Sunday, November 8, 2020

Singlehandedly Saving Democracy

You guys! Finally some hope! Oh thank God.

I wrote most of this prior to Saturday, a.k.a. The Day That We All Started to Breathe Again. I have lots of thoughts about elections and the next two months and imperfect candidates and the problems that still lie ahead and keeping in the fight, but I also have thoughts about sometimes just needing a few minutes to be happy. So instead of all of those thoughts, I'm going to tell you how I singlehandedly saved democracy.

For the first time ever in my life, I worked polls this election. Honestly, it had never really occurred to me before and then with COVID and fascism, it looked like we needed a bunch of new non-high risk poll workers or we would have one central voting location in each state and I don't care how much you love farms and interstates, that commute from San Francisco to the Bakersfield Voting Hub is a bitch.

I had a moment of inspiration two or three months ago when it occurred to me that *I* am not high risk and that if I contracted COVID, I'd probably be less likely to have serious problems (knockonwoodknockonwood) that the usual poll worker I am accustomed to, who is often elderly.

I went to my Board of Elections web site and signed up and felt really good about myself. I posted it on social media and took in the accolades from my friends. Then I started getting emails about training. At first it was "Watch these two videos and read sections 1, 2, and 5 on this document." Then it was, "Your work day will be 6am to 11pm," and finally it was, "Do your online training and quiz soon! It will probably take you six hours! Do it all in one 24-hour period, okay?!"

I got a little sadder then, but I did the damn thing and I got 100% on my quiz and I bragged about it on the internet and got more accolades and I waited for the BOE to contact me to schedule my in-person training, but no one did. I sort of half-heartedly sent a couple emails but didn't get a response. I thought about just not fucking pursuing it farther, but I'd done so much goddamn self congratulating that if I didn't work a poll, I was going to have to pretend that I did to save face. And frankly, that seemed like a lot of work.

I finally managed to talk to someone who scheduled my training and mentioned that they needed early voting workers too and was I interested? And it seemed wrong to say no, so I said yes and then I learned that to do early voting you have to work at least two days, which is weird because it's almost like they're trying to make everything awful, but I'd already said yes and it seemed like an asshole thing to do to take back everything at that point, so there I was.

I ended up working two early voting days, 6 am to about 9:30 pm both days, a set-up couple hours the night before election day, and a 6 am to 3 pm shift on election day. The mercy of that last scheduling made me so relieved that I almost cried.

There's a lot to know about working polls. The night before my first shift, it took me a really long time to fall asleep because I was so stressed about all the unknowns: Where would I store my lunch? What job were they going to give me? Do you think an active shooter will try to take down the voting center?

To aid anyone who might be wondering if poll working is for them, I have compiled a list of FAQs. I'm considering sending it to the Board of Elections so they can put it on their website.

Gosh, you've done a lot of complaining. Are you glad you did it? Yes. One hundred percent yes. It was not the easiest thing in the world to do, but it was really cool to see the voting process and the care that goes into it up close. It felt good to be doing something productive during these terrible times. I am happy that helped people vote. Plus I got all those accolades on social media.

Are you going to do it for the next election? Dude. It is way too soon to ask that question. Give me time to forget my stress and tiredness and I'll probably do it again.

Why on God's green Earth do they make you work a 6 am to 11 pm shift? This is the million fucking dollar question. There are 9-hour shifts, but the BOE seems to intentionally make it hard to sign up for those. If I could sign up for a 6 am to 3 pm shift, I would work every single election. But a 17-hour day seems sadistic.

What jobs were you assigned? I was literally never assigned a job. It was more of a "stand in the vicinity of the machine you'd like to operate" sort of thing. My first day of early voting, there were quite a few unstaffed poll books (the little computers where you check in upon first arriving) at 6:30 am, so I sat down at one and lived there for the next million hours. The next day of early voting, I sat at the exact same poll book because I fear change. 

On election day, I had several jobs. First I was a pointer, meaning I stood where people would see me and pointed at the place they were supposed to go. Then I worked the exit table with the comment cards and the pen return and the stickers. Finally I was the Lysol girl. I sprayed down voting booths after every voter.

What was the best job? Need you even ask? Clearly it was the sticker table. I spent a good two to three hours there and it was GREAT. No one had any hard questions. No one was mad because they had to vote a provisional ballot. There were never any lines. Everyone got a sticker. And we all know that the sticker is maybe the best part of voting. Plus there were three very cute Maryland-themed stickers this year as well as the old-school "I Voted/Yo Voté" classic. Everyone was happy. I got to make the joke "this is your last choice for this election" over and over and people would laugh every time. I was extremely liberal with my sticker disbursement. If you ever work an election, try for the sticker table.

What was the worst job? After the polls close, one of the things you have to do is count all the unused ballots so they know if any are missing. No, I didn't say count all the unused packs of ballots—I said count all the unused ballots. If a 100-pack has been opened, you have to count every. single. piece. of. paper. Oh, by the way, this election there were 255 different styles of 2-page ballots in my county. That's a lot of mind numbing counting.

Was it hard? Well. I did almost cry when I had to set my alarm for 4:45 am on election day. And the first four hours of the day did go a lot faster than the last 12. It was absolutely very difficult to hear people spell complicated names through a mask, plexiglass, and a large room full of noise. But it wasn't too bad. I mean, I basically got to say the same sentences 800 times. ("You are allowed to mark your ballot one of two ways: by hand on a paper ballot or electronically with a touchscreen ballot marking device.") Plus, very short, kinda scripted conversations with strangers are my favorite. It's not until I have to spend a full two or three minutes with someone that I get awkward. 

Was it hard for the voters? It's funny that when someone isn't expecting it and you ask them the month and day of their birth how long it takes for them to come up with the answer. Also, the decision to mark their ballot by hand or machine was extremely difficult for some people. It was the one question that wasn't in the sample ballot.

Was it COVID safe? Why don't we wait another week and I'll let you know? I don't have COVID yet! I mean, it wasn't ideal. I interacted with more people in three days than I had for the previous six months. And there were times when social distancing was very difficult. But the BOE tried! There was that plexiglass and required masks and some people got face shields and optional gloves (gloves would have been a deal-breaker for me—I cannot stand the feel of plastic gloves). Everyone had their own pen that they carried with them through the whole process and a lot of thought was put into trying to arrange lines in the best way. (By the way, it is really hard to direct people to a socially distanced line—it's tough to locate the end. And directing people to a specific place in a busy, huge room with multiple lines is difficult as well. The biggest innovation I saw was when someone put a traffic cone at the beginning of a line so I could say, "go stand by the orange cone" instead of my "stand behind the person with the hair" or a co-worker's "stand behind the lady with the mask.")

Was it busy? I worked three days. My first day was the second day of early voting (Tuesday) and it was very busy. We had more than 3,000 voters that day. I went back on Thursday and it was a lot slower, but it was raining and that had a dampening (haha) effect, I think. We still had more than 2,500 voters. Surprisingly, election day itself was pretty sparse—although that could be due to where I was assigned, which was a smaller center.

What was the best part? Other than learning about the voting process, I really liked working with a bunch of very nice people going out of their comfort zones to do a good thing. Many of us were first-timers, but we all wanted to help. It was lovely to have voters thank us for being there. It was exciting to celebrate first-time voters, young and old. Oh! And one of my co-workers' husbands brought us Dunkin' Donut munchkins, so that was pretty good too.

Were you mean to people wearing Trump/Pence stickers? No. I remained professional and treated them politely. Even if I thought sad thoughts looking at them.

Did you see election fraud? Only my egregious over-handing out of stickers. Also, I'm faceblind, so even though it looked like the same white guy with short, grayish hair voted 168 times, I'm pretty sure he didn't.

By the way, who won this election? 

Stylized photo of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris
Hope. Hope won this election.


  1. THANK YOU for all your work!!!

  2. LOVED reading your account of the experience. First info I've seen about it. Those work hours are nuts! Good for you doing that 🥳, especially in these covid times!

  3. This was so interesting and fun to read! And those days are TOO LONG!! NO ONE wants to work a 17-hour day, and it seems like they'd want everyone to be fresh and alert.

  4. Jean, thank you for facilitating the election, and for the FAQs! I almost signed up as a poll worker, until I noticed the working hours. :)

    While I'm trying to stay hopeful, it's incredible that even more voters chose Donald Trump this time, than did in 2016, and that the Senate might keep a majority. Joe and Kamala certainly have their work cut out for them!

    However, I don't want to sound so negative, so... Montgomery County does an excellent job with voting. There are many locations, and the wait times posted online appeared short. I usually vote early; this time I voted on Election Day at the Marriott Conference Center. The poll workers did seem younger than usual. :) And, I love how everyone cheers and applauds first time voters!

    Take care, and Happy Thanksgiving in advance!
    Karen G

  5. Hi Karen! I 100% agree with you about the number of Trump voters--it's disheartening. But yay for the democratic process! Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

  6. I still check in and am always happy when there is something new from you! This post was a good one!!! Who knew???? I had no idea the workers I see at the polls are working THAT long!!! crazy!! Thanks for doing it
    Julie A


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