Polling in PJs: A Day in the Life of an Election Worker

By Chinwe Oniah

Tonight, I’m cleaning out my garage. Not because it’s dirty or cluttered, but because I’m expecting a lot of guests tomorrow. I need to move some boxes, sweep the floor, finally put those pots and pans on the shelf. I also need to set up the tables, lay out the reading material, and hang some signs. Cleaning is deceptively relaxing; tomorrow has the potential to be hectic, and there’s a lot at stake. I don’t know exactly who’s going to show up—certainly some people I’ve never met before—but I’m hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

Tomorrow, people across the country will cast their votes for this midterm election. And some of them will do it in my garage.

Poll workers aren’t recognized for what they do. There’s no hashtag shout-out, no guest appearances on Ellen.

It’s not my first rodeo—I’ve managed a polling place a few times now—but every time I ask myself, “Why are you still doing this?” The paycheck isn’t great, and the stress of counting ballots…well, let’s just say miscounting isn’t an option. And then there’s the fact that I’ve got relative strangers wandering around my garage, bumping into boxes of unopened kitchen appliances, getting a peek into my family’s very private life.

You might not know how stressful this job can be if you came by. Yes, what we’re doing in my garage is official business: We’re voting for senators! Representatives! Governors! Measures we didn’t even know the names of until the week before! But, in the comfort of my own home in unremarkable Tracy, California, it doesn’t feel that way. Honestly, it doesn’t feel any different than having a garage sale—and, in my town, someone is always having a garage sale.

When the polls open at 7 AM, I’m in my PJs. I’m giving out good mornings, and I’ve got an egg sandwich on the shelf, which I steal bites from whenever I can. My poll workers, however, are more straight-laced. It’s understandable. For most of them it’s their first time working an election, and they’re a little uncomfortable being in someone else’s house. But they loosen up, too. They bust out books, whisper over word searches, and have light-hearted sports debates.

And not just the poll workers. The voters themselves seem to enjoy themselves—commenting on how clean (or dirty) my garage is, laughing about using the chest freezer as a voting booth. It’s its own sort of comedy.

I remember a mother-daughter duo who came to my polling station last year. The mom looked like she was in her early 60s. Her daughter looked to be in her early 20s with the stress of raising two children showing around her eyes.

What happens in my garage can change the direction of our nation’s history. But no pressure. Why am I still doing this again?

They entered adjacent booths, bouncing back and forth, making conversation about last minute decisions. Loudly.

“I don’t know about all these referendums! I ain’t never seen this!”

“Hmm! I’m not voting for–”

“Man, I’m nervous!”

I had to remind them to keep their votes to themselves and do their best. This was the mom’s first time voting in a midterm and her daughter’s second time. When they were done, they hung outside to relax and crack some jokes. They were hilarious.

“You should be a comedian!” one of my other neighbors said.

For more than 12 hours, people from down the street, around the corner, and as far as half a mile away come through my garage to vote. Some neighbors tell me they like how laidback the whole process is, but this isn’t a gig we take lightly. We go strictly by the book, and we defer to our field inspectors with even the smallest questions or concerns. Any major screw-ups, and we could be convicted of a felony.

What happens in my garage can change the direction of our nation’s history. But no pressure.

Why am I still doing this again?

Voting is our civic duty and a cornerstone of democracy. At 18, when someone came to my high school looking for poll workers, I understood that. I was even excited to vote for the first time. But I was still a kid. And broke.

I was there to make $110.

Ten years later, it’s funny to think that I’m still doing this work and this time not for the paycheck. Poll workers aren’t recognized for what they do. There’s no hashtag shout-out, no guest appearances on Ellen. But giving people a ballot to vote? That feels like licking the seal of an envelope—it’s final, it’s satisfying, and it’s a mess to undo.

And giving people an “I Voted” sticker when they leave? That’s the cherry on top. Man, do the people love their stickers.

 

Chinwe Oniah is former California intern and a freelance writer based in the Bay Area. She ran track on scholarship at UC Riverside and plays classical and jazz piano. For more of her work, visit www.chinweoniah.com.

Filed under: Perspectives
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