Posts Tagged ‘polls’

This fall, I’ve spent two Tuesdays – one in September, one this week – working the polls at my local community center. I first worked the polls in 2020, when the pandemic put many older poll workers at risk. Despite the long day, I loved the experience, and I’ve been happy to do it again.

Poll work isn’t sexy, or glamorous, or particularly shiny (though it can be fun). It’s hours of (sometimes tedious) work, answering the same questions over and over again. It’s even more work for the city employees who take over when our job is done. It is an often unwieldy process, and it is worth defending. It is ours.

Voting, like jury duty, is part of the mundane work of democracy: millions of decisions by different people – some of whom will disagree vehemently – on so many subjects that affect our lives. Sometimes a ballot question strikes me as confusing or arcane. Some races seem obscure or inconsequential, while others get all the attention. But the truth is that it all matters. The people in these jobs, and the way these questions are decided, will have an impact on the way we live in this country for the next several years (if not longer).

I’ve been amazed, each time I’ve worked the polls, by the particulars of the process: the specific way that ballots must be entered, the checks and balances to make sure we count accurately. (I’ve rarely seen so many tally marks in one place.) The tools are simple, mostly analog: ballpoint pens and paper booklets of addresses, felt-tip pens and cardboard voting booths, electrical tape for hanging signs in multiple languages. The ballot machines are digital, but we still have to pull out stacks of paper and hand-count certain ballots at the end of the night.

I love seeing my neighbors walk in, all day long: construction workers and young moms with kids, sleek young professionals and elderly adults, brand-new citizens and third- or fourth-generation residents. I love seeing the couples who have clearly been doing this together for decades. I love handing out “I Voted” stickers to people of all ages. I especially love seeing the first-time voters, like the young woman with the Central European accent, and the lanky teenager whose dimples flashed when I congratulated him. I love seeing all the pieces of the mosaic that make up our democracy.

I’ve been impressed by the dogged dedication of the election department staff, the police officers who are there for security, and my fellow workers: all of us are there to do our parts. (It also strikes me that true, concerted election fraud – the kind we’ve been hearing about on the news – would take so much coordination to actually pull off.) Every time I look around a community center or high school gym, or the elementary school gym where I vote, I think: this is truly what democracy looks like. This is how it’s supposed to be.

I believe everyone who can should work the polls at least once. It’s a humbling, eye-opening reminder of the way we continue to build this country. It’s worth a long day – really, more than one – to make sure your neighbors get to exercise their right to vote. It’s a reminder of the breathtaking diversity of America, multiplied by thousands of precincts in cities, towns and villages. It is both unassuming and vital. It matters.

Democracy, like any relationship, is more like a garden than a building: it requires tending. It is constantly growing and shifting, day by day. It can nourish us in important ways, but it takes work. And it only works for all of us if we all keep showing up.

If you were able, I hope you voted. And I hope you’ll join me in working the polls next time there’s an election. (Also, YES to this story from Karen Walrond in Texas – so important, and so cleverly told.)


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Last Tuesday, I did something entirely new to me: I spent 15 hours (yes, basically my whole waking day) serving as a poll worker at my neighborhood high school. This year, many veteran poll workers, who tend to be older, are stepping back due to coronavirus risks, so I signed up to help fill the gap.

As an experience, it was both eye-opening and at times mind-numbingly mundane. We did a lot of counting: blank ballots, tally marks, voter lists, early-voting ballots, all the scanned ballots at the end of the night. There was a lot of recounting and double-checking, to make sure the numbers matched the tabulations on the electronic machine. The smell of hand sanitizer hung in the air (with the universal funk of high school gym underneath). I wheeled my bike out of the gym at the stroke of 9 p.m., too tired even to pedal down the steep hill toward home.

All day, I kept thinking of something I heard Elizabeth Gilbert say a few years ago, in a podcast interview: some of the most important things in life are “ninety percent boring.” Writing is this way, she said, and marriage, and certainly raising children. And it occurred to me that this is true of democracy, as well.

Voting is, typically, modest and understated: you go to a school gym or City Hall or the Knights of Columbus clubhouse, give your name to a neighbor or a stranger, mark a ballot with a few dark circles. No one who came to vote on Tuesday was doing it to call attention to themselves. But what I loved was the aggregate: the mosaic, taken together, of all these people of different races, ages, genders and walks of life.

There was the young Hispanic mother in scrubs, holding her two children by the hand, who came to vote after work. (We made sure both kids got an “I Voted” sticker.) There were the retired couples, thin white hair and thick Boston accents, who came together in their sensible shoes. There were several women in hijab, alone or with their husbands, and a few men who walked straight in from their construction job sites, chunky boots and jeans smeared with dust.

We saw a number of first-time voters, young people feeling shy about feeding their ballots into the machine, unsure if they were doing it right. One woman rushed in at 7:45 p.m., saying she’d been on a deadline all day but was determined to come vote. The one that nearly made me cry was the biracial family with two tall teenage sons. One was voting for the first time, and he smiled shyly when I congratulated him. The other one wasn’t old enough to vote yet, but he followed his mother to the booth, and I knew: even if he didn’t act like it, he was paying attention.

Signing petitions, serving on a jury, ensuring free and fair elections: these things are ninety percent boring. Even protests can get hot and dusty and dull, though they’re fueled at first by passion. But these small levers of democracy are the ones that move it forward.

On Tuesday, there was a lot of sitting in hard chairs and watching people come through the line, one by one. There was a lot of pacing back and forth, answering the same few questions over and over, handing out stickers and pens, putting my limited Spanish to use (East Boston has a large Latinx population). It was, perhaps, ninety percent boring – though I truly enjoyed chatting with my fellow poll workers, and my guy came in to bring me dinner. But that made it no less important: in fact, possibly more so. And at the end of the night, we left satisfied that we had done our part to ensure that everyone’s vote counted.

I’ll be working the polls again this November. If you’re able, I’d urge you to consider joining me.

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