Finding Humanity at the Polls

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After the 2016 election, I felt I needed to do something to ensure voting in our country remained fair, accessible, and secure. I went to Google to see how to volunteer to work at the polls, and found a link where I could apply to be an election judge in my county. I was accepted and chosen to be a provisional judge.

Provisional judges help those who cannot vote in the standard manner. Maybe they decided to change their political party, maybe they recently moved, maybe they requested a mail-in ballot but forgot and came in to vote in person… there are lots of reasons and folks like me ensure they can still be vote and have their vote counted.

Every two years, I go to the same elementary school multipurpose room with several of my neighbors and folks in nearby communities to be a provisional judge. And others come back election after election to be check-in judges, exceptions judges, scanners, greeters, and chief judges who manage the entire process. Over the elections I have come to know those at my voting precinct, and our conversations and friendships pick up where they left off, whether it was two years ago or that previous spring.

This year, I was tapped to work early voting. In our county, we have early voting for the primary and general elections for eight days, Thursday through Thursday. From 7 am to 8 pm the polls are open, and we arrive at least an hour ahead of time and up to an hour after polls close. There are fewer voting precincts for early voting, and a much more elaborate process as we must have ballots for every precinct in our county available, and a setup to accommodate more voters.

Because of this, there are election judges from a range of precincts around the county chosen to work together, and most of them are seasoned judges who have conducted elections for many years, and are often the chief judges at their precincts. And unlike regular election days, for early voting, judges are working at least four days with some agreeing to work all eight days the polls are open.

I was assigned “B” day. The “A” Day team set up and opened the polls the first day and worked every other day after that. We worked the second day and every other day and conducted the closing and takedown of the polling site. I was unavailable one of my “B” days and was assigned an “A” day to fulfil my four-day duty.

The country as a whole is short on poll workers and election judges and one reason is because younger generations don’t think of volunteering for the role. The majority of election judges are retirees who can fit these days into their schedule, or are folks on fixed or reduced income appreciating the payment Maryland election workers receive for their time served ($200-$400 a day depending on one’s role and attendance).

I learned during early voting that my county has lost a large percentage of election judges in the past five years due to passing away. Many passed from COVID, but many passed from age and illness. And over years of working elections together, living in the same communities, and often attending the same house of worship or participating in the same community activities, they have begun to see one another as good friends and often family.

Early voting is like summer camp for grown adults. You spend more than half the day sitting next to your coworkers, and there is a lot of time when there aren’t any voters to assist. No screens (laptops, phones, etc.) are allowed on the floor, so there is a lot of time to talk and get to know one another. And when voters come in, we work together, training one another, assisting with more complicated situations, covering for one another when we take breaks.

And when we do take breaks, we are together in the break room, often eating the same food and drinking the same coffee an election judge or kind community member has brought in. For many voting sites, there is a potluck and folks often bring dishes from their culture or that are family traditions. This week I had fantastic jollof rice, but I won’t say what type was made because I know there’s quite a rivalry.

The conversations are long, and deep, and with folks who were virtual strangers just hours before. Discussions about divorce, and death, children and parents, philosophy and spirituality, but never politics. And these amazing conversations are multigenerational, multicultural, and often between folks with drastically different lifestyles, beliefs, and upbringings. When discussions turn to a point where we don’t see eye to eye, the discussion is quickly changed out of respect and kindness, to keep the friendship going.

Voters come in excited, nervous, and often angry. They see the worst of the worst on the news or on Facebook and expect the same. They admit they have done zero research or tell us the entire biographical history of a candidate. They tell us who they’re voting for or wouldn’t want in office over their decaying bodies and we just smile and guide them to the next step of the voting process. It’s not our business how they vote, just that they do vote, and leave hopefully feeling better about it all than when they arrived.

Being an election judge for early voting was the necessary intimacy with humanity that I didn’t know I had been craving since Lockdown. Sure, the world has opened up and we’re back to concerts and travel and gyms. But I know I am not the only one who has felt as though something has been lacking.

Our time at home got us comfortable with not being part of groups. We attended meetings virtually and left our cameras off. We ordered groceries, shoes, bath towels, and dinner by app, only engaging with the delivery person and, when applicable, the person at the counter when we conducted our returns. We bank online, exercise in our living rooms, and even see our doctors and therapists via telehealth.

We feel connected through Facebook groups, Instagram DMs, texts, and FaceTime. We may find this technology actually brings us closer than before. For example, a part of my husband’s family meets every weekend for a Zoom where we catch up, share pictures from our week, and I know more about them than I ever did before. But still, things feel surface.

Each day at early voting, I had a different role and worked with a different group of individuals. I knew only three people on that “B” team: two from working regular elections at my voting precinct and one who lives down the street from me. But early voting got me to know them on a completely different, beautiful level. And the strangers who became friends… that was so powerful.

One day, I worked at the provisional voting station with an incredibly intelligent and educated science writer. I learned so much from them, and while we were different ages and grew up in different parts of the country with different backgrounds, our lives led us to that same table in that community center gym. I shared my knowledge, too; I told them about blogs and podcasts and ways to use their intelligence to educate and entertain others while finding their community. I shared how castor oil can help grow lashes and brows, and we plan to get coffee in the future.

On another day, I worked same-day registration with a person whose grandchildren are my age. I learned how they had several children, but only two were still alive, some passing at too young of ages. How her husband too died, but how she found love again and a lot of confidence and independence along the way. Sitting next to me, looking fierce with her dramatic nails, her chic coif, and her inner serenity with such a lifetime of loss but focusing on the good moments was inspiring.

I sat next to the most bubbly and friendly woman who wished to have a way to connect with fellow seniors and provide information to them that isn’t in the AARP magazine. Or, if it is, you have to remember which issue and where to store the issues. She wanted to create a newsletter but didn’t know how to reach a greater audience and didn’t have much money to invest in the endeavor. I told her about Substack and how, with it, folks can read it on the web and link to it, and they can also just sign up and have it show up in their inbox. How she could meet someone at the grocery store and, if they liked the idea of the newsletter, had to do nothing but give her their email address, and she could set them up.

On my first day, a fellow judge had her birthday. We all sang to her, and her relative showed up with flowers and a balloon. Voters saw the balloon and wished her happy birthday and she felt so loved and happy. An hour later, she received word that her older sibling, who had dementia, had passed. And we were there for her again, offering hugs and shoulders and prayers and company. She was offered the ability to go home but chose to stay, knowing she had company and felt supported.

The different lifestyles and priorities were so wonderful and so clearly not enough of my life since that 2016 election, exasperated by Lockdown. I didn't even realize what I was missing until I experienced it during early voting.

Folks would ask what I did for a living, and instead of questioning me choosing a job that didn’t have benefits or clear growth potential, they congratulated me on following my dreams and finding a form of freedom. When they heard my husband was a stay-at-home dad who didn’t go back to work after our child started school, they said that was such a blessing and were so happy for us to have such a lifestyle. In the circles we usually run in, we experience quite the opposite and that feedback has affected both of us, wondering if maybe we should be working more, striving harder.

I was buoyed by many folks with fixed incomes who worked elections for the money but loved it for the ability to support democracy, which all of them held dear, regardless of their political affiliation or beliefs. How seasoned judges had attended funerals, birthdays, and weddings for the family members of other judges, how they checked on each other during COVID, brought groceries and toilet paper, visited one another in the hospital, and even celebrated holidays together.

That community they had built, I was now beginning to be a part of it. The days were long and I got so behind in work, but I looked forward to October when we would all be together again and I could get to know them better.

The majority of the folks working the polls with me were far more religious than I. They suggested an optional prayer circle at the end of the day to support the judge whose sibling had passed. Folks placed hands on the judge in mourning, and others placed hands on those folks. Some stood nearby, heads bowed, but I chose to join in, placing my hand on a fellow judge further in the circle. And the energy that I felt in that huddle was electric and so uplifting.

I knew folks of different faiths and no religious affiliation were in that circle with me, and we all felt incredibly connected by the vibes passing through us to our colleague. I had never felt such intimacy at any of my workplaces in all my years.

I often talk about the community here at Wardrobe Oxygen, and I do feel like I have really gotten to know many of you and consider you virtual friends. Some of you I have met in person, and through comments, DMs on Instagram, and the Facebook group I feel I understand and care for many of you. But it’s not IRL, and that depth and humanity is missing.

I thought scheduling a trip would be a great way to meet and connect in person, but the timing and coordination weren’t right. I have chosen to cancel the trip but hope to conduct something similar in the future. I think we are all in need of some connection in person, both with like-minded folks and those with whom we may not be immediately on the same page but can find some connection with time.

That 2016 election didn’t divide the country, it just put a spotlight on the cracks we already had but tried to cover up with a bit of Tarte Shape Tape and Charlotte Tilbury Flawless Filter. And the world since has just deepened those cracks into crevasses. I know we can’t all get along and be on the same page, but I think spending some time IRL in folks outside our comfortable bubbles may help us find some humanity.

Until then, I hope to see you at the polls, voting, or possibly also volunteering. Because democracy needs you. Whoever you vote for, appreciate that this country believes in fair and accessible voting and you can be a part of ensuring that continues while finding a little connection in your community.

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. I read this Tuesday, when I got home from voting. Over the past years, I have voted mail-in, early, and on the day itself. In every case, the act of voting feels a sacred privilege, but there really is something about walking into the local elementary school and seeing the people gathered to vote and to make voting possible that invariably brings tears to my eyes. It makes plain that voting is a community work — all these bodies showing up to make it happen. Thank you for sharing your own experience and describing it so perfectly. You have inspired me anew.

  2. This was so moving and inspirational. I have been following your insta stories the last several days and really appreciate you sharing how important this experience was for you. And thank you for investing in our democracy!

  3. I have a good friend who retired last year, and she has found a new calling with a grassroots voter registration group. I find her work inspirational, as I do yours.

  4. Like LindaR, you inspired me to become a poll worker. I worked early voting for the primary, and it was everything you said in this essay. I had to actually track down the Election Judge at my poll last fall, to say I was interested and give her my information. She tracked me down when it was time for the primary early voting, and signed me up. It was fascinating, and I am looking forward to working again this fall.

    I have also signed up for the League of Women Voters, becoming a member in the local, statewide, and national organization. I will attend my first meeting this weekend. You are changing the world, encouraging/challenging us to step up. Thank you.

  5. Alison, I so enjoyed reading this & got a little teary eyed! Thank you for sharing this with us. You make excellent points about community. My husband has said several times that he would like to be a poll worker in the future (I think our state’s set up is a bit different from yours but it’s our version of voter assistance at the polls). I certainly will give it thought too. Might be something useful I can do in my later years since I am still working full time at my day job. Most of the poll workers in my state are retired & they are always kind & helpful. Your thoughts here were really encouraging & well written. Thank you!

  6. I love the idea and pursued volunteering in elections with my county a few years ago, inspired by your experience. Sadly, I am physically incapable of the number of consecutive hours and days required. Citizenship / civic engagement has always been an important issue to me — I just need to find opportunities that work better for me!

  7. Just came to say this was beautifully written and very inspirational. Thank you for sharing your story and for being a beacon during these times!

  8. I loved this essay, thank you for sharing all of this. I’m sorry to hear that you’re canceling the trip. I wasn’t going to be able to attend (I often don’t have the extra cash needed to visit family during my allotted vacation days) — but I do identify with the sentiments behind it, and wanting to get people together, to form community.

  9. Alison, this is such a heartfelt, powerful essay. You aren’t often complimented on your gift as a writer, but you should be. And, I couldn’t agree with you more!

  10. Alison, I have not been reading much beyond news and commentary on the news recently, but I am so glad I read this post! It is one of my all time favorite pieces that you have written. Thank you so much for sharing these experiences so fully with your readers. And thank you for your service!

  11. Thoughtful words I’ll be thinking about for a while. It sounds like this was a powerful and uplifting experience, and that’s encouraging.

  12. This is really beautiful. So much to think about. Thank you for your work to protect our democracy, and thank you for your writing.

  13. Alison, you were my inspiration and now my husband and I work the election polls. I look forward to seeing fellow poll workers and voters. One lady comes dressed in red, white and blue to celebrate democracy. She brings us homemade cookies. We meet people from every walk of life. We especially like teaching the mature voters our new electronic ballot selection method. I feel very confident about the voting system in our state. What great community service it is.

  14. >>Our time at home got us comfortable with not being part of groups.

    Yes, I even mail in my ballot, LOL. This is a poignant essay.

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