On November 3, 2020, I stepped outside my door at 5:45 a.m. and walked the four-block distance to First United Methodist Church for my election worker debut. (Because of COVID, Winterset Precincts 1 and 2 were combined into a single polling location.) I wore a face mask I stitched myself (two layers of batik with hair-tie ear straps) and carried a plastic face shield given to me by a friend.
Earlier in the year, when I read in the Madisonian (our county newspaper) Madison County was understaffed for poll workers, I decided to sign up. When I phoned the county auditor’s office, I was shocked to find out the standard shift is from 6 a.m. until after the polls close at 9 p.m. I also learned that poll workers have to be equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. If I could recruit a couple of other Democrats to share my shift, I could get a break in the middle of the day. I phoned two friends.
During training at the Madison County Courthouse Annex in October, I learned that the county’s computer system for elections is internal, not connected to the Internet. I learned how to check registered voters’ photo IDs with their faces and their recorded addresses, how to update addresses if need be, what forms of proof of address are acceptable, how to register a voter that day, and what do do if “convicted felon” popped up on the screen. The training team, led by our county auditor (a Republican,) delivered the clear message: “People want to vote. Our job is to help them.”
As a first-timer, I entered the church basement with trepidation. I did not want to mess anything up. When I was offered the job of sanitizing the twenty or so voter stations (round tables scattered around the large room, two or three fold-out cardboard privacy screens atop each) rather than operating a computer terminal, I jumped at that simple duty, donned my shield and disposable gloves, and picked up the spray bottle. Let the seasoned poll workers run the computers! I was also tasked with directing voters toward the back exit and offering them an “I VOTED” lapel sticker as they left.
For hours, I sprayed and wiped tabletops between each voter. At one point, when I needed to blow my nose, I stepped into the ladies room, removed my shield, my glasses, my mask, and my hairband, used my tissue, and reversed the process. It took a full minute. When my relief came, I walked home, made a sandwich, and put my feet up for a while, then returned to reclaim my cleaning supplies and jump back in. I felt kind of like a restaurant hostess, and I worked that role to lighten the mood, calling out, “Table for one right over here,” asking, “Would you like to see the wine list?” or saying, “I’ll be back later with the dessert tray” as they took their seat. A smattering of voters appreciated my humor.
All went well throughout the day, and I was astounded at the stamina of my fellow workers, many of whom have worked elections for years.* Rarely did a voter wait more than a few minutes for a station. Credentialed members of both parties were allowed in to observe. Tensions rose slightly when our single electronic ballot box jammed, but our chair quickly called for assistance, and the machine was unjammed and restarted within fifteen minutes. As day became night, I added a new quip as I directed voters to the exit: “You’ll come out in the alley behind the church, but don’t worry, you’ll still be in Winterset.” My co-poll-workers thought that was hilarious.
From 8:00 until 8:59, all was quiet, but then a final voter arrived on the stroke of 9. Our machine had been unplugged seconds before she walked in, but our chair dutifully escorted her to a secondary machine available for voters with disabilities, booted it up, and helped her vote. Once she finished, the protocols for properly recording the results, turning the ballots over to county officials, and packing up the computers and other election equipment began. Because I can print neatly, I was charged with hand-recording the write-ins, dismayed to have to write “MICKEY MOUSE” more than once. I walked home around 10:30.
Throughout the day, I watched in awe as our bipartisan team of poll workers crossed every “t” and dotted every “i” to make sure our work was beyond reproach. I was disappointed my candidate did not carry my precinct—or my state—but it never would have occurred to me to question the results. When anyone talks about the election of 2020, I’ll always be able to say, “I was there. I saw with my own eyes how a free and fair election is conducted.”
*Our team was all women.
Bravo! Your work, participation in the democratic system and belief in justice are admired. Congratulations to all those fellow workers who worked with you.
Sharon, they are the “salt of the earth” type of people.
Pamela W Weeks
Thanks so much for your time and your post.
Thank you, Pam. Hope to see you in person this year!
Thanks Marianne, for this account. So similar to my experiences working the Jefferson-Lee precinct the past 6 years. After being in the middle of it I have SO much confidence in our election system and am so grateful to our auditors, state officials, and our county and state budget which has allowed us to upgrade equipment, the security (no internet), and commitment to honesty among the workers regardless of party. As a Democrat in Madison County I always feel a little broken-hearted about mid-afternoon when I realize how few Democrats there are in our precinct and how my long day has been used in the facilitating of so many Republican votes – but that’s democracy and I’m glad to play my part. You captured it so well!
Laura, yes, I facilitated way more Republican votes than Democrat ones, but my job, my duty, was to assist all voters, and I did that, even the ones that, as it turned out, voted for Mickey Mouse. When I called the auditor’s office yesterday to make sure the terminology in my post was accurate, I happen to know the county employee who answered the phone happens to be a Democrat. After she answered my question I told her helping out had been a meaningful experience for me. When she asked if I’d do it again, I said, “absolutely.”
I so enjoyed your post. Thank you for being a poll worker and telling us what it was like on the inside and what your experience was.
Thank you, Robin.
Thank you, Glenda.
Thank you for your service. It is so important to who we are and it’s something we can all do together no matter what bucket we’ve dumped ourself into.
Indeed, Beth. Our “mixed-party” team worked seamlessly, tirelessly.
Thank you for letting us know what being a poll worker does. Here in Kentucky the job is pretty much the same. I have never done it, but now I am inspired and will apply. Personally I requested a mail-in ballot. I REALLY LIKE mail-in. Did Iowa offer that option to everyone?
Judy, yes, Mark and I requested mail-in ballots. I filled mine in and walked it over to the courthouse prior to November 3.
Thank you for stepping up!
I’m proud of my Sister Marianne once again. Thank you for serving on election day. I also relate to your disappointment in results in YOUR state. You were like me in MY state, TEXAS; Disappointed with your state results but accepting.
Hi Jim. I remember when I first moved to Madison County, it was solidly Democratic. The wheels turn.
I am joining in thanks not only for working the polls but also in writing about it. I’ve been a poll worker for quite some time. I’m beginning to think it should be required, like jury duty. If more people would work the polls they’d be less likely to be convinced that election fraud could be rampant.
Lois, you are most welcome, and I think your idea of putting election assistance on a par with jury duty is a brilliant idea. Maybe I’ll write my congresswoman about that!
Thank you for doing this job! I live in Michigan and this is one of the first years than I have not done a job very similar to yours and I have tried to get people who are afraid of the elections to work an election and see how they are really run. It is a well oiled machine in my book. We also had to have 2 dems and 2 republicans all the time, no matter what we were doing we always had one from each party. Our computer system was also off line and everything went on to a flash drive at the end of the night. We all had to take our turns on the computer, as the one handing out ballots, or the one who made sure the electronic ballot box was working correctly. We also had to have one from each party sign off on anything, like the absentee ballots that we worked side by side on. It is a very long day, but rewarding, and a job that has to be done for our country to function as it should. It really restored my faith that the process is as safe as it can be, at the local and county level. Thank you for doing this.
Thank you for confirming your Michigan experiences have been the same as my new one in Iowa.
What a wonderful report. I am completely confident of vote tallies–and the talliers–of Madison County, Iowa.
I have watched you over the years on Love of Quilting and always liked the way you and Liz Porter worked together. You were my first quilting teacher. I do hope you are well. Are you settled in Winterset or Chicago? I always thought you would be the owner of a fabric store because your quilts were made of such beautiful fabrics.
Hello Joanne, and thanks for your nice note. Yes, I am well and still in Winterset. Liz relocated to near Austin several years ago. We are both still quilting, but my main focus these days is writing (fiction) and boosting my home town by serving on the boards of two local nonprofits, the Iowa Quilt Museum and Iowa Theater. You can learn a lot about what I’m doing by sifting back through my various blog posts.