With the 2020 US presidential election mere weeks away, a critical element to the smooth functioning of voting around the country has been disrupted by the pandemic: poll workers. Most poll workers are older and more at risk of complications from COVID-19; therefore, many regulars may not be available to work the 2020 general election, creating the potential for a shortage of poll workers to assist voters on election day.
With the non-partisan startup project Poll Hero, Avi Stopper, ’06, and his college- and high-school-aged cofounders are mobilizing young people around the country to work as paid poll workers for the 2020 election and help ensure its success. “We want to help young people make a major impact on the functioning of their democracy,” Stopper said. “To help make it possible for anyone who wants to vote in person to be able to do so.”
What started as a germ of an idea mere months ago in July 2020 has evolved into a team of more than 100 people handling the complexities of coordinating the effort across the 50,000 plus jurisdictions in the United States. In just over three months, the project has recruited more than 30,000 young, Gen Z Americans to work as poll workers on November 3. Poll Hero staff are busy in the final weeks leading up to the election making sure these aspiring poll workers can properly register to work, recruiting additional candidates, and developing “day-of” election planning to make sure these mostly rookie poll workers arrive at the appointed time ready to contribute to the democratic process.
“I feel a sense of obligation to my children. When they ask me 25 years from now, ‘What were you doing in 2020?’ I want to be able to say, ‘I gave it my absolute all to make a difference in your world.’”
The youth-oriented focus of Poll Hero is a natural fit for Stopper, a graduate of Booth’s MBA program and a veteran entrepreneur who cofounded youth sports recruiting platform CaptainU in 2008 with fellow Booth student Michael Farb, ’09. Their startup won the 2008 Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge, and was ultimately acquired by Stack Sports, a global sports technology company, in 2016.
“My experience with CaptainU was an absolutely formative experience in the constant barrage of failed experiments,” Stopper said with a laugh. “I came to embrace an Edison quote as one of my go-to sayings about entrepreneurship, which is: ‘I haven’t failed, I’ve just learned 10,000 ways not to do it.’” Another quote the resonates with Stopper comes from baseball legend Yogi Berra: “When you reach a fork in the road, take it.” “That’s an imperative in startup land,” Stopper said. “You have to move, to go. And go on imperfect information.”
At the outset of 2020, Stopper was working on a new startup, but the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on that effort. At the same time, Stopper recognized a substantial need for people to be involved in the coming election. “I think it’s an all-hands-on-deck election,” he said. “I started looking for ways to get involved.”
Stopper credits a heightened commitment to serving a larger purpose as a big reason he chose the fork in the road that led to Poll Hero. “I feel a sense of obligation to my children,” the father of two said. “When they ask me 25 years from now, ‘What were you doing in 2020?’ I want to be able to say, ‘I gave it my absolute all to make a difference in your world.’” So, Stopper began what he characterizes as a “democracy startup exploration,” investigating various avenues to make an impact on the coming election. One day, his wife forwarded an email to him about students from Princeton, her undergraduate institution, in desperate need of summer opportunities after their summer internships were cancelled because of the pandemic. “I love working with young people to begin with,” Stopper said. “I thought it would be more fun and interesting to have young people with me on this democracy startup exploration.”
Stopper recruited a group of Princeton students, who were soon joined by a group of students from Denver East High School in Colorado, to work as a cohort of researchers to analyze the landscape for ways to get involved in the election. After speaking with various experts and academics, they recognized the dire need for poll workers, and the seeds of Poll Hero were sown.
“Poll Hero, to me, is bringing together established startup methodologies with the raw enthusiasm, passion, and incredible knowledge of the tech landscape possessed by Gen Z.”
“Poll Hero, to me, is bringing together established startup methodologies with the raw enthusiasm, passion, and incredible knowledge of the tech landscape possessed by Gen Z,” Stopper said. “Those two ingredients, plus a passion and enthusiasm for defending democracy that Gen Z possesses, I think, to a really remarkable degree. That’s kind of the magic formula here.”
Stopper is not certain what the post-election future holds for Poll Hero or the opportunities that might arise to continue to inspire the thousands of young volunteers who have joined his effort. As the election nears, he is focused on Poll Hero’s mission to make it possible for anyone who wants to vote in person to be able to do so.
“I believe deeply in democracy, and I think that one of the lessons that I have come to appreciate, perhaps more than any other, is that democracy is not a spectator sport,” Stopper said. “There are a lot of people in the Booth universe who are extremely capable and talented. The more time people spend contributing to their democracy, to our institutions, to upholding the tenets established in the Constitution, the more we can make a difference.”