Throughout the pandemic, we have witnessed the resiliency of essential workers across the country, whether they were nurses or supermarket workers. But the 2020 election has proven that essential workers extend to those that fight to keep our democracy alive: poll workers. In the days leading up to the presidential election, we asked poll workers to recount their stories from the polls.
Erika, a grad student in the University of Oklahoma’s Masters of Social Work program, decided to become an election official this year over concern about the unprecedented nature of the 2020 election. Outside of this election cycle, Erika is also a freelance writer for the Black Wall Street Times in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and does contract work for the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice. Through her contract work, she provides educational programs on the importance of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging programs.
As a poll worker, Erika serves as the Provisional Voting Officer for a polling station at the Hardesty Library in south Tulsa. Provisional Voting Officers help voters who are unable to cast a standard ballot due to various reasons (like an expired driving license, having been purged from the registry, having moved and never changed residential addresses). Happy to connect with less enfranchised voters in this role, she said, “Voting is already not the most accessible task.”
“I would work as a poll worker no matter who was running!” She continued: “I am privileged to have the opportunity to take a day away from work and school, and I want to use it to support and promote civic engagement.”
Sachi Hwangbo is a poll worker for Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters. As a Vote Center Lead, she oversees the staff and voters at her site. She shared that the time she spent in Georgia from 2018 to 2019 was what inspired her to participate in poll working.
“The voting experience I had for the 2018 gubernatorial election was marred by voter suppression. It didn‘t instill my confidence in their election process. This motivated me to do poll work when we moved back to California because I wanted to be part of a better process.”
The most rewarding aspect of the experience was the collaboration and “positive energy when the polls are open.” She is also proud to see young people and newly naturalized citizens voting for the first time, as she says: “The final turnout for the Presidential Primary Election in Santa Clara County totaled 495,791 ballots cast, representing 52.12% of registered voters. Now, there are officially one million registered voters in Santa Clara County.”
Peter had never considered working at a polling station before receiving an email about opportunities to participate in California’s presidential primary election back in March.
“Poll working is important because no matter the circumstances, even amidst technological changes or a global pandemic, there will always be a unique American pride in casting your ballot on Election Day. Countless Americans have been denied the opportunity to vote since the founding of our country. Directly helping individuals who want to engage by voting in-person at the polls is essential to recognize where we’ve been as a country and where we can go from here,” Peter said.
Poll Worker 1
Interested in practicing his Haitian- Creole, he decided working at the polls would provide the perfect opportunity. Introduced to the idea by a friend, he applied and participated in a language proficiency test. Described as a “fun and eye-opening” experience, he was introduced to a large Haitian population in his community and expanded his understanding of civic organizing.
When asked what he would tell people interested in poll-working, he said, “go for it! It’s a really rewarding experience because you get to help out your community by making the voting process seamless on their part…. So, to all my young people, get out there, and help contribute [to the process].”
Poll Worker 2
Given the opportunity to work at the polls in two different states, this former poll worker shares that various locations provide different experiences. In New York, he directed people to voting stations, collected ballots, and assisted anyone who needed help. In Atlanta, he provided directional support by holding up signs directing people to the poll site.
Overall, he described working at the poll site as fun and an opportunity to make money on the side. When asked what he would tell people interested in poll-working, he said: “that your experience is based on your location and the people [working there as well].”
Priscilla Swee is the Elections Supervisor for Cross Village township. In this role, she oversees the entire voting process in the township from mail-in and absentee ballots to administering poll sites. In 2020, 232 votes were cast in her township.
“A polling place, a precinct, it’s where everything happens. I see it as an opportunity for people to come together, and decide on candidates or proposals for the betterment of the whole community. People talk about births, funerals, graduations, somebody getting horses, or cows, or chicks. It may be the newest craze — and their kids got this or that. It’s family. It’s like the social units begin with family and it spreads out from there to community,” Priscilla said.
She went on to share that, “There would be no America if it wasn’t for the small rural town communities (like Cross Village) exercising these rights. This year, our poll workers are being called “essential workers” because we’re physically handling ballot after ballot, but that’s our job to protect the right to vote, even when it’s more difficult.”
Accessibility has always been a driving force for the work that we do at The Institute for Civic Organizing (TICO); it is the foundation of each of our programs and products. Through this blog, we dissect and explore topics in relation to academia and activism, and participate in current discourse on such ideas in order to expand our vision of accessibility. If you are interested in contributing to our blog (by sharing your personal experience with organizing, being interviewed about a policy, or any other way) please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.