Essay: Defending democracy
I was a teenage poll worker on Election Day, and my experience taught me what democracy really looked like
November 24, 2020
America is a democracy. Its citizens enjoy free thought, free will, and a free country. That’s what makes the U.S. great; people are allowed to believe what they want to believe. That is, of course, until their beliefs infringe on other people’s rights.
It all seems self-explanatory, but working the polls on election day as an election judge showed me otherwise.
Part One: Blind
I have always been interested in politics. As I’ve grown, I’ve been able to further educate myself, refine my viewpoints, and involve myself within the political and governmental world. So, when my AP Government teacher offered an opportunity for students to make some quick cash working on Election Day, I jumped at the chance.
I knew it might not be easy. It’d be a 15 hour day, I’d have to wear a mask the entire time, and I would be interacting with more people in one day than I had seen collectively in eight months.
Admittedly, I was nervous. I wasn’t blind to the threats that had been made by various hate groups about patrolling the polling places, attempting to prevent certain groups of voters from voting, and bringing weapons.
But, I knew that I wanted to help, and with my experience in customer service and personal interest in government, I also knew that I was a right fit for the job.
My day started not so bright, but very early, at 4 a.m. Luckily, I was working the polling place right down the street, so I could roll out of bed, throw myself together, and make it to work in time. As my dad drove me to the polling place, which just so happened to be my old middle school, he reminded me of my responsibilities for the day.
“Wear your mask, use hand sanitizer, and call us if there’s a problem.”
The words echoed inside my head as I made my way to the entrance, light peeking out from a crack in the door. As I walked inside, I was greeted by a plethora of other ladies. Some I happened to know from around town, most I didn’t. They were all pleasant, though, and most of them stated that they had worked the polling places before, so I knew that I’d be okay.
We opened right at 6 a.m., letting a line of people inside to vote. I was at the very first table; one of the first faces people saw. At first, I was shaky and unsure. But, as the day went on, I grew completely comfortable with my assignment. What I struggled with instead happened to end up being asking people to take off their political gear.
Part Two: Umbrage
Polling places are no-campaigning zones, meaning that any citizen coming into the polling place is barred from wearing, saying, or spreading any information for or against a certain candidate.
As an election judge, my job, among others, is to enforce this rule. This is not because I’m trying to suppress free speech, or because I’m power-tripping and enforcing my own hidden agenda. It’s simply because my duty is to protect every citizen’s ability to vote.
Throughout the day, I was faced with a variety of tense situations concerning the campaigning rule. This is not to say that this was the case for everyone, as it completely was not. Every person is different. But, as politeful and unbiased as I tried to be, certain people continued to take personal offense when asked to remove their gear.
After greeting a man and asking him his identifying information, I informed him that we were a no-campaigning zone and he would have to remove his gear.
To this, he stated, “You must be a Democrat.”
I informed him that whether I was a Democrat or not, we were still in a no-campaigning zone. We moved on with the process, and we both seemed to calm down as I attempted to “kill him with kindness.”
Soon after his statement, he shyly asked me if someone would be able to help him vote. I said that this was totally fine, and explained how someone would assist him. Here he was, after just insulting me and my supposed views, asking me for help. I thought to myself that our current situation is quite tense and dire, and everyone is coping in their own ways. Along with this, no matter what, it was my job to help every person who came through that door. So, I put our differences aside and assisted him with respect and kindness.
Part Three: Pique
At one point though, my temper, along with some others, ran high. After some of my co-workers asked a few voters to remove their gear, they were met with vocal anger and annoyance. Instead of respecting the rule, they banded together to reinforce their stance that the rule was unconstitutional, and that they were not going to remove their hats. I knew they could use back-up, so I tried to quickly finish assisting the voter I was with (who was frankly mortified for us).
As I walked over, I noticed that one of the men had given in and removed his hat to continue the voting process. One man, however, continued to refuse. “I demand to see where in the rules it says that I can’t wear my hat,” he said.
So, my manager walked over to gather her materials, and my co-worker and I were left with the man. He glared at us, and continued to inform us of his stance. He asked what authority we had over him. “What are you doing about all the people breaking the rules in every other polling place?” he asked.
To this, I stated, “I don’t understand why you are concerned about those voters if you aren’t going to follow the rules yourself.”
He glared at me, and I stared right back.
“What’s your job anyway?” he asked. “What do you do for the polling place?” I explained my position, to which he then asked me, “What would you do if you found thrown-away ballots in dumpsters?” I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere, but I attempted to ease his worries.
My manager came back with the necessary documents, to which he finally gave in to after stating that someone should be standing outside checking that people have taken off their gear within 100 feet as the rule stated. We explained that he’d need to contact the county clerk and make that a suggestion.
That’s when I decided that I’d go out there right then and there to do just that.
Part Four: Abash
I stood in the cold dark night and greeted voters as they came in and out. Some recognized me from inside and conversed with me about the tense situation that had occurred. They thanked me for my service, and for choosing to put myself in this position.
After a while, the man finally exited the building, and put his gear back on (within 100 feet from the entrance). He made his way to his car, and stood outside for a while before entering. Frankly, I was nervous as I watched him. But, he finally entered the truck, and began to drive away.
That was until he turned around and parked at the far side of the parking lot, facing both the door and me.
I chuckled to myself as I realized that he wasn’t giving up. But, I continued to stand there and do the same thing I had been doing; greeting people, and telling those who were leaving to have a good night.
After a while, some of my co-workers came outside to check on me. I informed them that I was fine, but it had been at least twenty minutes and he hadn´t left yet. One of my co-workers summed it up perfectly; “This election is no time for crazies.” The other stated that when we were finished for the night, someone was absolutely going to walk me to my car. I explained that I’d keep an eye on him, and they very kindly told me to let them know if I got cold so we could switch on and off.
I thought to myself all the bad things that could occur.
“None of us had backed down, but he still targeted me. What if he´s really mad? What if he has a gun?” I asked myself.
Then, an hour went by, his black truck still parked at the back of the parking lot.
I went inside and whispered to my manager that he was still there. She then gave me the okay to call the police. I had reached my limit at that point. I was nervous and shaken from my tense experiences and the long day, and I just wanted the situation to be taken care of.
I eventually saw the police car make its way into the parking lot from my seat inside. Some co-workers outside said they could hear him yelling. I was still fearful.
After some time had passed, I heard the rumble of his truck and watched him drive away. My stomach still churned with the anxiety that he could come back, or be waiting somewhere close. Luckily, the policeman stayed to make sure that he wouldn’t, his headlights brightening the dark parking lot. I’d have a safe pathway to my car at the end of the night. I felt a wave of relief.
Part Five: Reassure
Besides those nerve-wracking experiences, I had a wonderful day. I truly enjoyed assisting people to do their civic duty.
One of my favorite things though was all the fellow students and young people I got to assist. As they would walk up to my table they´d exclaim that they thought “only old people did this,” and they were pleasantly surprised. But they shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the government works for everyone; every person, every group, and every side of the political spectrum.