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Vet the Vote encourages veterans to help out with the shortage of election workers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The attack last week on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is being seen as a warning of rising political violence in this midterm election season. For example, what used to be a quiet, even boring job - being a volunteer poll worker - that now looks stressful in many states. So among the groups stepping up is one called Vet the Vote. With outreach through the Department of Veterans Affairs, the group has recruited 63,000 military veterans to serve as impartial election workers, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: There's a high school marching band practicing in Virginia Beach, Va., next to a community rec center which doubles as a polling station. Early voting was already underway last week.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, that was really, really good.

LAWRENCE: With several military bases nearby, the other sound that you hear is jet noise.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE RUMBLING)

ELLEN GUSTAFSON: That's the sound of freedom.

LAWRENCE: That's Ellen Gustafson, the co-founder of Vet the Vote, a campaign to fix the nationwide shortage of poll workers by recruiting veterans and military families. Gustafson is a Navy spouse. She says the military community is used to putting aside personal politics and working together.

GUSTAFSON: Military spouses that I follow on Instagram and follow me on Instagram - and there's a lot of stuff that people say that I just wouldn't agree with politically. But I will tell you they are my biggest source of support. This is not my enemy, for God's sake. This is the person who I call when I need someone to pick up my kid.

LAWRENCE: She's got three young kids, and her husband just deployed, so she's not joking. Gustafson says Vet the Vote is a way for veterans to use their experience to keep serving - in this case, their experience at following a whole mess of rules and procedures.

GUSTAFSON: You know, the military and voting - like, when you have way too many people working in one big institution to do their very specific job, that's kind of great for voting and for keeping Navy ships afloat.

LAWRENCE: Veterans have signed up for a lot of reasons. Andrew Turner, an Iraq vet in Michigan, says it was the plot to kidnap his governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

ANDREW TURNER: It's scary. It's - you know, seeing Governor Whitmer be targeted for kidnapping with that and then with January 6 and everything else, it's been very troubling to me because I'm seeing something that I didn't think would happen here in the U.S.

LAWRENCE: Turner says he's seen political violence overseas and wants to do whatever he can to shore up democracy at home. In northern California, Donnie Hasseltine agrees. He served as a Marine for 22 years.

DONNIE HASSELTINE: And I think from someone who actually was in Iraq during Iraqi elections, it's hard to think that you'd come back to United States and you don't have a poll worker because someone's threatening one of those poll workers. And it made me think that, hey; I've got no problem dealing with that. And maybe there's another way I can continue my service and give back to my country.

LAWRENCE: Jerri Bell served in Naval intelligence for 20 years. She's already worked one election in 2020 near her home in Calvert County, Md.

JERRI BELL: The election administrator pairs up a Republican with a Democrat. And my partner in the other political party and I kind of looked at each other sideways for about 30 seconds. And then we started processing ballots, and it just didn't matter. We just had a job to do. And it really was the most nonpartisan thing I've done since I left the Navy. And that was a pleasure.

LAWRENCE: Some veterans joined the campaign because they themselves have questions about the process.

WILL DOYLE: My name is Will Doyle, and I served from 2002 to 2017 - deployed on Reagan and Bush.

LAWRENCE: Those are aircraft carriers he was on named for Presidents Reagan and George Bush Sr. But Doyle says he never voted for president until he got out of the military.

DOYLE: I didn't want to have an opinion one way or the other about the commander in chief, a bias if my party that I voted for wasn't elected.

LAWRENCE: I met Doyle back in Virginia Beach. Listen for the jet noise. He says he's not totally confident that the election in 2020 was free and fair.

DOYLE: I'd like to believe that our democracy is protected and that the rights of the people are protected and our vote - each and every vote is counted. But sometimes you see the media is pointing in other directions.

LAWRENCE: Ellen Gustafson with Vet the Vote welcomes this kind of skeptic. She's confident that when he learns how polling stations are run, he'll reassure himself and others.

GUSTAFSON: We have recruited 63,000 veterans and military family members to be poll workers all across this country. There were 12 in my ZIP code alone that I saw in our database. So when you go to vote, you can trust that that population is there and that they know how to do the right thing.

LAWRENCE: Both Gustafson and Doyle will sit this election out, though. Their polling stations had too many volunteers. Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Virginia Beach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.