Front Lines of Democracy: At the Polling Place

Election workers take their jobs seriously.

All across the country, Americans are gearing up for what is sure to be an extraordinary presidential election year. There are still a handful of states that will be holding their presidential primary elections or caucuses this month, and then the eyes of the nation will be focused on the Midwest this summer, as Republicans hold their national convention in Milwaukee in July, followed by the Democratic national convention in Chicago in August. 

Fundraising events have been well underway for quite some time, and it seems like the political punditry hasn’t ever let up since the last presidential election. Rallies, speeches and protests will be coming on strong, and soon MAGA caps and Biden-Harris T-shirts will be flooding the market – with yard signs, bumper stickers and campaign buttons to follow. 

With less performative zeal, but perhaps even more dedication, a smaller subset of citizens is gearing up for the role they’ll be fulfilling on the front lines of democracy: at the polling place. 

Election workers had a rough go of it four years ago. Running for a second consecutive term in office, President Trump and his allies regularly blasted the integrity of the elections and the trustworthiness of election workers. Though later proven in court cases to be false, those claims in the moment led to the intimidation and harassment of hundreds of poll workers all around the country.

The chilling effect on America’s elections process was undeniable. In mid-term elections just two years later, more than half of the jurisdictions across America found it hard to recruit poll workers. 

Running a fair and transparent election process is fundamental to perpetuating our democracy, and it’s essential to have enough well-trained election workers to make that happen. For the upcoming presidential election, the United States Election Assistance Commission is working to ensure that elections departments throughout the country have the workers and training needed to keep America’s voting infrastructure secure, reliable and accessible to all registered voters.

To get a sense of the challenges that elections workers have to deal with, we spoke with two different election workers. To protect their privacy, we’re not using their real names or revealing the state they work in – but each individual takes on the seasonal work opportunities provided by their county’s elections department.

During the November 2023 election, both were working in one of the voting centers that received an envelope containing fentanyl. This dangerous stunt took place in elections offices across the country from Georgia to California, and is being investigated by the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service as an act of terrorism.

In the location where Anne and Zachary worked, it meant evacuation of the building and bringing in a professional cleaning crew – delaying the work of counting ballots by several hours.

“It’s unsettling, of course,” Zachary says. 

And as one of the drivers who goes around to make regular pick-ups of ballots at drop-boxes throughout the county, he’s had other uncomfortable moments, too – such as encountering a citizen who, sporting a gun in a shoulder holster, had assumed “watch” at one of the drop-boxes. Zachary notes that while it is perfectly legal to observe the actions of elections workers, there’s a difference between observation and intimidation. With security in mind, the elections workers who pick up ballots at drop-boxes always travel in pairs. 

More often, the driving teams have to grapple with other challenges that are annoying rather than dangerous. Sometimes folks deposit garbage in the drop-box slot, for instance, or use it as a regular USPS mailbox. Back at the county’s centralized voting center, everything gets sorted out properly.

Anne has performed several different tasks for the elections department over time. She has helped to register new voters, performed data entry, verified signatures, opened and sorted ballots, and answered phones. 

Sometimes callers just “wanna chew on a bureaucrat,” she says, which isn’t necessarily fun, but it gives her the opportunity to convey factual information and dispel rumors. “I prefer that people call and ask what is happening, rather than assume the worst.” 

Elections officials have responded to the public’s desire for more transparency in the vote-counting process. In addition to hosting observers designated by the Democratic and Republican political parties and/or nonpartisan observers from the League of Women Voters, many election headquarters also provide continuous video surveillance of their operations that the general public can view online. Some voting centers even allow public tours via an observation loop on the outside of the secured ballot processing center. And in some places, voters can track when their own ballots have been processed and counted.

Zachary and Anne each emphasize that election workers are held to a high ethical standard. 

“You don’t horse around,” Zachary says. “We [election workers] never talk about politics. And there’s absolute security that needs to be attended to – locks, security codes cross-checked, tracking. Everything is prescribed.”

Both workers say that are proud of the job they do. They’re dismayed when they hear people talking about elections being rigged, because as elections workers they witness every day the careful adherence to procedures that protect the accuracy of the voting process.

But they also hear from people who thank them for their work in the voting center.

“To me, it’s a labor of love,” Anne says. “We’re part of a group of people who want to do things right. We’re helping people exercise their civil rights.”

Barbara Lloyd McMichael is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest. 



Barbara McMichael

Barbara Lloyd McMichael is based in the Pacific Northwest and writes about books and culture. She writes a syndicated weekly book review column called  “The Bookmonger” that focuses on Northwest books and authors. Her PR for People® Book Review is written exclusively for The Connector. 

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