COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — Five years ago, when she was a sophomore at Carver High School, helping democracy in the community wasn't what motivated Alana Daniels to be a poll worker.
Daniels laughed as she told the Ledger-Enquirer, "Honestly, my first time doing it, it was 90% about the money, and the other 10% was that I got to get out of school for one day and I got 100s on every assignment that day. We didn't have to make up work for Election Day. We automatically got a good grade on it."
Now, at 21, Daniels has honed her skills as a poll worker and this year was promoted to area manager in charge of five out of the 25 Muscogee County voting precincts.
She has extra motivation to help conduct the 2020 election Nov. 3 in Columbus.
"I think my involvement can mean a lot to people my age and people younger than me to come in and step in," Daniels said.
Daniels is a prime example of the success Muscogee County Elections and Registrations director Nancy Boren and her staff have had in attracting and training enough poll workers to not only fill the 500 positions but also to have a waiting list of more than 400.
That success comes amid a statewide shortage of poll workers, with an average age of more than 65 years old in Georgia, according to the Secretary of State's office.
In 2008, the anticipation of higher voter turnout with Barack Obama, the first presidential nominee of color on the ballot, prompted Boren to ask Carver High School to give students the opportunity to be poll workers.
Carver has allowed 25-125 students to be poll workers in each election since then, depending on the need.
The program's goal, Boren told the L-E, is to "instill a need for public service and knowledge of the electoral process for our younger children and, as they grow up, they continue in that process."
Boren has seen the younger and older poll workers learn from each other.
"The younger kids were really good on technology," she said. "The older people were good on detail and looking after things."
HANDLING THE TENSION
The minimum age to be a poll worker is 16. And on her 16th birthday, Daniels started training for the May 2015 election, when she worked at the Rothschild precinct.
"I got to meet so many people and hear so many different stories from the people that I met," she said. "I love it so much, I wanted to continue to do it."
Even after graduating from Carver in 2017, she has helped Muscogee County conduct every election since then.
For the June 2020 primary election, Daniels was the poll manager at Holsey Monumental CME Church. Like some other precincts, Holsey had a few problems with the new voting machines and residents going to the wrong poll or not being registered.
Daniels proudly declared everyone who was eligible to vote at Holsey indeed was able to vote there.
"I made great decisions when I didn't have someone I could just call up because everybody was so busy helping the other precincts," she said. "So I think why I'm moving up so quickly is because I make decisions so well."
The next day, Boren called Daniels to promote her to area manager.
"It felt good, knowing I'm only 21 years old," Daniels said. "I'm running an entire precinct with almost everyone under 25, except my mom, my grandma and my dad."
Boren said, "I think she did extremely well, considering the circumstances we were under, and so you want to reward that responsibility and that ability to do a job."
Daniels will be area manager of the Canaan, Edgewood, Gentian, Holsey and Our Lady of Lourdes precincts Nov. 3.
As a senior psychology major at Columbus State University, she plans to become a family and marriage therapist. She also wants to eventually run for public office. Meanwhile, she uses her psychology training to handle problems at the polls or while working part-time at the elections office.
"When someone comes in cursing you out or calls on the phone cursing, saying, 'This isn't right. This is wrong,' you have to be understanding," she said. "You have to let them know, 'This is what's happening. I understand why you're feeling this way, but let's focus on this.'
"No matter how they will talk to me, or no matter how many people on election day have really bad attitudes or don't listen to anything you're telling them, I'm so understanding and so calm and positive at all times. I think that's my best quality."
Another young Columbus resident, Allen McCoy, has succeeded Daniels as Holsey's poll manager.
McCoy, 32, is a graduate of Kendrick High School and Valdosta State University. He started as a poll worker eight years ago, motivated to help his aunt, who was the assistant poll manager at the Cusseta Road precinct.
"The first time — overwhelming," he told the L-E. "I just felt like I wasn't expecting that many people to come in and vote."
Boren liked the way McCoy helped the poll manager in setting up and operating the precinct. "It was an opportunity for him to move up in the organization," she said.
McCoy got a taste of being in charge during the August runoff for Columbus Council, but this will be his first full election as a poll manager.
"I just wanted to help out a little bit more and basically put my spin on how I feel like certain things should be going on," he said. " I committed to her, my auntie, and once she stepped down because of the coronavirus, I asked for her blessing to become a poll manager. Once I say something, I like to keep my word."
McCoy, who also works in the elections office, wants to motivate more folks to vote.
"A lot of our ancestors did fight for the right to vote," he said. " I feel like you should at least pay back tribute to your ancestors."
Asked why she trusts Daniels and McCoy with such responsibility, Boren said, "Alana and Allen both have the ability to say what the law is and what needs to be done but to do it in a nice manner so the voters or citizens or anyone else is not offended with what they're telling them."
REASONS FOR ABUNDANCE
In addition to the Carver program, Boren credits the elections board paying what she called "fair compensation" for attracting more poll workers than needed.
Poll managers in Muscogee County earn $500 for the day and pre-election training. Assistant managers earn around $295 and clerks around $200, depending on the amount of training.
The Secretary of State's office didn't have exact figures available, but an office representative told the L-E informal research found the average clerk earns $125 on election day.
Boren also suggested another factor.
"I don't know if it has to do with the COVID issue and the fears that we will not be able to staff precincts for Election Day," she said, "but we've had a great outpouring of support from the community."
Statewide, there's been a shortage of poll workers this year. State officials launched a recruiting campaign that has attracted approximately 40,000 people willing to be poll workers for this election, according to the Secretary of State's office.
"When COVID-19 swept through Georgia, Georgia's elderly poll workers stayed home to minimize their exposure to the pandemic," Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said in an email to the L-E.
Locally, only two poll workers out of the pool have said they aren't returning this year because of COVID-19, Boren said.
"It tells me their focus and their commitment is on the process and continuing with the safety protocols we have in place, with the masks, the sanitizing of the voting equipment and the space after each use," she said.
Boren said she hasn't received any reports from contact tracing that somebody was infected with the coronavirus while being at a Muscogee County poll.