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Working the Polls in 2020

At 6 am, the scanner broke. The guy who was attempting to cast his vote — who was first in line to start the day — could not do so. And when it didn’t take on the second and third try, he began to openly question the legitimacy of the process. His anger and the suspicious look on his face said it all: this was what he expected. It confirmed the conspiracy that he believed to be true. I ushered him to the other scanner, his ballot was cast, and off he went to work. A few minutes later, after continued issues, I shut down the glitchy machine and made everyone wait in line for the lone scanner standing. I did that because I knew that every time a ballot was rejected, the undercurrent of skepticism grew stronger. And every time a ballot was cast, confidence gained a foothold.

That exchange is a pretty good metaphor of this year’s election. It’s probably the most apt flashpoint from my day (and night) spent working at a local poll, though it certainly wasn’t the most memorable thing I witnessed. It turns out that watching people vote and working to ensure that votes are cast properly is an incredible way to understand our collective relationship with the process. As I sit here tonight, I think about Tuesday and I compare it to the words I heard from the president just now. It made my stomach turn at the damage he is causing to a system that provides all Americans with the chance to execute their civic duty — in a safe and convenient way.

One important difference is that the process and the precinct is completely nonpolitical. The only partisan influence comes from the clothes people wear (one acquaintance of mine wore his MAGA hat and made sure I saw it, smiling all the time) and the sample ballots they collect. Of course, there is still the occasional disruption: Three times during the day we had to shut down the facility to allow Trump supporters to vote because they refused to wear a mask. Aside from those losers, person after person walked through the building all day, and all showed respect for others and the process. It matters to people that they can vote. And it matters that the vote counts and that the process is unimpeachable.

At 9 am, the early work crowd had gone, and families began to vote. One mother came in with a little boy about 8 years old, and as she walked into the voting area, I heard the other poll workers congratulate her for being a first-time voter. I noticed that she didn’t seem to really understand what to do — but that she clearly did not want help. She took her time, and carefully selected a table far away from everyone else. She then pulled two sample ballots from her pocket, and began to consider her choices. They sat there, together, for a long time, reading the ballots and figuring it out. When they came to put their marked ballot into the machine, I could see on her face the realization of what she had done. She had her own vote — and her own voice in the great debate.

Other women weren’t as fortunate. They came in with husbands who sat next to them and dictated their choices; one man literally stood over his wife in a shameful display of intimidation. Thank God that was the exception: Throughout the afternoon I saw a steady stream of women voting for their own candidates, often with a clenched fist as the ballot was confirmed.

I probably watched around a thousand people vote on Tuesday. All treated the experience with a respect bordering on reverence. In preparing the ballots at the end of the night, the other poll workers and I went through a process so specific and insane that it would literally be impossible to add or remove anything from the building — including the trash. Every item is counted and accounted for. It was a difficult, exhausting, and deeply rewarding experience.

I think what I will remember most is the guy who walked into the precinct around 5 pm, filthy and bone tired from a long day spent working in the fields all day. He had to be 50 years old, but walked along like he was ten years older. He didn’t speak a word of English. He didn’t know what to do. But he was there to vote because he had a voice and he wanted it heard.

ordinary man living my life and wondering WTF happened