[Update: The Buffalo News published this piece on November 15, 2021 in its “My View” column at: https://buffalonews.com/opinion/my-view-face-of-democracy-isn-t-always-pretty/article_8fb313f6-459d-11ec-97c4-e30c30eb3ceb.html. A print version was included in the following day’s newspaper.]
This election day was unlike any in my past.
On November 2, I worked as an “Election Inspector.” Preparation included a three-hour training session, and absorbing the contents of the Board of Elections’ 50-page instructions manual. One point was stressed: On election day, poll workers are “The Face of Democracy.”
Little did I know that awakening at 4 A.M., and arriving at my assigned polling location by 5:30, would be the easiest task.
Our polling place hosted eight polling districts, each with its own two-digit number. The room was a bit too small for its intended purpose, and the eight districts were only provided six tables. Given the physical limitations, cooperation amongst the districts and workers would be essential if the anticipated stream of heavy voting was to flow smoothly. That’s not exactly what happened.
Don’t get me wrong. Most of the poll workers were welcoming, cooperative, and professional. But it was immediately apparent that a few of the “Faces of Democracy” were not in a mood to make decisions in a democratic fashion. Nor were they willing to follow the directions in the BOE manual to “treat your fellow inspectors with respect at all times.”
Here’s one example. Common sense would dictate that the districts and tables be set up in numerical order, from lowest to highest, to assist the voters in locating their districts. When the doors were unlocked, however, an election inspector from the lowest-numbered district grabbed a table a distance from the entrance door, and adamantly refused to relocate to the front table. That stubbornness resulted in randomly-located sign-in tables, and numerous puzzled expressions on the faces of the voters as they searched for their polling district.
Perhaps this situation could have been avoided if the BOE had assigned one person the role of making logistical decisions, and resolving disagreements amongst the eight districts. Without a specific person in charge, eight self-appointed “chairpersons” were left to their own devices.
Thankfully, most – but not all – decisions were made cooperatively. At mid-day, one poll worker suddenly decided to re-position the tables that were being used by voters to privately mark their ballots. That move led to a visible and public argument between two district “chairs.” Certainly not an attractive face to show the voters.
Similar tensions and inconveniences occurred occasionally among the four individuals assigned to a specific district.
The BOE manual directs each district chairperson to delegate, and then periodically rotate, the primary responsibilities amongst the four-person team: operating the poll book, issuing ballots, supervising the privacy area and scanner, and greeting the voters at the door. This sensible approach was disrupted when an election inspector sat down at the assigned table – with novel, thermos, and other personal items in hand – and announced an unwillingness to change seats during the course of the day. The chairperson, not wishing to create a scene, was forced to move the election documents – not poll workers – each time tasks were rotated. The tension was palpable.
I have no doubt that I did or said something to annoy my fellow poll workers during the challenging 16-hour day. But I consciously tried to work as a member of a team. While there is a good chance I won’t return as a poll worker next year, I’m glad to have learned what democracy looks like. It resembles each of us, foibles and all, and relies on cooperation and compromise to function effectively.
With All Due Respect,