Want To Protect American Democracy? Become A Poll Worker.

In the lead-up to this year’s midterm elections, HuffPost Opinion asked writers to examine the many ways that voting ― a fundamental and hard-won civil right ― is imperiled in the United States. In far too many cases, Americans are blocked from exercising that right. This piece is part of that series, Democracy Denied.

This morning, millions of Americans will head to the polls to vote in the midterm elections. I’ll be there bright and early, before they even open. My alarm will go off at 4 a.m. so I can be out the door by 4:45, and it will still be dark outside as I walk the 5½ blocks to my polling place, PS 234 in Queens, New York. I’ll barely be awake, but I won’t mind. I love voting, and every election day I am filled with gratitude for the suffragettes who fearlessly fought for my right to do so. 

In this moment, participating in the democratic process is, perhaps, more important for women than ever before. We are ruled by the grab-’em-by-the-pussy president. Around the country, abortion clinics are being forced to close. Senate Republicans sent Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. It all creates an uphill battle for women’s rights, and women have to show up in as many ways as we can. That’s why I’m a poll worker.

A lot of people think the people who work elections are volunteers, but it’s a job and you get paid for doing it. To work for the Board of Elections (BOE), you must first take a training class, so every summer I enjoy a very dry three- or four- hour training that reviews the rules and procedures for working on election day. In New York City, you get paid $100 for the training and $200 for each election you work ― that’s a nice little chunk of change. And, just as important as the money, every time I work an election, I get to do everything I can to make sure every person who walks in the door is treated with dignity and that every person’s vote is counted.

Every time I work an election, I get to do everything I can to make sure every person who walks in the door is treated with dignity and that every person’s vote is counted.

On the morning of the election, we all arrive at the polling site by 5 a.m. so everything is ready when polls open at 6 a.m. For today’s election, as usual, I’ll be working at my own polling place, on a ballot scanner. Each scanner is assigned a bipartisan team of two, so I’ll have a partner with me all day to help open and close the machine. Polls close at about 9 p.m., after the last voter leaves, at which point we close down the machines and sign off on the ballot boxes. We usually walk out around 10 p.m. It’s a long day, to be sure, but you make friends with the other workers, and on busy election days the time flies by.

Among the workers at my site, there’s a civility to the whole process that’s hard to find in these polarized political times. That’s partly because we’re not allowed to talk about our political opinions at all, for the entire day, and also because everyone is there to make sure the voters have the best experience possible. My fellow poll workers seem to genuinely understand how important it is that each voter be treated with respect, which makes for a positive energy at my site. This isn’t universal across the country, and there are instances when poll workers disregard and dishonor this spirit of nonpartisanship. That only highlights how important it is for people who respect the voting process to consider becoming poll workers.

Especially because a good poll worker is hard to find. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission reported in 2016 that, in New York City and elsewhere, finding poll workers is a challenge, especially in big cities with large populations. Nationwide, it took 917,694 poll workers to run the 2016 general election, and that was with only 58% of eligible citizens (138 million people) voting. As voter turnout increases, we will need more poll workers. Voting sites cannot run without us, and there aren’t enough of us right now. In NYC, they just announced raises for poll workers, which I hope incentivizes people to come work with us in the 2019 elections.

As voter turnout increases, we will need more poll workers. Voting sites cannot run without us, and there aren’t enough of us right now.

The first time I worked the polls was the 2016 presidential election. It was beautiful to see so many people, and especially so many women, getting the opportunity to vote for a woman for president for the first time (of course, I also had to help people vote for then-candidate Donald Trump, and do so without comment). I’ve worked every primary, special and general election we’ve had in New York since then. The September 2017 primary elections had low turnout, which was both disappointing and disheartening, and also made for a long and boring day. It has been reassuring to see the voter turnout grow in each election since, and this past September’s primary election was the busiest yet, which made the day go by incredibly quickly. I don’t think I sat down the entire time. It was a physically exhausting day, but the increase in voter turnout was refreshing. I hope I feel the same after the polls close tonight. 

For me, being a poll worker is a matter of civic duty and of family tradition. My grandma campaigned for local candidates and supported Planned Parenthood until the day she died. My mom now does the same and became a poll worker after protesting voter ID laws aimed at suppressing the vote in Pennsylvania.

When I was growing up, my mom made sure I understood how important it was to engage in the democratic process, especially as a woman. I remember being surprised and upset to learn that there are people in power who don’t see women as equals. I remember being furious to learn that my great-great-grandmother died because she did not have legal access to a safe abortion. As an adult, it’s my responsibility to do everything I can to keep something like that from happening again.

If you haven’t already, you should consider working for your county’s Board of Elections next year. It’s time for women, and for all Americans who care about women’s rights, to rise from the ranks of merely voting and become protesters and canvassers and poll workers. And we’ve got to teach our children, especially our daughters, to do the same.

Abbie Harper is a holistic nutrition consultant, poll worker and freelance writer living in Astoria, Queens.

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