what i learned as a voter protection agent 2016 presidential elections Food for Thought

The Wake Up Call I Needed

This Food For Thought essay has zero to do with food, but in light of what I witnessed and experienced while I was on voter protection on 11/8/2016, and the results of the most recent Presidential election, I haven’t been able to think about much of anything other than politics. Even though it isn’t a great fit for Impatient Foodie/part of our regularly scheduled programming, I thought some people might be interested. I ate a pre-packed kale salad in my friend’s car and subsisted on deli coffee while for my 9-hour Voter Protection shift, so with that one mention of food, here we go: 

On the morning of November 8th, I was leaving my front house with old boots on when a little voice in my head said, “put your sneakers on instead in case you’re scared and have to run.” I had signed up to do Election Day voter protection with two friends and had no idea what to expect. In the event that someone showed up with a gun – or multiple people showed up with guns, as was threatened – I wanted to be sure I could get the hell out of the way. To be totally honest, my fear was probably also tied up in feeling totally unprepared. If you can believe it, signing up for voter protection took all of about 90-minutes. I filled out a form online, chose the city I wanted to volunteer in, and took an 80-minute online course. That’s it. So, armed with a voter protection app and my sneakers, I drove to Philadelphia with my two buddies.

We arrived in Philadelphia about 10:30 AM. Our polling place was in a large, multi-building elementary school in a low income neighborhood. As voter protection, we were not allowed to enter the building and had to stay at least 10 feet away from the door at all times. Legally speaking, apart from voters, only certain people with specific roles are allowed inside a polling place. Without getting into the weeds of the various roles, suffice to say that the people inside are meant to be a small ecosystem of checks and balances to ensure that everyone gets to vote… in theory. But frankly what I witnessed over my 9-hour shift made me fear for the survival of our democracy.

First of all, almost everyone seemed confused as to what the laws were with regard to voting.  Frequent questions from voters included, “I’ve been voting here for multiple years, do I need photo ID?” (No.), or “I moved recently, but just down the street, am I still registered?” (Yes).  But I also got other worrisome questions like, “Can I register and vote today?” (No, the last day to register in the state of Pennsylvania was October 11th), and even this: “Who is running for president?” Honestly, the first feeling that came up for me was envy – how nice to have spared yourself from the poison of the last several months! Followed by shock and sadness, because WOW. I considered that this could have been a test to see if I was keeping my voter protection promise to be non-partisan, so I tried to explain both candidate’s positions in as neutral language as I could (not easy). Turns out, this person genuinely did not know.

Things within the polling place weren’t exactly going smoothly either. Many voters – the vast majority of whom were minorities – were being turned away from the polls at a consistent enough rate that it was worrisome to me. On average, if 50 people came through an hour at least 10-15 would have some kind of issue. This is where Voter Protection would come in:  We would consult the Pennsylvania Board of Elections app, verify their information and registration status, explain their legal rights, and arm them with information to confront the issue, and cast a ballot. After a while, it became clear that most of the problems were happening because several of the poll workers were undertrained and therefore creating obstacles.  For example, many times a voter was in the right place, but just at the wrong table, but the poll workers wouldn’t advise them to go to another table, or offer any kind of trouble shooting at all, they’d just tell the voter they were in the wrong place and the person would leave. Another common problem was that voters who registered more recently would only appear in the supplemental rolls, not the main roll books. The poll workers often only checked their main book and, if they wouldn’t find the voter’s name, would tell the them that they weren’t registered and turn them away. To be clear, I can’t say with certainty that these people were being intentionally obstructionist. I think it is safe to say that incompetence was an issue, as well as lack of interest in helping voters (many of whom were also uneducated about the process) cast their ballot. These problems did seem to decrease after we repeatedly sent voters back inside, but then that kind of backfired too.

At one point two of the poll workers (who were clearly Trump supporters) grew frustrated with being second guessed so they got up, complained that they were “sick of this shit!”, and left, leaving just one Democratic poll worker at their table. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. To double down on the dramedy, the remaining Democratic poll worker decided she wasn’t going to do all the work on her own, so she left too. I watched them drive away. Thankfully, an election judge inside pulled workers from some other tables to fill the vacated one.  As the newly placed poll workers looked through the work of the morning, they saw that only 22 voter names had been put in the log book, when at least 120 people had come through to that table. That means in the event the election had been contested, only 22 of the 120 votes cast that morning would have been counted.

More drama flared when another Trump supporter, who was also the Republican party ward leader, screamed at a Latino Hillary supporter for wearing a “Hard Hats For Hillary” t-shirt. He insisted loudly that the Hillary supporter was not allowed to vote with a political shirt on, threatened to throw him out, and/or call the police. Whoever tried to intervene got yelled at too. Things almost got ugly, but eventually the situation calmed down when the Trump supporter was informed by his own supervisor (via phone) that he was incorrect – Pennsylvania law allows anyone to wear pro-campaign shirts and buttons into the polling place while placing their vote.

Over the course of a 9-hour shift I estimate that we helped about 75 people vote who otherwise would have been turned away, given incorrect information, or just given up. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal keep in mind that it means that 17% of the people who showed up had problems voting (I am estimating approximately 450 people came through our polling place in 9 hours). 75 votes in a single neighborhood might not be enough to change the results of an election, but if you replicate that in thousands of counties across the Nation and you amass those numbers that can swing states. For example, Trump won Pennsylvania by less than 1%, so multiplying the problems we saw in Philly across state alone could have been significant. Same for Wisconsin and Michigan, which Trump won by 1.0% and 0.3% respectively.

So for all of us out there who have not participated much in democracy apart from voting for a President once every four years (myself included), this is our wake up call. Showing up for a political protest is great, and sharing information on Facebook and Twitter is fine – I’ll be doing that too. But what is even more meaningful and impactful is getting involved in the not so fun or glamorous work of democracy – things like being informed about voter laws, registering voters, working the polls, signing up for voter protection, and, you know, actually showing up to vote every single chance we get. In the end, we don’t need sneakers to run, we just need to show up.


Join the conversation