2020 has been a year like no other, and the 2020 election was no different. Luckily for us, one of City’s very own teachers, Mrs. Jackson (née Donohue) volunteered* to be a poll worker on election day and agreed to share her story.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Describe a day in the life of a poll worker. What was election day like for you?
Extremely long, we had to be there at 6 AM ready to go. I even brought a bagel I hadn’t eaten yet and I didn’t get to eat it until 1:00, so you should definitely come ready. Our Chairperson was very much in charge of the process so as a first time worker it was relatively easy because she handled the process and I just followed her instructions. We also went to a two hour training a couple of weeks beforehand but it was still helpful to have someone with experience making most of the decisions.
There was a team of maybe eight to ten of us and we had to set up the whole poll station at the beginning of the day. We had to follow very specific instructions to set up the tabulator [machine that counts ballots]. There was a lot of learning going on constantly! We would switch jobs so you didn’t have to do the same thing all day, so I definitely learned a lot about many different aspects of the process.
It was a really cool experience to see people coming out in their community to vote. There were a lot of people who were first time voters, which I know because one of the tasks I was assigned to was making sure that all the first time voters who might not have encountered the machines before had their ballots counted.
People were there to make their voices heard and we had a steady stream of new people arriving all day. There was a lot to do and the staff didn’t go home until about 10 PM.
That sounds like a long shift! Did you get breaks during the day or was it just hectic the whole time?
We opened the doors at 7 AM and there were about 100 people in line so it was pretty slammed from 7 AM to 10 AM. After that it slowed down a bit and we all got to take a lunch break. It was definitely busiest in the morning but I was surprised that we didn’t really get a dinner break!
I’m sure we probably could have stepped out if we had wanted but what I noticed was that the people there were just so committed. People really didn’t want to leave or take a break, they would just always be finding something new to do. We were sanitizing all day long so that kept people busy, and some people were even reluctant to step out for lunch because they were just so enthusiastic about helping out.
It’s also hard to snack or drink when you have your mask on. For example if you wanted to take a sip of your coffee you would have to go to the kitchen, drink your coffee, and then come back because you want to be as safe as possible, so that was definitely an interesting dynamic for this year.
When you had breaks were you told any rules about leaving the polling place? Did you have to stay on site all day?
Yeah, we were allowed to go outside for breaks. I think in training they even said that if you really need to go pick up some food or take your dog for a walk that would be fine too, as long as you’re not gone too long. Personally, I just went out to my car and ate my snacks. It is the same group of people working from morning to night, you don’t do different shifts or switch in and out.
What made you decide to sign up? How did you go about getting involved?
One of my friends posted on Facebook that she was the chairperson of her local precinct and she wanted to encourage everyone to sign up because she said it was a really rewarding experience. That convinced me to get involved so I contacted the city and they assigned me to a neighborhood that wasn’t my neighborhood but was quite close by.
You mentioned switching around between a bunch of different responsibilities, can you describe some of them?
The first responsibility I had was helping people take their ballots and slide them into the tabulator so that they could be counted. Most of the time the machine accepts your ballot but sometimes it rejects and spits it back out, and of course we weren’t allowed to look at people’s ballots so we had to try and help people without looking at the problem! So that was definitely a struggle.
You have to wait until the machine says “ballot cast successful”, and once that happens you can tell them where to find the stickers on the way out. I did notice that a lot of people really wanted the stickers so that was fun to see, too.
That was my first job and I think it might have actually been my hardest job of the day because I was on my feet the whole time and there were always new people to help. There were a couple of times where people’s ballots were spoiled, probably because they accidentally filled in too many bubbles, and the machine won’t read it. When that happens they have to go back to the main table and fill out a new ballot while we would take their spoiled ballot and put it in a special envelope that still has to go to the city. There is definitely a system for everything, I learned that.
Another job I had was being the greeter who welcomed people as they came in, making sure that they were getting into the line, filling out their paperwork, finding their IDs, and that sort of thing. Towards the end of the day I started interacting with people more as they were getting in line, offering them sample ballots or helping them check that they were in the right precinct so that they didn’t have to wait in a long line only to find out that they were in the wrong spot.
That can really be voter suppression in a way, even though it is on them to know whether they’re in the right place or not, the time and frustration involved in standing in a forty minute line only to be sent to the next precinct over to wait again can really discourage people from voting. It was much better to let them know early when we could.
How digitized is the process? Is there any counting by hand or is it all done by the tabulator?
The ballots are all paper ballots but to check who you are you need to scan the back of your ID. That allowed us to look up each voter in a system called E Poll Book that checked whether they were registered, whether they were registered to that precinct, and whether their address was correct.
A lot of people move. This is what I really learned, so many people move away from where they were registered and don’t update their information and that can cause real problems. There are certain laws that allow you to continue voting in your old precinct for a certain amount of time but, after a certain point, you do have to go downtown and update your registration. You can change your address and do all of that filing on election day but you might have to go downtown, so it’s good to do it sooner rather than later.
The system would also tell us whether each person had been sent an absentee ballot and whether the city had received that absentee ballot returned. No one in line had sent their absentee ballots back to the city, so then we would have to ask them: “Where is your absentee ballot?” This is what all the talk about voter fraud is about and so we would have to explicitly ask them where it was and if they said it was still intact they would have to bring it in and surrender it to us. The people that answered they never received it or that it was destroyed or lost could sign a legal affidavit attesting to that, but anyone who said it was intact had to go home, get their ballot, come back, and hand it over. The electronic system was definitely a safeguard for all of those procedures to make sure everybody was voting accurately and one time.
Throughout the day the paper ballots are just sent through the tabulator to be counted. At the end of the night, though, we had to open up the tabulator to get all the ballots and they’re just loose in there! They’re not stacked or anything, you just have to take out the whole heap. Once we had them out we did have to go through and count the write-in votes since the machine can’t count the write-ins. We had to go through every ballot and if there were write-ins we had to check them against the ballot write-in list, since not everybody can be a write-in. You can’t just write yourself in for example, there are a finite number of candidates.
Then we had to put everything in its proper envelope, seal it, and sign it. Everybody on the team had to seal and sign everything before we sent them downtown.
Did you see any really unusual write in candidates?
Yeah, I did see one person who just wrote “me”. We don’t know who that me is because there’s no name on your ballot, of course, and then one person voted for President Michelle Obama with Vice President Kamala Harris.
You’ve already talked about some of this but is there anything else you want to mention about a day in the life of a ballot? How does each slip of paper go from printing to electing a President?
We get all of the ballots from the clerk’s office downtown. Have you ever seen how the SAT booklets arrive all wrapped in plastic? That’s how ballots are distributed to polling places. They even come with their special wheely backpack provided by the city to keep them safe. Once we have the ballots, we issue them to people using E Poll Book, they get put through the tabulator, and then at the end of the night we get them out, seal up the envelopes, and send them back downtown to the clerk’s office.
Is there anything else you want to mention about the experience?
I just really wanted to see the behind the scenes and to be active on election day. I had never signed up before and, when I told my mom that I was doing it, I actually learned for the first time that my grandmother served as a poll worker every year. I never met her because she passed before I was born, but I almost felt like I was walking in some kind of legacy. I also wanted to be involved in my community in new ways.
I think 2020 has taught us that nothing is stagnant and nothing is predictable, so I just wanted to be able to adapt to the times and to be of service. I was really grateful that I got to do it and that I got the day off to do it. I would encourage everyone to sign up at least once, even if you don’t plan on doing it regularly. It’s valuable to be able to see behind the scenes so that when people have questions about legitimate things like voter fraud you can speak to what you saw.
*Disclaimer: Poll workers in Grand Rapids do receive a small amount of monetary compensation from the city for their service