Lily McLean, editor-in-chief
The 2020 general election saw the spotlight turn, for the first time in many years, to poll workers.
Poll workers are an often faceless class, invisible citizens who, motivated either by a sense of civic duty or perhaps the small stipend offered as a reward, stay at the polls from dawn to dusk. They facilitate a fundamentally democratic process, one that keeps the United States functioning as a republic.
After the 2020 election, an unusual amount of attention was focused on these people as claims of election fraud went viral.
On Wednesday and Thursday morning, the US Congress certified the results of the election with objections from some senators and a large faction of Republican representatives.
Experts have largely dismissed claims of election fraud, but they have been resiliently upheld by many pro-Trump voters since the elections. One Georgia poll worker forced to go into “hiding” after her actions were misinterpreted by a skeptical audience.
Transformed by a pandemic
Like many other things, voting was transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the general consensus being that large numbers of people congregating in indoor spaces is one of the most dangerous practices in regards to the virus, voting became a risk.
Around the country, states struggled to identify the best methods of harm-reduction. California mailed ballots to every single registered voter while Rhode Island and Minnesota, states that usually require notarized signatures on vote-by-mail ballots, eliminated such requirements. Many states also clarified that all mailed ballots postmarked on or before election day were to be accepted, another source of controversy during an already fraught election year.
Many states also required that voters, observers, and poll workers wore masks inside polling places but some Southern states, such as Alabama, banned such restrictions.
A small group of student poll workers interviewed for this piece shared that mask restrictions, when in place, were generally adhered to.
Eva G., a New Hampshire poll worker, explained that as voters were requested but not required to wear a mask, some chose not to. But the majority did, she said. A San Francisco student poll worker had to request that a man don a mask, but he was quick to comply.
Voting by mail, as predicted, was a popular choice among most voters. “The majority of people coming in were just there to drop off a vote-by-ballot,” said Winston Jeffries, another high school poll worker.
Electioneering, an age-old problem
Every state in the union has some kind of set of rules regarding the legality of various forms of electioneering. Most set a fixed distance from the polling place which electioneering individuals cannot breach. Often, they are left to stand on street corners with signs and campaign literature. Clothing demonstrating support for various candidates or pieces of legislation is also typically prohibited within a polling place.
Jeffries had a recurring issue with a man electioneering for a local supervisor who refused to respect California’s 100-ft limit on campaigning. “Even after telling him to step away, he still came back,” said Jeffries, who dealt with the man multiple times throughout the day. “It shows the lengths people will go for even the most local elections.”
One anonymous poll worker chose not to enforce the laws about electioneering, which are designed to prevent voter intimidation and ensure a free and fair election. “I’m from a blue area so a lot of voters had Biden gear on…but we let it pass.”
In Tennessee, another anonymous student poll worker noticed Trump supporters claiming that the election was rigged outside of her polling place. She also felt that they were acting aggressively towards the people handing out sample ballots.
Tech issues and myths
One of the most pervasive rumors surrounding the November election was that voting machines were somehow involved in a fraudulent effort to steal the election. The reality is that, like all other pieces of machinery, voting machines can glitch.
An incorrectly-marked ballot won’t always be accepted. The number of votes cast doesn’t match the number of people signed in. A cord is unplugged and voting grinds to a halt. These machines are not particularly sophisticated, and such errors are a consistent result of this. But most of them are normal and similar to what the world has seen in the past, less contentious elections.
Of the poll workers interviewed who did experience technical issues, both said they were resolved fairly quickly. Jessie S., a San Francisco student, had to deal briefly with a ballot-marking machine that refused to charge.
But claims of voting machines that were hacked or intentionally skewing the election have been largely dismantled and most accounts paint a picture of a few mundane and easily-resolved technical problems.
An election characterized by hard work and predictable problems
As inauguration day approaches, a consensus on the validity of the election appears to be forming. On Thursday, President Trump publicly conceded his defeat and promised a peaceful transition of power. The Georgia run-off elections for two Senate seats concluded, with Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both securing narrow victories. Memories of a fraught election day are now fading out of the national consciousness.
Like many poll workers, Jessie S. chose to serve because of a sense of civic duty. “I got to learn about voting, how it works and how to facilitate it, and also I really wanted to engage myself and do something despite the fact (and in spite of the fact) that I can’t vote yet.”
An anonymous poll worker simply said, “I felt it was the least I could do.”