By H. Harrison Coleman IV
What does a seventeen-year-old do in an election he cannot vote in? What if that teenager were especially politically active? And what if that teenager lived in a state where a student could get time off of school, bulk up his resume for college, and get paid, all while engaging with the electoral process? The stars just happened to align for me, and I spent November 3 as a poll worker.
Applying was an easy enough process. I called the Leavenworth County Clerk’s office, signed some paperwork to clear things with my school and I was ready to go.
I went to the county courthouse two weeks before the election for my training to be a poll worker. The clerk explained how the system would operate: a voter would come in, give us their ID, we would authenticate and validate their ID and voter registration, and we would give them their ballot. I was the youngest in the group of poll workers, a trend that would continue through Election Day. The training ended quickly, and I left the courthouse with a marginally better idea of how democracy worked than when I entered. Several days later, I received a phone call.
Every polling place was staffed by a few poll workers and supervised by a supervising judge, the person who had called me. She explained that I would work with four women and three men. My polling location would be a church in the town I live in, and I would be working for fourteen hours from 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM—one hour before the polls opened and one hour after they closed.
When I arrived around 6:00 AM on Election Day, I was immediately introduced to my fellow poll workers. As I suspected, I was the by far youngest. We quickly got to work, measuring social distancing markers, putting signs outside and setting up the equipment. Naturally, as the youngest, I was doing the heavy lifting.
We agreed that we would have “roles” in the church: I would be working on crowd control for the first few hours, while the others worked to assist voters and handle supplies. The first crowd was the largest: about 36 people were lined up to vote by the time we opened.
I’ll admit I was bracing for a much rowdier crowd. But the voters who came in were nice, quiet, wore their masks, didn’t wear any political paraphernalia and followed social distancing.
My job became more clear as I realized I would be spending a large amount of my time teaching people how to work a voting pen. A voting pen is much like a regular ballpoint ink pen in almost every conceivable way, except for a small rubber tip at the end opposite the nib. This was for voters to sign their names on the screen we showed them in order to collect their signature (the ink part was for the ballots, which were on paper).
Apart from one voter who was concerned that the color of the pen would determine which candidates she was able to vote for (which, if you ask me, would be an ingenious voter suppression plot), everything worked smoothly. Once the more seasoned workers realized there would not be a horde of unruly voters descending on the polling place, I was sent to work at the registration table.
My job at registration was to write down a candidate’s name on a sheet of paper and then hand voters a slip of receipt paper that they exchanged with another poll worker for their ballot. Because the precinct my polling place was located in served two separate state congressional districts, there were two separate ballots, and most of our time was spent determining which district a voter lived in.
Unlike my previous role, which placed me in the hallway and front entrance of the church, I was now in the room where the votes were being counted. I also could see where people were voting in the privacy of their voting booths. The marked ballots were then fed into a machine that counted and stored the ballots inside a locked safe box. It was illuminating to see what democracy looks like in person.
Eventually, the stream of voters slowed to a trickle, giving us a break to eat the snacks and lunches we brought. There was no great rush of voters like at the beginning, but there were enough coming in and out that we didn’t have a lot of time for eating.
We were worried that there might be fanatic Trump supporters watching the polling process, a practice that is illegal in Kansas. All watchers have to be certified with the state or county to be let into polling places. There were, however, several observers who were there legally.
Mostly, the poll observers were from local campaigns, but the Kansas Democratic Party and the Kansas Republican Party each sent watchers. They filtered in and out, never staying longer than a few hours. They never interfered with anything—mostly because we did our jobs right—and were very talkative and kind. We had no problems with them, and I was rather disappointed to see many of them go.
As the voting wrapped up and the polls closed, we began the process of cleaning up. As we finished, I went over to the machine that the ballots were put into. They were printing off a final receipt of the votes, and there were no surprises there—this is a Republican county, and the results reflected that reality.
However, one of the best parts of the day came when the machine that the votes were inserted into rattled off a list of write-in candidates. I’m not one to call races, but I’d say, based on the write-ins alone, the candidates “Jesus” and “None of the Above” had a fair shot at the presidency.
Working at the polls was an illuminating experience. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how the game of voting is played and how democracy unfolds. I found that being a poll worker again was not out of the question at all. Now that I’ve become a part of the electoral process, what’s stopping me from doing it all again?