On Tuesday, I was in the eye of a hurricane.
I worked the polls in the 2020 election. My first time ever. Every site in Tompkins County (and maybe NY, maybe nationwide, I’m not sure) has a balance of Democratic and Republican poll workers. My site housed two districts, and there were 8 of us – two poll site managers and 6 inspectors.
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Multiple I Voted stickers on a table.
After an initial flurry when we opened at 6 am, it was a tranquil, generally smooth polling day. There were many early voting and absentee ballots issued in our county. We figured that contributed to the pace of things.
We were in a Cornell building, and the CU police stationed an officer outside in case of trouble for the whole day. But there was none. No disruption. No poll watchers, even though they are not disruptive when performing their roles right. I heard later that a friend working the polls in another county wasn’t as fortunate – they had needed police assistance with one visitor to their site who became belligerent when made to comply with rules around electioneering.
We workers ranged in age from late 70s to one 17-year-old who served even though he can’t vote yet. At least half of us had never worked a poll before, and I loved learning from them. There are so many details to election law in NY and the precise procedures around voting to ensure the counts stay accurate that fascinate the detail-oriented part of my brain.
Partway through the day, we noted the calm. And the contrast to the animosity and fear we’d been witnessing in the rest of the country, experiencing ourselves, swirling around outside with the blustery wind.
I found myself developing tiny momentary crushes on everyone I encountered. I always love seeing parents patiently explaining what they are doing to their tiny kids who have their eye on the prized sticker at the end. I adored the young man who told me he became an American this year and was so excited to be voting, his hand shaking as he took his ballot page. And the poll site manager who gently teased out unusual situations with those who needed to do affidavits, reassuring them they had a right to matter through her kind attention. And the lady who asked for another ballot because she marked hers wrong. She was mortified, but we reassured her she wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last, and we were ready for that. Before doing this, I had not known you could ask for another ballot if you made a mistake.
The day was filled with kindness and grace and camaraderie, Democrats and Republicans alike. I had a few mini discussions with a Republican lady I was assigned to work with that built into rapport over the day. There were lots of things we could agree on like COVID and safety and senior housing needs, though also differences. Our discussion felt very 2015-ian. It was nerve-wracking but satisfying to dip a toe into that gentle, civil disagreement. I know that there were more in-depth conversations around race and gender possible there – we were not allowed to discuss candidates and platforms because of election law – but it felt like a good omen for what will need to come.
For that long day, we helped almost 400 people make sense of the machine, walked them through the process, helped them find their polling place, accepted their absentee ballots, and supported each other, all sharing the belief in this purposeful action of ourselves as citizens. I tried to stay away from the news and social media as much as possible, aware that the storm would be there waiting after we went home.
In the days since, I’m trying to hold on to that feeling, that holding the line for decency with other people united in one deeply valued institution, as long as I can. There’s a lot of pain and angst to see in each other right now, and I am trying to use that fortification as I meet all the faces I encounter. I know my experience was lucky for its mildness. I think tonight of the ballot-counters in swing states must be so tired, and how their efforts deserve our respect. There are mountains of progress to make in our broken country – but Tuesday gave me hope that our American experiment will prevail.