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How some veterans find a way to 'serve the country again' on Super Tuesday

WASHINGTON − For Christa Sperling, an Air Force veteran, spending Super Tuesday at a polling location in Asheville, North Carolina, is a way to serve her country again.

Sperling hopes her first time as a poll worker on Tuesday will help voters have more faith in the election process by seeing military veterans helping at their local precincts. She is among a wave of veterans volunteering to help fill the nationwide poll worker shortage.

We the Veterans and Military Families, an organization that formed after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol to empower veterans to strengthen democracy, launched the Vet the Vote initiative in 2022 to promote positive civic engagement and increase confidence in elections. Concerns about the integrity of U.S. elections escalated after former President Donald Trump made false claims about the 2020 election in an attempt to overturn the results.

During the 2022 midterms, the Vet the Vote campaign recruited more than 63,500 veterans and members of military families to serve as poll workers. The group is setting the bar higher for 2024, aiming to recruit 100,000 poll workers.

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“I think Americans tend to trust veterans and military family members which is a real privilege that we have and a real special place in society,” Sperling said. “Having veterans and military family members at the polls can make voters feel more comfortable that we have people there who they can trust."

Christa Sperling, an Air Force veteran, displays signage directing voters to a polling location in Asheville, North Carolina, on Super Tuesday.
Christa Sperling, an Air Force veteran, displays signage directing voters to a polling location in Asheville, North Carolina, on Super Tuesday.

Building trust in polarized environment

The Vet the Vote initiative launched in 2022 and put out a call for veterans and military families to get involved at the polls. Tens of thousands responded. Over 90% of volunteers reported they would work as a poll worker again and 80% say it increased their trust in elections.

Dan Vallone, an Army veteran who served one tour in Afghanistan, joined the Vet the Vote team this year. Because service members must put politics aside when on the frontlines, when they work as poll workers it helps bring people together within their local communities, he said.

“I think it helps make veterans and military family members such trusted people to do this sort of work, particularly in a moment when there is such intense polarization more broadly,” Vallone said.

Scott Cooper served in the Marine Corps for 20 years and has seen elections in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Thinking about how we can legitimize those elections, I never thought that that would be a question that I’d have to address in my own country,” he said.

Cooper, who served as a poll worker in 2022 in Washington, D.C., said the fact that some people believed votes were stolen or mail-in ballots were fraudulent after the 2020 election bothered him. He fears the polarization and chaos throughout the last several years has led to apathy among voters, which he says he feels is one of the greatest threats the country faces.

“With voting as well, if we’re going to somehow undermine and blow up those institutions, that’s a crisis," he said. "It’s why I think this (volunteering as a poll worker) might be far more important than anything I ever did in the Marine Corps."

Marine Corps Veteran Joe Plenzler (left) and his wife, Marine Corps veteran Kate Germano, served as election judges in Maryland in 2022 and 2023.
Marine Corps Veteran Joe Plenzler (left) and his wife, Marine Corps veteran Kate Germano, served as election judges in Maryland in 2022 and 2023.

Community connection

When Ellen Gustafson, a Navy spouse, saw her military friends on social media posting misinformation about politics and elections, she said she felt the need to form an organization to help understand why veterans seemed to be a target for inaccurate information.

“If those folks, if people like us, are really becoming the targets and then the purveyors of misinformation, that’s really bad for our country,” Gustafson, a co-founder of We the Veterans, told USA TODAY.

Joe Plenzler, a Marine Corps veteran and another co-founder of We the Veterans and Military families, decided after retiring from the military to help participate in election administration and has worked as an election judge in three cycles.

“I think when you stick your hand in the air and swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution, that doesn’t end when you take off the uniform,” he said.

Plenzler said serving as a poll worker can be helpful for veterans who are mission-driven and seeking ways to feel fulfilled when returning to civilian life.

“I think it's super important in a democracy that’s got citizen soldiers, not mercenaries, that when we go back and leave the military, that we reconnect in a very meaningful way with our communities,” he said.

For Fred Germano, an Army veteran, serving as a poll worker allows him to use skills from his military service − such as closely following rules and procedures, adapting quickly and finding innovative ways to solve problems − to help run elections. He worked his first election in 2020 at a polling location in Owings Mills, Maryland, and plans to volunteer again this year.

“When you’re in the military, it’s kind of non-political and I don’t think vets generally are intimidated easily," he said. "They can stand their ground and find consensus and work with people."

Marine Corps Veteran Joe Plenzler sports a "Vet the Vote" shirt. Plenzler has volunteered in election administration for the last three election cycles.
Marine Corps Veteran Joe Plenzler sports a "Vet the Vote" shirt. Plenzler has volunteered in election administration for the last three election cycles.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Poll worker shortage helps these veterans 'serve the county again'