Contributed by Michelle Harris.
In a year that the familiar feels a bit sideways and even routine activities are being rethought, voting by mail is one of the few things that for me is the same old, same old. Well, sort of. As far back as 1996, when living in Frankfurt, I started the practice of submitting my vote by mail. Election Day brought collective excitement to me and my colleagues at the U.S. Consulate and to Americans living in the city, but it came and went as quickly as dropping an absentee ballot envelope into the Consulate’s mail pouch. As grateful as I was for the ability to participate from afar, about my time in Germany I remember missing reading U.S. newspapers on their issue date (the internet then was a thing, but not The Thing), American donuts (yes, really), and going in person to the election polls.
Fast forward ten years to May 2006. The general election for President of the Republic of Mexico was six weeks away when I arrived for duty at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. In addition to the President, 128 Senate seats and 500 in the national Chamber of Deputies were also on the ballot. The size and scope of the single-day turnover was astounding to me, as were aggressive party activities and controversial political actions leading up to the vote and then the election day energy of the citizenry. The U.S. Presidential election was both two years past and two years ahead. Still, I felt a pang and looked forward to my day to participate and cast a vote for U.S. President.
That satisfaction would have to wait. In 2007, I returned to my then home of Puerto Rico and the full weight of limitations on territory resident voting rights came down heavy. I cast a vote in the 2008 Presidential primary but had to watch from the sidelines as continental U.S. residents showed up in numbers for the November general election and President Obama took his first turn in office. I wouldn’t let that absence happen again and vowed to remedy my hurt by getting involved in the voting process when I got back to the States.
Between work assignments, I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity Global Village and considered it a great fortune to be engaged in international consulting efforts that fed my endless interest in traveling to places that are not necessarily a picnic, for travelers or residents. Darfur, Sudan; the Vietnamese province of Tien Giang Province; rural outskirts of Ndola, Zambia. Others. I traveled with coworkers and friends from around the world. Maybe it was a mix of diverse international perspectives combined with the difficult political histories and rights realities of our host countries that always led conversations to voting. How did it happen? Who could, who couldn’t? When did it really count?
To say that I landed in New Jersey in 2013 ready to engage is an understatement.
Working the Polls
The Hunterdon County Board of Elections made it easy to apply and prepare for service as a poll worker. After a two-hour mandatory training session conducted at the Hunterdon County Library, the Poll Worker Handbook at the ready, I walked two blocks from home to the Pittore Justice Center in Lambertville to report to duty at the 2014 general election. Pre-dawn arrival didn’t help my orientation, but adrenaline and strong coffee helped. When I entered, it was obvious that I was the only one who didn’t know what from wherefore. I was the sole new poll worker there that day, and most everyone else had not only worked the polls before but they had worked together, at this polling station, for years. New girl syndrome hit like a ton of bricks. Fortunately, my itinerant past served me well, and two gems showed me mercy and the ropes, and offered kindness to a stranger that I appreciate to this day.
Greeting strangers and neighbors alike is a key role of workers at the polls. As recognized by Indivisible National, “Poll workers are an essential part of our election system. They staff polling places and help voters on voting days. Poll workers interact face-to-face with voters, and are often the first people to help troubleshoot if there are any issues.” Many arriving voters know the drill, including not only what district they live in and exactly which table to approach but which poll workers have manned that table year after year. But for all of those in the know, there are that many again who are new to town (I see you!), who mix up which district table or even which polling station they must use, or who need assistance to understand or engage in the process. The ability to engage with everyone generously and effectively is an important element to making voting easy and exciting.
As I moved among various polling locations from 2014 to 2018 – the Justice Center in Lambertville, Kingwood, Ringoes, and circling back to the Union Fire House in Lambertville – I had the opportunity to engage in a variety of polling station tasks. Attention to detail came in as a handy skill for traditional poll worker table responsibilities: verifying signatures, numbering and handing out voting machine tickets, guiding voters through the process of submitting provisional ballots. Gentle reminders regarding order importance in queueing up to vote are sometimes needed. Operating the voting machine honestly made me incredibly nervous, but after hands-on demonstrations by my experienced co-workers I settled in and got the job done. Handing out “I Voted” stickers doesn’t get old, and from most voters’ reactions, neither does receiving them. Focus for turnout surges, the ability to keep quietly busy during quiet waves, and general stamina are key to making it through 14 or so hour days, as is a good balance of indulgence and self-control around ever abundant snack tables in back rooms and kitchenettes. The zero calorie icing on the cake at the end of every election? Printing and precisely packing up the district’s vote tabulations and publicly posting the results. For me, every one of those votes represents not only a New Jersey voter’s selections on the day, but also all of the voices whose votes are not heard in places where elections are free and fair in name only or, in still too many corners of the world, not accessible at all. At the end of the day, this reminder is why I became a Poll Worker.
My sense of home is stronger in Lambertville than anywhere else I’ve been. That may be because – at only six years – this is the longest I’ve lived in one place. I also believe it’s because of my commitment to engagement in civic life. Participating actively in the local election process has contributed to my feeling truly connected here. But old habits do die hard, and the pandemic has heightened my dreams of (postponed) travel to new faraway places. With Poll Working 101 now under my belt, I wonder what the mechanics of foreign elections look like up close and personal. My passport is current, and my passion for spreading the word about both the duty and the privilege to engage in the election process is packed and ready to go. These are the organizations I’m reaching out to to explore possibilities:
The Carter Center Democracy Program works globally to support democratic elections and strengthen participatory democracy, consistent with human rights.
The National Democratic Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization that upholds the idea that democracy is a human right – a principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and supports democratic institutions and practices throughout the world.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) provides support, assistance and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR conducts election observation missions with the support citizens from all OSCE participating States.
(Much love to Indivizzies Audrey Frankowski and Polly Anderson who could not have known the nerves I was fighting when I showed up at the polls to work that first day, anxious about getting my job done right and still at sea in finding my local community after relocation. Every election thought reminds me of you.)