I never realized how complicated, and intimidating, the mechanics of voting actually were—until I worked as a poll worker in a New York primary this September.
“So, where do I go now?” people often asked after I handed them the ballot.
“Do I need to show an ID?” one woman inquired. (In New York, you do not.)
Then there were the rules to follow: Count and tally everything, which is a lot of things. Always stay five feet away from a polling booth. (At one point, my chair was not.) No talking politics. (Easy this year, since everyone’s sick of it anyway.) And, when in doubt, the veteran poll worker in our team figured it out.
It was also a slow primary day, so I spent much of my 15-hour shift in a chair reading Hillbilly Elegy during downtime.
As a journalist, I’ve covered elections, politics, and crises from on the ground in places like Egypt and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’ve watched as the democratic process has been bloodily hijacked. But in New York, everything went smoothly. Relative chaos only ensued at the end of the night, when my fellow election workers and I were tired, and struggled to apply a strict rulebook on how to clean it all up.
Next week, I’ll do it again, sitting behind another folding table as a poll worker. I’m not concerned about my team here in Manhattan, but across the country other poll workers are about to face a huge challenge. Elections always carry the risk of a little trouble, but this year’s extraordinary complications can be summed up in three words: Donald Trump’s campaign.
The Republican candidate for president, after all, is urging his supporters to beat the system. “Go down to certain areas and watch and study, and make sure other people don't come in and vote five times," he told a crowd in Pennsylvania in August. "Look, look, if nothing else, people are going to be watching on November 8. Watch Philadelphia. Watch St. Louis. Watch Chicago, watch Chicago. Watch so many other places," he told another rally in western Colorado.
And his supporters are answering the call. Poll watchers who sign up with his campaign—members of the Ku Klux Klan included—are greeted with this message: "Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!"
A host of villains inhabit Trump’s paranoid-fantasy world, not least the voters themselves, who, by dint of their demography, become would-be fraudsters. Among the implicit scoundrels, though, are my colleagues, our election poll workers, who are at the very least hapless accomplices. In reality, they are the least noticed but perhaps most important safeguard in our voting system.
Election poll workers, who are called election judges in some states, are usually in plain sight, but invisible—unless you’ve had a problem with one. They check your registration and signature, hand you that storied paper ballot or direct you to the electronic voting machine, and assist you with procedural questions along the way. On Election Day, they arrive around sunrise to set up the polling station and leave late at night after all the votes have been tallied and secured.
It’s not the sexiest of work and it barely pays, but our democratic process actually can’t happen without them.
And in this year’s crazed election—with Trump and other Republicans propagating false fear over rigged elections while voter rights’ groups warn of restrictive voter ID laws and amateur poll watchers suppressing and intimidating voters—poll workers, election officials will tell you, are essential to ensuring a smooth and credible outcome.
Poll workers are “critical for the democratic process,” David Ore, the clerk of Cook County, which includes Chicago, told me. “Letting Mr. Trump scare people is not a good thing.”
But even before this most unusual election, the poll worker system has always been a fairly messy one. It’s consistently under-resourced and undervalued, and now we’re facing the impact of this neglect.
There are no uniform poll worker standards across the country. Pay, training, and requirements vary widely between and within states, according to a 2014 report from the progressive think tank Demos. Poorly-trained and ill-informed election poll workers can have big consequences. According to the civil rights group Advancement Project, they can intimidate and turn away voters who they decide aren’t qualified—even if they are—and their inability to handle rushes, registrations, and questions that arise might lead to long lines and delays, which could further deter voters.
These problems are most pronounced in communities dominated by people of color, which tend to have fewer polling stations and inadequate resources, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The result is an increased burden to voting.
“One of the signal weaknesses of the system of election administration in the United States is the absence of a dependable, well-trained trained corps of poll workers,” a 2014 report by the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration concluded. “A survey of local election administrators on the issues specified in the President’s Executive Order identifies poll worker shortages as one of the leading concerns.”
The Commission also found that, on average, more than half of poll workers are older than 60. And over half of the states lack uniform training materials or guidelines—even as new voting laws and technologies mean there’s constantly more rules for poll workers to process. Only 30 states actually mandate training, the average lasting only 2.5 hours.
The poll worker system may have its flaws, but study after study shows that what it unequivocally does not lead to is voter fraud. The Brennan Center for Justice found that the rate of voter fraud incidents is between 0.00004% and 0.0009%—as in really, really rare. Another study found only 31 credible allegations of voter fraud in the U.S. between 2000 and 2014, while another recorded 10 cases of fraud by misrepresentation from 2000 to 2012—that’s 1 in every 15 million eligible voters.
Poll workers, however, are not always perfect public servants; a few incidents point to law-breaking on their parts. In 2015, four election workers in Philadelphia were charged with fraud after they added six votes to their machines at the end of the day to balance the number of signatures in their book with the machine count. An Ohio election poll worker with 15 years on the job was arrested in 2013 for voting twice in 2012 and three times—in 2008, 2011, and 2012—for her sister who was in a coma since 2003.
Trump’s exhortations to monitor supposed voter fraud center on several heavily African American cities. That Republicans kept mentioning Philadelphia “really frustrated” Ryan Godfrey, 45, an elected elections inspector in the City of Brotherly Love who works alongside poll workers. He considers the side job “a patriotic act.” Godfrey, who’s a political independent, took to Twitter in August to explain how the process actually works—like having all the machines and paperwork checked and documented by multiple election workers and officials—and protects against the kind of voter fraud Republicans have been forecasting.
The real danger that election workers and officials need to watch for this year is voter discrimination and suppression, argued Kristin Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
This will also be the first presidential election since a 2013 Supreme Court ruling “opened the door to discriminatory laws,” Clarke said, by striking down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling has enabled laws with new voting restrictions and put limits on the Justice Department’s right to send observers and poll monitors nationwide to protect against voter discrimination and intimidation.
Many, like Ryan Godfrey, are worried that election poll workers, particularly in contested hotspots, won’t be well enough trained with the rules of what can and can’t happen in a voting location and how to respond to an expected rise in self-proclaimed poll watchers trying to contest voter registrations and enter polling stations.
“They could definitely improve training with a list of what to do with voter intimidation and poll watchers,” Godfrey said. “They give it to us in a booklet but it could be more for sure.”
In Philadelphia, for example, poll watchers legally can only challenge voter registration in the counties in which they’re registered (though the Republican National Committee has sued to change that), while the local parties designate who actually fills the positions. Poll workers who aren’t informed of these rules might mistakenly allow others to illegally engage with voters.
For the first time, Denver and Aurora, CO, election officials updated their trainings to include what to do in the case of a mass shooting at voting booths. In states with open carry laws, election workers may be faced with cases in which the right to carry crosses the line into intimidation, said Pamela Smith of the non-partisan Verified Voting.
"The fact is that there are open carry laws and I think it’s important that poll workers are trained with how to deal with these situations," Smith said.
This year there are 14 states with new voter ID laws and restrictions. Kathleen Unger of Vote Riders, a nonpartisan voter information group, is worried that some poll workers won’t have the most updated information, which could lead them to turn away qualified voters. Even in states where there aren’t strict ID laws, “voters and poll workers are confused and some ask for voter ID,” Unger said. In response, Vote Riders has put together wallet-size voter ID information cards in English and Spanish. And the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund already filed a lawsuit against one Texas county for misinforming citizens about the state’s latest voter ID law.
All these difficulties don't make poll working a particularly attractive job for the uninitiated, said Jeremy Epstein, a poll worker in Fairfax County, VA. Epstein, a senior computer scientist at SRI International, a nonprofit think tank where he focuses on security issues around campaigns and elections, cites one main reason for continuing to work the polls: “I do it because of civic duty.”
Informed poll workers can have a big impact by performing routine duties like explaining to confused voters why aging machines may appear to be flipping votes. But Epstein knows it’s also a challenge to attract enough people—particularly young people comfortable with technology—to take on the job, especially since it pays around $70 to $200 dollars for the full day, depending on the county. The average poll worker is 73-years-old, he said, citing another Elections Commissions Assistance report, and “not tech savvy.”
“It’s a tough balance that they have in providing training to poll workers,” Epstein said. “People are generally not anxious to spend hours and hours getting training. But so much needs to be learned.”
Some states have recently raised the payment for election officials and judges, according to Demos. Fourteen states now tie their pay to a state or federal minimum wage and, in Alaska, it’s even more.
Other states, like North Carolina and Maryland, have worked hard to improve and standardize training or, like California, to attract more young and state employees. Half of states allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work at polls, Demos reported, which increases the likelihood they will continue engagement in future elections. California and Nebraska offer poll workers full- or half-day shifts, widening the class makeup of people who can participate. The Department of Agriculture allows its employees to take time off to serve as poll workers without loss of pay, as does California for its state employees. (The Center for Civic Design has created field guides for improvements.)
Making Election Day a national holiday would also ensure a greater number and diversity of people could work—not to mention cast their ballot—at the polls.
It wasn’t, to be honest, a sense of civic duty that first attracted me to election poll working. Back from abroad for a bit, I saw a sign in the New York City subway and thought: That’s easy, non-partisan money. The pay is comparably better in New York and most of my colleagues were African American or Latino and retired or un- and under-employed. They also knew the system in ways I’d never considered, like which polling stations offered the best amenities and what kind of voters to watch out for.
Hearing Trump say he’d contest the outcome of this election reinforced for me the importance of taking part November 8.
These days, I’m often in countries where trusted elections and clean transitions of power are not the default—and that we have it so good here, problems included, is something that I’m repeatedly reminded of. That’s why it’s also scary as hell to watch us now follow an all too familiar script.
So when you vote, be kind to your poll worker and, if you have the time and means, sign up to work the next election. This is, after all, for the good and bad, what our democracy looks like: us.
Miriam Berger is a freelance journalist with a love for all things media and Middle East. She has reported from there, Africa, and Central Asia for publications including BuzzFeed, the Associated Press, and Roads and Kingdoms.