For the first time in my life, I worked as a poll worker. In the middle of a pandemic, in which I am in a high-risk category, I decided to help my community and volunteer to work the polls. It turned out to be the best thing I have done during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I wanted to make sure that everyone in my city could vote and if I could lend my time (and my PPE) to help make sure that there was enough poll workers to staff the locations in my city then I would do this small civic act.
What it takes to be a poll worker
In New York City, you apply to be a poll worker. Once accepted you take a class to learn how to process voters and their ballots, and prepare the ballots to be counted. On election day, you arrive an hour before the polls open and work until the polls are closed and the ballots are taken to be collected. During this very long day, you get two one-hour breaks.
In a class of approximately 40 people, only four were returning poll workers who were recertifying themselves. The rest of us were newbies learning the in-and-outs of voting that most of us never think about on voting day. The class was fascinating and, maybe because I tend to be a geek for all things process, I think every voter should consider taking it.
And while the class itself was uneventful, my journey to the class was a reminder of how bad our city is economically. When I came out of the subway to a bustling shopping district, there were homeless people everywhere—much more than I had seen in the past. The amount of homeless in my neighborhood has also increased. It is just an example of how the pandemic has affected communities in a way that doesn’t involve or health, but our livelihood and just another example about how important it is to vote, not just in this election but all elections.
Why working the polls was the best thing I’ve done during the pandemic
Since March, we have been practicing a social distancing. We haven’t seen anyone except for the occasional neighbor. We go to the grocery store for quick trips and for walks. It hasn’t been until recently that we have opened up our bubble to my son’s friends, my husband’s volleyball team, and my one client. In addition, my son has been attending school, my husband has been playing league volleyball, and he and I have returned to our gym. Working the polls was going to be the longest amount of time that I spent outside the home since the shelter-in-place orders had been issued. And the most time of have socialized with anyone, especially with people I don’t know.
On election day, walked to my polling place in the early morning darkness. The sidewalks were full of people: other poll workers like me; voters getting in line for when the polls opened at 6; and a homeless person dragging a mattress down the sidewalk looking for a quiet place to sleep.
When I got to my assigned location, it was busy and a bit chaotic. Everyone was in a good mood preparing for the day’s business. I was one of maybe 10 line managers. It was our job to help people in line, and help direct traffic through and around the school where we were located. At 6 a.m. when we opened, there was a line around the block.
For the next hour and a half, I talked to the people in line: helping gauge wait expectations (it wasn’t long), commiserating about how long the line was at early-voting in the neighborhood (I had waited two and a half hours; the voters in my line had decided to take their chances on election day), and how well the turnout was. It was the only line we saw all day, and I was there until the polls closed at 9 p.m. (Saying it was a long day is an understatement.)
The rest of the day I spent talking to the other line managers, voters, and others in the community. I met new people, and talked about their lives, my life, and our world. I witnessed first-time voters meeting their friends or family to vote. I witness strangers helping strangers get to the polling place.
In one instance, a couple helped a 93-year-old woman who they found walking to the polling place arrive safely. She was blind in one eye and her balance was shaky. I accepted her from the couple and helped her into the gym where the voting was taking place. During our time together, she told me that she had been voting at this polling place for 47 years and had voted in 20 elections. She recalled to me the first time she voted with her parents and how scared she was. After she was done voting, I helped her back home. (I was scared to have her cross the busy street back to her apartment.) We talked about manners, how New York had changed, and how much she liked the Met. She told me how she was the only one of her family left and that she didn’t have brothers, sisters, a spouse, or children. When we got to the corner of her block, she told me that she would be okay to go the rest of the way and that she had to do things on her own. I watched her walk up the block to her building carefully, but at a cautious pace of a New Yorker who has traversed the city’s sidewalks for decades.
Working at the polling place also reminded me how personal voting can be. The other line managers and I witnessed many people emerging from voting crying. Many surprised at how emotional the experience was. In the evening, I was working the door by myself and as I directed a man to the entrance, he told me that he needed a minute—he was unsure how he was going to vote. He walked outside for a hour and in the end, didn’t vote. He told me the decision was too difficult for him to make. I said, that was okay. That was the last interaction I had with a voter that night.
I stayed out there until after the polls closed at 9 p.m. and at the location, until it was cleaned up. I was a line manager so clean up was simple. Those working the registration and voting machines had more to do than I.
It was when all the line managers left the polling place en masse that I realized how much this experience was needed. For months, I had been tucked away in my apartment with only my husband and child. Any other social interactions with family and friends have been through a screen. But on election day, there was community. Strangers donning face masks worked together for a common goal.
As we walked away from the space that we had spent nearly 17 hours, it was like the closing scene of The Breakfast Club. It took us volunteering for our country to find the community we had been missing for most of 2020.