I Spent Election Day Working The Polls. Everyone Should Do It.
November 5, 2014

I'll bet you thought this would be another "WTF, America?" post. It's not. There will be tons of those, plastering blame or credit all over everyone from voters to candidates to billionaires to the President. I may write one of those later, but I've just come back from working in my local precinct from 6AM to 9PM and that experience actually made more of an impact on me than hearing about Joni Ernst or any of the others.

I don't even recall how I got on the list, but each election cycle I receive a postcard from our County Board of Elections asking if I am available to work in the polls, and each election cycle I have found reasons not to. But this year I decided I would return it with a "yes."

I'm so glad I did. It requires a few hours of online and hands-on training, but it's worth it to see the mechanics of how our elections work, and more importantly, to see people engaged in the voting process. It's also a very, very long day, so forgive me in advance for any typos and/or run-on sentences.

Surprise #1: I arrived at 6 am and reported in to my precinct inspector, a 20-something college student who was working his sixth election. He started working the polls as a junior in high school and is now a seasoned hand at it. And wow, was he great. Welcoming personality, really knew what he was doing, and had everything moving like clockwork right out of the box. I have no idea what his politics are, but I don't really care. It was just great to see him so engaged in the entire process.

We had one hour to get the ballot reader and single touchscreen voting machine set up. California has at least adhered to best practices on these voting machines, and we had been trained, so we knew exactly how to set them up properly with the seals appropriately untouched on key items.

With everything in place, the polls were declared open, and the day began.

Surprise #2: Turnout was higher than expected, and far more diverse than I would have expected, given that I've voted in this precinct for well over 20 years and have seen some abysmal election years. We have a high number of permanent vote-by-mail voters in this area, so many ballots had already been cast and mailed. But for the entire day we had a steady stream of voters walk through the doors, anxious to cast their ballots.

Surprise #3: The many, many voters who took a minute to thank us for being there and willing to serve the community to facilitate democracy. Yes, the county pays a stipend, but many of the poll workers in this area coordinate with local charities so that the stipends are donated to the charity. I was not one of those. I actually need the money.

It feels good to be appreciated. I won't lie. Those kind words were very nice to hear.

With perhaps a 20-minute exception, it was busy the entire day. Toward the end, everyone was ready for the clock to strike 8:00. With the time change, those final hours were long ones, even though we still had voters come through the door.

A group arrived toward the later hours that I will likely never forget. It was a somewhat large Latino family. They brought the kids, the brothers, the mother, the father. Everyone was properly registered (except the kids, who were too young), received their ballot and cast their vote. In our precincts, voters put their ballots into the readers themselves. As each of them put their ballot in, another of them took a picture of them doing it.

This was a big, big deal for them. I don't know their story. I don't know if they recently gained citizenship, or what exactly the entire dynamic was. But I do know this: Casting those votes was something they wanted to remember. Something they wanted in the family album to point at years from now and say they did.

You can't see something like that and stay cynical. You just cannot. It was sweet, genuine, and a powerful reminder of what value some place on having a voice. They got it. They knew exactly how much it matters to be able to walk into a polling place and cast a ballot for their chosen candidates. I don't know their politics, but I know they placed a far higher value on their right of citizenship and their responsibility as citizens than others did.

In the coming days when the noise machine gets too unbearable, try to remember these people. You don't need to know their name, and you don't need to know who they voted for. You just need to know that they understood how important it was for them to be there and how important it was to show their kids what being there meant.

That was one family. I saw young people and elderly people. One man brought his 90-year old mother in to vote, proudly telling us she just passed her drivers' test and could have driven herself but he wanted to do it.

Others brought their children with them so they could learn what it means to live in a country where the people have a voice.

All walks of life, all demographics. But not all equally represented as a percentage of the whole electorate. Not yet.

If all the people took their rights and responsibilities as seriously as that one family, we would have 100 percent participation instead of 40 percent, which is what the overall average looks to be for this election cycle. And if 100 percent participation happened, imagine the things we could do.

You will hear from me after I've had some sleep about the WTF, America moments I've had tonight. They exist. I'm frustrated. But my experiences today make the frustration a little less than it might otherwise be. It served as a reminder that not everyone is cynical, not everyone has given up on our democracy, and many still want to fight for it.

It's a start. Now we just need to figure out the rest.

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