clear reasons to recruit bilingual students in order to ensure equal access to the vote. The results from the Chicago Program add another reason: bilingual students are more likely than others to follow through to Election Day after applying, to remain committed for multiple cycles, and to be highly engaged on the day.

A regression analysis can help determine which recruitment methods or students characteristics are significant in causing the results outlined above. A complete explanation of the quantitative method and the limitations and caveats for interpreting the results can be found in the full version of this research (Race 2015).

The regression is especially helpful for isolating factors that surprisingly were not significant. Neither GPA nor affiliation with a political party (as opposed to no affiliation) appeared to be significant in any of the regressions. It might have been expected that people who have a party identification might be more likely to commit to more service, or that students with a higher GPA might be more likely to apply only if they were confident they could serve, but that does not seem to pan out in practice.

There are some notably significant factors as well, however. Once controlling for age, college, and in-person versus online contact, the difference in the likelihood of Spanish-speakers showing up three times is even larger than it appeared to be in the simple comparison. Largely, though, the regression confirms the comparisons made before: most recruitment methods have about the same turnout rate from application to Election Day and Spanish-speaking and community college students are more engaged in the ways outlined before, even when controlling for other factors about the students.

Election Efficiency

This section presents evidence that college students increase election efficiency in two ways: by working efficiently with technology and by staffing shortfalls.

Earlier reports have suggested, anecdotally, that college students might be the most comfortable with new voting technologies given that they have used modern gadgets since childhood (Cobb 2006). This is the first attempt to use empirical methods to test that hypothesis. That hypothesis is tested using the data from the Chicago Program on the amount of time it took precincts to compile and convey the election results from a precinct back to Election Central after the polls closed for the night (“Results Transmission”).

If students helped precincts transmit results at the end of the night more quickly, it is likely that they were more efficient on other technical tasks throughout the day too, because Results Transmission is one of the most technologically involved parts of the job, requiring poll workers to deal with every piece of voting technology (“Judge of Election” 2014). In the survey, several people said that they found Results Transmission to be one of the toughest parts of the process and one even suggested that there should be a separate training session just for the end of day tasks. As such, efficiency in Results Transmission is likely a good proxy for general technological efficiency (the best way to measure this would be to do a polling place observation study where poll workers were timed doing various tasks, a possible project for further research).

Speedy results transmission is also independently valued by election administrators. Jim Allen, Communications Director for the Board of Elections, said “accurate and quick reporting of results fits with the goal… of transparency. Healthy election systems are marked by participation, transparency, accuracy, and security. The stakeholders—voters and campaigns—tend to have more confidence in outcomes if they can see results reported swiftly that can be matched up with participation data from in-precinct, absentee, and early voting” (Allen 2015).

The data from the Chicago Program shows that precincts with college students transmitted results more quickly.  This conclusion was drawn by comparing the Results Transmission times in the 2014 and 2015 elections with those of the 2012 General Election to see whether precincts with college students showed greater improvement than those without students (a difference-in-differences design). Since many factors influence the efficiency of a polling place, this design is helpful because it only compares each precinct to that exact same precinct in 2012. This also helps account for the fact that students’ assignment to precincts was not random: students could choose on their application where they wanted to work (either by specifying a ward or by saying they wanted to be near their college or home) and the Board of Elections assigned students according to their needs in various areas. A complete description of the methodology and its limitations is available in the full report (Race 2015).

Students were responsible for saving 4-12 minutes during Results Transmission, which corresponds to a 9-32% improvement relative to the average transmission time of around 30 minutes. Figure 3 shows the percentage improvements for precincts with one or two college students on each of the Election Days in 2014-15. There were a few hundred precincts with college students in each of the comparison groups for each of the elections.

Figure 3: Percentage Improvement in Time to Transmit Results for Precincts with Students

Two Students
One Student

* indicates that these differences were statistically significant, explained more in the full report (Race 2015).

Figure 3 shows the estimated percentage decrease in transmission time that can be attributed to the presence of college students in the precinct. The percentages are the result of a difference-in-differences design: the precincts with college students improved more since 2012 than the precincts without college students, and the numbers reported here are based on the differences in the level of improvement. Each difference is shown as a percentage of the average results transmission time for that election. The importance of college students is suggested by the fact that the effect increases substantially when a second college student is in the polling place.

The fact that precincts with college students transmitted results faster supports the hypothesis that college students (and probably other young people) have a comfort with technology that makes them assets to a modern polling place. This quantitative finding is also confirmed by a few survey responses that discussed the end of the day. This response by a student from DePaul University is a good example:

The other judges […] had no desire to work with the technology involved in transmitting the results, so that fell solely on my shoulders.

This line of explanation is further supported by the increased time savings when two students were present. Two students who each had some level of technological comfort could work together to problem-solve. Plus, students may not have felt comfortable offering their suggestions without another student around to back them up: the two-student program was started because after the General Election, students reported feeling like they were the odd one out in their precinct and that their suggestions were not taken seriously.

The comparison of averages between precincts with and without students holds up at higher levels of statistical rigor. The full report runs this same comparison as a regression and finds nearly identity results (Race 2015).

The conclusion on results transmission times is that, barring unobserved explanations for the variation, there are substantively and statistically significant results that make it plausible that college students contribute to increased efficiency both at the end of the day and on similar technical tasks throughout the day.

In addition to reducing results transmission time, students are able to serve in a wide range of polling places. The traditional pool of poll workers consists of longtime community residents who have served for many years. There are many advantages to this reliable group of workers, but one disadvantage is that those people tend to want to serve in their own community and so cannot move to other precincts to cover staffing shortfalls. Footloose college students can be sent where they are needed, and the placements for the 2015 Municipal Election took advantage of that.

The Board of Elections identified four wards in the city that consistently had shortages of poll workers. All of these wards had six or more teams of extra standby poll workers deployed to fill in for 2014 General Election. For the 2015 Municipal Election, we were able to completely eliminate the need for standby poll workers by fully staffing the shortfall with college students in three out of the four targeted wards (the shortfall was not solved in one of the wards, but the number of standby teams was still significantly reduced).

Two strategies were employed to get students to areas in need:

  • Campus Program: The University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics provided transportation and support for its students to go anywhere in Chicago. These students were able to work in a ward twelve miles away that would have been inaccessible by public transit in the early morning.
  • Voluntary Sign-Up: Students were told during the application that it would be helpful to the City if they chose to work in particular wards. They were given the incentive that they could name a friend that they would like to work with if they chose to work in one of those wards. In total, 99 of the poll workers on Election Day were placed into areas of need through this program.

For jurisdictions considering implementing these strategies, the voluntary sign-up strategy took minimal effort. A notice was posted on the website and students indicated on their application where they wanted to be placed. The Campus Program strategy could be used by election jurisdictions that can develop a strong partnership with a local university. Otherwise, the logistical costs might be overwhelming. The Chicago Program’s Campus Program would not have been possible without the partnership of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, which handled the transportation costs, Election Day meals for students, and the arrangement of all logistics. In whichever form, though, using college students to shore up worker shortages is a way to take advantage of a unique characteristic of student workers in the service of improving elections.

Action Plan

This sectionsummarizes the research results, lessons, and tips for program directors seeking to run a college student recruitment program. The main practical implication for program managers from this report are that they should target community college students and bilingual students in particular, and should use emails and in-person tabling as their primary recruitment strategies. The following plan goes into more depth on each stage of the process.

Starting early (months in advance) is ideal, and recommended by most program managers. However, a late start date does not doom the program. The Chicago Program did not begin any work until a month and a half before the recruitment deadline.

  • Set a recruitment target, informed by the expected attrition rate (around 50%).
  • Establish messaging. In the Chicago Program, we decided to promote the opportunity to improve the democratic process as well as the opportunity to get fairly good pay for a day’s work in order to catch all types of students.
  • Map out the recruitment pipeline to make sure that the system for students signing up, having their applications approved, signing up for training, and being placed on Election Day, are all clear so that you can plan ahead for the next step.
    • In particular, the Chicago Program found that the Board of Elections was not planning for a high attrition rate, and in the first cycle of the program, they placed students in polling places before they confirmed that the students would attend.
  • Determine research goals so that you know what information you want to collect about students to analyze later, and build this into the system.
  • Develop visual identity through posters, website, flyers, etc.
  • Ensure data quality in the establishment of the system for gathering information about the students by requiring confirmation of email addresses, making it possible to edit responses without submitting a duplicate application, and setting up required fields.

The study also gives guidance on recruiting college student poll workers. These methods are listed in order of priority, based on the research on the Chicago Program.

  • Identify the people who can send emails to large groups of students. This may be a dean, academic advisor, department chair, student government president, extracurricular office, career office, or publicity director. These people can be hard to reach and should be pursued through email, phone, and just showing up to their offices.
    • Tailor your messaging: Many of these people (especially at larger universities) will feel that their students are already bombarded with emails and will need to be persuaded that it’s worth promoting this program. For cultural/diversity centers, you can emphasize the program as a way to close the civic engagement gap. For language departments, translators are needed to ensure equal democratic access. For publicity directors, successful recruitment numbers are a way to publicly tout the civic engagement of their students. For the career office, students will have a government service line on their resume.
  • Book in-person recruitment opportunities. The timeline of November elections will put recruitment at the beginning of the school year, so there will likely be involvement fairs where you can set up a booth. However, remember that such fairs have low yields of students who actually serve, so also book recruitment table opportunities outside of an event context that will allow better interactions with interested students.
  • Reach bilingual students through student cultural groups, language departments, ethnic studies departments, religious organizations, and offices of international students.
  • Use peer motivation. Being recruited by a friend is just as good at finding students who will turn out, and it is an easy way to increase numbers. Use “affiliate marketing” techniques like entering students into a raffle if they refer a friend and offering a prize to the person who recruits the most people.
  • Pursue other strategies. The strategies recommended above were the most successful and time-effective for the Chicago program. The other strategies employed included:
  • Distribution of flyers and posters
  • Online job boards and ads (Indeed, LinkedIn, Idealist, Facebook)
  • Presentations to classes and student groups (including classes where the professor offered extra credit)
  • Creation of a dedicated website (slechicago.org)
  • Posting on campus social media
  • Incorporation into service-learning curricula

For further ideas, see the EAC’s guide (“A Guidebook” 2007).

To give a sense of the amount of work involved to get the results in the Chicago Program: For each election, the recruiter held around 25 in-person recruitment events at campuses around the city and contacted 50-70 college professors and administrators to help promote the program.

Finally, the Chicago project provides lessons for follow-up with college student poll workers.

  • Keep in continuous contact with students who have applied. Students need to be reminded and reassured that their application has been received and accepted and need to be informed of the next steps. Build a FAQ page on your dedicated website.
  • Make it easy to withdraw from the program using an online form, and remind students that crucial Election Day decisions depend on knowing how many of them will actually be showing up. This reduces the logistical difficulties created by the high attrition between sign-up and Election Day.


The results from the Chicago Program offer lessons for how jurisdictions can recruit college students efficiently: the program was run with relatively modest resources (one full-time staff member plus a materials budget) and the results point to the ways to recruit large numbers of students in a time-efficient way. The new dataset allows us to draw sociological and practical conclusions: it turns out that the principles that apply to the study of recruitment to political and social movements (and similar activities) are not necessarily a recipe for a recruitment program. In particular, the common assumption on the importance of personal contact should not be taken as dictating recruitment priorities. On the other hand, it is illuminating to learn how service as a poll worker is apparently perceived differently by bilingual students, and in particular Spanish-speaking students.

Since this paper is one of the first large-scale program analyses of college poll worker programs, there are many areas for further research.

Other college student programs, especially large-scale ones, could keep track of the same kind of data that was used in this study in order to verify the conclusions reached here. To make it more robust, the poll worker application could be revised to include some questions that are purely for research purposes. Researchers could employ a suite of online marketing tools to keep more precise track of which links and pages were bringing in applicants, and use A/B testing to isolate factors even further. Implementing those tracking strategies requires foresight but not much additional technical expertise.

Researchers also need to measure the impact of being a poll worker on a range of constituencies. The college students who participated in this program could be tracked further in order to create a longitudinal data set. Researchers could see whether the students serve as poll workers again (for example, in the 2016 elections), and which factors are influential in that outcome. They could track students’ records of civic participation, including voting and other political or civic action. A randomized study design could compare students’ civic attitudes and actions before and immediately after serving, and track them long-term. Creating a valid control group would require election authorities to not assign some qualified students, which would require persuasion.

The impact on election efficiency is another area ripe for additional research. Researchers could conduct a polling place observation study, paired with interviews with poll workers, in order to more directly test the hypothesis that college students can improve efficiency in handling technological tasks in the polling place. Studies like this have been done before, but have not attempted to specifically isolate the effect of college students (Spencer 2010).

Finally, this study suggests significant opportunities for sociological analyses. The regression results and survey responses suggest an interesting effect of being bilingual or being an immigrant (or both). A deeper investigation of this effect would get at central questions about social and democratic life in America:

  • How does the conception of civic service differ between immigrants and native-born citizens (including both bilingual and monolingual people)? This question could be analyzed qualitatively through interview and ethnography and quantitatively through studying the factors that are influential in predicting civic service or participation for immigrant communities versus others.
  • Could the Spanish-speaking effect hold for other large language minorities? This study should be repeated in cities with a different predominant language minority in order to see whether there is something unique about the Spanish-speaking community or whether the effect is generalizable.

Engaging college students in elections is not just a good learning experience: it is a way to improve democracy. For underrepresented populations, it is a way to participate in democratic community. For election jurisdictions, there are measurable improvements in efficiency from employing student workers. By continuing to run and study these programs, we can develop the next generation of citizens and make elections better.


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The program and report were made possible with the generous support of the McCormick Foundation. The author would like to thank Annabelle Harless, Ruth Greenwood, Audra Lewicki, Rose Torres, Theresa Howard, Dillan Seigler, the McCormick Foundation, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, and the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. For their technical expertise and guidance, a special thanks to Anthony Fowler and also to Kay Dannenmaier, John Fahrenbach, and Reuben J. Thomas.

 About the author

Devin Race is a Policy Analyst at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a non-profit organization that provides legal and advocacy services for low-income and minorities communities.  Devin is a graduate of Yale University and an experienced debate coach.

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.