My Day as a Poll Worker

In response to growing concern about poll worker shortages, ASA gave its employees paid time off if we chose to be a poll inspector. Three employees applied in three different states. Two were told that their services were not required. We were saddened to learn that in one of those instances, in Maryland, the state had cut 80 percent of available polling locations. 

But I was selected to work for the day at a local suburban polling place in New York, about 3 miles and a 10-minute drive from where I raise my family. For weeks leading up to this, I anticipated the day with a true sense of anxiety. Would it be safe? Our neighborhood has seen repeated protests from both sides, some that erupted in violence. Would the long lines in the cold weather exacerbate these tensions?  Added to this were concerns about being around thousands of people as COVID-19 infection rates are on the rise again, almost doubling in my county across the past month.

And yet, I was deeply proud of this action. Since 2016, I have taken numerous political actions, participating in marches and leading demonstrations. I helped to start a coalition of other leaders who were new to this process, so we could work together to collaborate and share resources. When it was suggested that women should run for local office, I did so, though I lost. I work on voter advocacy issues and fought voter suppression by volunteering with a local PAC. This election day act seemed like the perfect way to culminate that effort, to ensure that no polling places would be closed because there weren’t enough workers.

But the irony was real—I would not be spending the day helping people to vote for a candidate that I believed in. Rather, I was stationed in a district that sat staunchly on the other side of the aisle. I would be spending the day helping people to vote for candidates whose values I didn’t share.

Arriving at 4:45 a.m., I discovered a line of voters waiting. I was so grateful to enter the polling location and see people who had done this job for years. We had Dina, Herman, Lisa, Michelle, Vito and Rose, Democrats and Republicans both, who had been poll workers for more than 120 years, collectively, to lead the rest of us. We first timers ranged in age from the early 20s and up.

We could hear the “old-timers,” as they called themselves, mourn the loss of their older friends, who they had worked with every election day, but were sitting out this year. They missed seeing them. They also missed their efficiency. Still by 6 a.m., our doors were open, and the voters were let in. And in they poured.

That election site served almost 3,000 voters, and an uncounted number of people who came to vote but could not. They had registered too late. They had never registered at all (New York State does not have same-day registration). Or they were in the wrong location. And, of course, caretakers came as well, not to vote, but to help someone else do so.

A woman in her 60s came early in the morning. It was her first time voting EVER.

I was assigned “door duty.” My job was to make sure people were wearing masks, that we maintained social distancing and that no one was wearing electioneering materials at the polling location. This meant I had many difficult conversations. It also meant that I met every person who voted in that polling place. And that gave way to many moments I will cherish, and some that will haunt me.

There was the woman in her 60s who came early in the morning. It was her first time voting EVER. There was the mother who came with three daughters—triplets who had just turned 18 and also were voting for the first time. There was a 98-year-old man who came with his son and his paid caregiver. His son explained that while he wasn’t sure he would also be able to get to his polling place to vote, his father insisted that he bring him, because he wasn’t going to miss this important election. 

And there was the moment when the polling location security guard fist-bumped a voter who had used threatening language toward me when I had asked him to turn a mask around that sported a political message. I overheard them coming together around the need for law and order in response to me.

Yes, tensions were high, even among those of us working the station.

At each desk, there sat a Democrat and a Republican, both of whom cared deeply about the results of this election and who checked that at the door, so they could do their jobs. Together, we ensured that the election process was run fairly and largely without incident. There was an intense beauty in that.

In this year, when so many are out of work, I met more than one poll worker who was there because they could collect unemployment and this added small paycheck was immeasurably valuable to them.  There was a sadness and beauty in that as well. 

As parents came in with their children, I thanked the kids for bringing their parents, and I winked. I told the kids to tell their parents who to vote for, because, after all, it was their future on the line. Every parent agreed. And there was an intense beauty in that, too.

As I write this, we still do not know who has won the election. My county had 122,000 absentee ballots that won’t be counted for another few days, so local elections are unknown, and it seems our country’s and the globe’s future rests on a handful of states’ ballots.

Right now, my response to this weighted election is not about who won or lost. It is about what I learned. I did not love all that I saw, but one never does. While yesterday I would have treasured being surrounded by people who agreed with me, perhaps I learned more being surrounded by people who didn’t.  

Cindy Morris is ASA’s Vice President of Development and Community Engagement.