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What Is It Like to Be a Poll Worker?

My Experience as a Poll Worker Was Full of Highs and Lows — Here's Why I'd Do It Again

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA - OCTOBER 31: 'I Voted' stickers are seen at a polling station during early voting for the U.S. Presidential election on October 31, 2020 in Arlington, United States. (Photo by Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images)

My first experience as poll worker (or elections officer) was in 2012, when I volunteered to get a little extra credit for my AP Government class. As a 17-year-old, I expected to feel out of place spending hours helping adults get ready to engage in a process I couldn't yet participate in. But the day ended up being full of positives, enough so to bring me back to the polling stations (albeit, a new one, as I've since moved across the country) for the 2020 presidential election.

Volunteers put their own feelings aside to help anyone and everyone fulfil their civic duty, and there's something really hopeful in that, for everyone involved.
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I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 3, ready to devote a good chunk of my day — and my energy — to getting the members of my county ready to vote. I met up with a group of volunteers I'd never met before in a community centre gymnasium, prepared to bond with them over our 16 hours together. We put our phones away, promised to refrain from speaking about politics, and pledged an oath to uphold the voting laws to the best of our ability.

The day was full of highs and lows. Significant early voter turnout and mail-in ballots meant my precinct saw a smaller crowd than previously anticipated, but there was no lack of excitement — in both good and bad ways. I learned a lot from my time as a 2020 election officer. I've summed the pros and cons ahead, in case you feel inclined to volunteer someday:

  1. There are some really great voters out there. We had many grateful people show up to vote who seemed absolutely thrilled to have the chance to exercise their civic duty. We also had a few fun surprises, like an unexpected (and anonymous) pizza delivery for the volunteers and a brownie drop-off from a thankful local.
  2. There are some really rude voters out there, too. We rarely had lines at my polling place, but there were still a few impatient and frustrated residents who wandered in upset with the system. Pair that with our requests that people choose to wear face masks as a pandemic precaution, and there were some harsh words thrown our way. My fellow volunteer fielded a barbed comment from a disgruntled voter who shouted, "You're a shame to the democratic process" across the socially distanced set-up.
  3. The sticker table is the best station. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Have you ever seen someone's face light up when they realise they get to take home an "I Voted" sticker? No one yells at the sticker people.
  4. The process can feel intimidating. The sticker table is a pretty low-stakes station, which is why it ended up being my favourite. There was definitely more riding on the check-in or "polling pad" role specifically, where you're responsible for giving voters their ballots or explaining why they may have to vote provisionally. On top of that stress, you might have a poll watcher sitting behind you like I did. Their job is to ensure that precinct rules are being followed and everyone is given an equal opportunity to vote. Their efforts are incredibly important, but it can still be nerve-wracking to work under their careful eye. If you really dislike a position like this, you can always request to be kept off of the check-in desk.

  5. Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography: Karenna Meredith

  6. You're pretty much unplugged. My career in media has kept me pretty tuned into breaking news for the past few years, so I was concerned separating myself from Twitter on Election Day would feel like cutting a tether to my soul. It turns out, the world keeps spinning if your device is in another room for hours on end. I did have occasional breaks to catch up on anything urgent (and take selfies in my gear) but as we're aware, the presidential results are taking days to unfold. I did myself a favour by avoiding doomscrolling for a few hours. Not that I'd have much to share with my fellow officers because . . .
  7. You're not allowed to talk about the election. As a poll worker, you commit to keep your political opinions to yourself for the entire time you're at the precinct. In my county, not even the clothes you wear can have any indication of your party allegiance. The voters, however, could obviously express who they were casting ballots for — whether that's through a t-shirt or a vocal statement. Volunteers put their own feelings aside to help anyone and everyone fulfil their civic duty, and there's something really hopeful in that, for everyone involved.
  8. The people you volunteer with can become the best of friends. We started out as strangers, but by the time polls closed, I knew about the careers, families, friends, and futures of the people I worked alongside. We had plenty of time to get to know each other without discussing the political elephant in the room, which ended up being a relief. A few of us even traded contact info to stay in touch after our randomly assigned day together.

I felt a duty to step forward for this election. My experience eight years ago taught me that our polling places are usually buoyed up by elderly volunteers, who couldn't afford to expose themselves during today's coronavirus pandemic. I understand it's an immense privilege that my company provided the day off for its employees, so I could participate in this way.

It certainly wasn't a perfect experience — no Aaron Sorkin movie will be made about the day I saved democracy — but I walked away with an education. I learned about my community, developed greater appreciation for the dedication of strangers, and went home a little brighter than if I had buried my head in social media and poll projections all day. I highly recommend this experience to anyone who has the ability, time, and energy to invest. Will I see you at the polls next election? I sure hope so.

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