Portrait of a Poll Worker

So, as you’re walking to your polling place on Election Day (I’m not giving you the option — just do it), you’ll pass by some individuals hanging out front. They will politely offer you some literature and you will react in one of the following ways:

  • You will politely take it or refuse
  • You will utter something along the lines of “Hell no!” “Not from that party a**hole!” “Don’t you people have something better to do?” “Why do you hand that stuff out? If someone doesn’t know who they’re going to vote for by now, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote!” or something equally polite and/or sensitive.
  • You will make every effort to not make eye contact, but if you do, you’ll pretend you don’t speak English, offer an embarrassed shrug, and hurry past.

I’ve been one of those people standing out front for somewhere around 25 years. I was working polling places before I was old enough to drive or big enough to ride most amusement park rides (so for you smart asses out there, yes, that means before I was 25).

It started out as an obligation. My mom or dad would be working a polling place and they’d drag me with them. As I got a little older (around 14 or so I think), I would work the outside of the poll while my father was inside taking down names so that other volunteers could call the folks who hadn’t voted yet. And then I started doing it on my own.

Pretty much from the beginning of my mom’s career, I had my own polling place shifts. I did the fire station in Annandale, I did St. Albans Church (which I’ve now been working on and off again for about 20 years), I did Sleepy Hollow, Baileys, and Belevedere Elementary Schools — and churches, community centers, and schools all over Fairfax County. I always seemed to have pretty good luck drawing polling places where my mother’s opponents were working as well.

And in all this, I discovered some interesting things.

Old couples like to vote together — in fact, some couples I met had been voting together for more than five decades — and some of them were doing it with the stated intention of canceling their spouse’s vote. Of course, many were voting the same way, but it was the ones that went in bragging about how their vote was going to cancel out their spouse’s that always fascinated me. Did they really do it for just that reason? Did they really vote the way they said they were going to? Or, as I understand a little better myself now having been married for almost 15 years, is it just a little married-life joke that lives on as proof of your commitment to each other?

Some people don’t know who or what to vote for before they show up at the polls. It’s true, and its not just those stupid bond questions or ballot initiatives that most people never read — we’re talking state and federal offices here! But considering that most people don’t vote , especially here in Virginia, where (because of how local, state, and federal elections are scheduled) we have elections every year — can anyone really complain? I mean isn’t a vote decided on at the last minute still better than no vote at all? Especially since most people vote for candidates for silly reasons, i.e. the taller candidate, who they’d like to have a beer with, or whom they are related to.

In fact, here’s one of my best stories about both working at the polls and on why people vote the way they do: It was 1987 and my mom was running for re-election for the first time to the Va. House of Delegates. Her opponent was a local businessman named Strode Brent (how’s that for a politically unfriendly name?). He was basically plucked from obscurity and thrown up as the “pro-business” candidate.

Anyway, point was he was not a “natural” politician by any means and I was working the polls against him at Ravenwood precinct in Fairfax (polling place was my high school – JEB Stuart). A woman walked up and I gave her my best spiel: “Hi! Would you like a Democratic sample ballot? And I hope you’ll vote for my mom, Leslie Byrne!” (I was damn cute delivering this line!). She cuts me off and gives me a sort of “Humpf!” sound and seeing the Republican stalwart Mr. Brent right there, she walks up to him. “Hello Mr. Brent! I remember you — you came and walked through my neighborhood a few weeks ago” she says.

Strode stops — I mean he literally “stopped” — just seemed to go through a mental reboot for a second and he replies “I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.” The woman turns and walks into the polling place, only to return a few minutes later, and says, sotto voce, as she’s walking past me “I voted for your mom.”

Democracy in action!

And I’ll be out there again tomorrow, at least for a short evening shift. It might be raining, and some people will be grumpy because of the weather, or the wait, or just because it’s what they do on Election Day as they play the selfless martyr sacrificing their time to come and vote. But they’ll get no sympathy from me. Because I’ve also seen the 96-year old great grandmother come to the polling place, refuse the offer of the election worker coming to take her vote at the curb, and make her way into the polling place on her walker, at a slow and dignified pace. And I’ve seen the World War II vet come in, proudly displaying a flag lapel pin and a number of discrete medals on his jacket to cast his ballot. And I’ve seen the young immigrant couple bringing in their children to show them how this is done in the country they chose to live in, rather than the one where they were born.

And that’s probably one of the real reasons I do this year after year. Because even though I’m a natural cynic, I can’t help but enjoy seeing this play out every year, bearing witness in a way for each person that comes in to vote. And it’s not some schmaltzy “Oh, we’re a great country coming together to do this!” No, it’s more along the lines of “I will make sure my voice is heard, even if I don’t think my candidate or issue will win.”

As Thomas Jefferson said, “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then.” And what is voting but a ritualized resistance to government, or formalized rebellion?

So whether you’re voting for McCain or Obama, when you see those volunteer poll workers in front of your local polling place, give them a smile even if you don’t take their literature. They are there for the same reasons you are — to overthrow our current government and put in a new one. We may not all agree on the details, but in a conspiracy like this, that’s pretty much always the case 🙂