My experience as a poll worker
A nearly 17 hour day for democracy
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As many of you know, I worked at my local polling place on Tuesday (and I documented everything on Instagram in this highlight). I wanted to share the experience in case you’re thinking about doing it in the future (there are elections every year) and to add context to the people who are counting ballots across the country right now, who I imagine are exhausted. Here’s the link to sign up. Elections are handled at a state level so this process looks different everywhere. Even within New York, I know people who had very different experiences at different polling sites. Since we had early voting, many people said the lines were shorter than usual.
Why I signed up to be a poll worker:
My friend Noah and I caught up over the summer and he mentioned a project he was starting around getting young people to sign up to be poll workers. He connected it to the Black Lives Matter movement and the fact that a lack of poll workers often leads to voter suppression and longer lines for people of color. Most poll workers are over 60 and more vulnerable to Covid, so there was a special need this year. I have a flexible schedule and am in good health, so I told him I would sign up. It took one day to be approved back in August and I did a training in October before working on election day.
Selfishly, I also wanted to stay occupied on election day and have something to do besides obsessively refreshing twitter (don’t worry, I’ve done plenty of that in the days since).
What I did to prepare and what I wish I had done:
In our training class, we were briefed on three possible positions: table inspector (checking in voters and handing out ballots), scanner (scanning ballots), or Ballot Marking Device inspector (a machine that pretty much no one uses). I got my assignment a few weeks later to be a table inspector. There are other jobs like line watcher or floater. The night before, I reviewed the poll workers manual from class and marked the sections about my job with post its (for opening, during the day, and closing). This was helpful when I needed to reference something. I also laid out my clothes and snacks. I wore leggings, sneakers, a turtleneck and a long open sweater and I swapped my mask out once during a break.
I woke up at 4:30, ate a banana and had a little bit of coffee. I wish I had eaten more and drank the full cup because I didn’t get my first break (just a 15 minute one) until 10 and the first few hours were some of the busiest. If you’re working the polls, eat breakfast before you arrive!
We had the option for one two hour break or two one hour breaks. If you’re working somewhere farther from home, definitely choose the longer break. I did two shorter ones since I was close by.
What surprised me:
The level of disorganization surprised me, as did the lack of voter education. We need to change how we talk about elections, on cable news, online, etc. The ballots are confusingly designed and us poll workers wound up doing a lot of extra work to help people fill them out correctly (if they’re not filled out correctly the scanner rejects them).
Also, our voter registration system is a mess. This summer, people received mail in ballots with the wrong names in Brooklyn. And I saw multiple voters who had tried to update their addresses multiple times but didn’t show up in the system. Some people were still able to go to their correct polling place, others didn’t have time, like a man who was still registered in the Bronx and came after 6 pm. If you haven’t voted in a while, you can also be switched to “inactive” which means you can’t vote. Doesn’t seem very democratic to me. In New York, presidential elections are usually not close. However, we have lots of local elections that are determined by small margins and need to improve our voting system. AOC talked about this before the election with the huge lines for early voting and it is so true.
The poll worker system is also very loyalty based. Clerks and coordinators, the two lead roles, can request certain people to work at their sites and certain assignments, like early voting, are hard to get unless you know someone. Certain sites and coordinators are known to be well run and others are not. Of course, as a first time poll worker, I had no idea what to expect and it takes time to build these relationships. The man I worked with for most of the day said our site was poorly run compared to others he had worked at.
Another random thing: in New York, voters are mailed fast passes, which have a bar code and your election district. They last for years and save so much time in the checkin process. I’ve definitely thrown mine away in the past because I didn’t know what it was, but next time I get one, I’ll be saving it because they’re so helpful.
Will I do it again?
Definitely. It was a long day but I know I helped over 330 people vote and that means a lot. We also got food donations and thank yous from lots of people, which helped.
Questions from you on Instagram:
Q: Do you feel good about election security, integrity and the whole process now that you’ve seen it? In NC it showed me how hard fraud would actually be, but I know each state is different!
A: Fraud would be really hard. Everything really has to add up between the ballots and the scanners and there are multiple people signing off on everything. Since I was checking people in, I have no idea how most people voted (scanners don’t see either unless the person is having trouble scanning). The only marked ballots I saw were the ones filled out incorrectly which we had to void (most of those were for Trump, fwiw).
The process was definitely chaotic and very paper based (we spent so much time unloading and loading our cart which had so many random supplies and envelopes, not all of which were needed) but I felt it was secure and that everything was being accurately counted. I wish it was more organized and better led. It’s also supposed to be bipartisan but in New York there aren’t enough Republican poll workers so people would be randomly assigned to a party, which makes no sense (this doesn’t affect the work, it just means that at a table checking people in, there’s supposed to be one worker from each party). I think paying workers more and growing the full time staff at the board of elections would go a long way. There also should be two 8 hour shifts so people can be better rested. This year, there were a lot of poll workers who did not get assigned so they certainly could have added extra people to certain sites.
Q: Do you talk about politics/who you voted for with other poll workers?
A: We did when voters weren’t around. Everyone I spoke with was hoping for a Biden win. Once the results started coming in around 6 or 7, we were all checking our phones because it had really slowed down.
Q: Do people harass poll workers?
A: In general, this can happen to poll workers and voters (and Trump has sent people to harass/observe the counters). This did not happen to us in Brooklyn.
Q: Were other people unsafe around you?
A: We had no issues with harassment or intimidation at our polling place. Some people didn’t wear their masks properly (nose out) but they were in and out so quickly and our rates are low in New York, so I felt fine. If I were immunocompromised or lived with someone who was, I would not have signed up to be a poll worker.
Q: Were there any less than stellar moments that you feel comfortable sharing?
A: It was less than stellar to see how chaotic this process was. Our coordinator wasn’t great and without the help of experienced poll workers, it would have been tough to open on time. She also left before the end of the day, which I didn’t even notice at the time, so the Clerk did all the closing duties. There’s so much paperwork and things felt disorganized at points. The day is also so long and there’s no overtime so there’s a rush at the end to finish things up and get out of there.
The hardest thing to see was how uneducated most voters are about the process. We had to explain how the ballots worked to most people (the instructions are in such a small font that was particularly hard for older voters to read) and we also voided lots of ballots that were filled out incorrectly. In New York, you have three tries to fill out the ballot correctly. On the ballot, both presidential candidates were listed under two different parties (Biden under Democratic and Working Families and Trump under Republican and Conservative) so we saw some voters vote for the same person twice which meant they had to void the ballot and fill out another one.
I live in a mostly Spanish speaking neighborhood and we only had one Spanish interpreter who was not very proactive. Many other poll workers stepped up to translate and I used my Spanish a lot to explain the check in process and ballot layout. I wish the coordinator had stepped up to reassign some not very busy workers to help interpret but she did not. Lots of people brought their parents or relatives to help them fill out the ballots, which is allowed and very helpful.
Q: What’s the funniest/strangest thing that happened?
A: We were working in a school cafeteria and at one point the school lunch workers came in to cook lunch (I don’t know if was for the next day or for kids picking up meals). It was early in the morning and everyone was hitting that “I need coffee and or food wall” but breaks didn’t start till 11. I never though I would want school lunch food but it did smell good in that moment.
I had Dunkin twice (a coffee from the shop and then a donut because someone dropped off a box), which felt very fitting. Elections run on Dunkin.
In New York, voters check in and sign an iPad to verify their identity. We used pens that have a stylus tip and they confused so many people. I had to stop many people from signing the iPad with a pen and then tell them to keep the pen for their ballots. Due to Covid, everyone was supposed to keep their pen but some people would put them back and then we had to wipe down all the pens with alcohol wipes. One of my favorite moments was when a woman came back with her husband (she had voted earlier in the day) and schooled him on the whole stylus thing like a pro. Overall, seeing multiple generations vote together and first time voters cast their ballots was a real highlight.
I want to thank you all for your support throughout this process and thank all my fellow poll workers (feel free to share your experiences in the comments). I’m glad we’ll hopefully have a new President Elect by the end of the day and am ready to keep fighting for a better world.
I’ll be back on Monday with our regularly scheduled programming.
Well Done Abbigail!!
Thank you so much for working the polls, and for sharing your experience! We chatted about this already via Instagram, but I agree with the level of disorganization. I know part of it is because Boards of Elections tend to be understaffed and that the pandemic made things extra difficult this year, but it still felt like there were a lot of things (at least here in NC, where I worked) that could have been done differently. I'm also jealous of your breaks - we were allowed to take them, but we couldn't leave our polling place. Despite all that, I really loved being a poll worker and plan to do it for as many future elections as I can. I have grand plans to be a Chief Judge one day, and hopefully help improve the process for my community. <3