November 8, 2016 · My Experience As A Democratic Poll Watcher in the South

That fateful November morning in 2016

Somewhat nervously, I pulled on my newly acquired pantsuit and donned my official poll-watcher badge. Today America would be voting into office the first female President of the United States, and I would be there to witness it!

Frustration and disbelief consumed me, when Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s candidate. The outright racism, misogyny, etc. combined with his complete disregard for the truth, shook me to my core.

Living in Tennessee, I’m surrounded by his supporters (including friends and family members.) With the unending right-wing propaganda being spewed about voter fraud, I decided to volunteer as a poll watcher for the Democratic Party. That way, I hoped to prove that Democrats cared equally about the sanctity of the democratic process.

A spy in our midst

I was assigned three precincts to oversee on election day. Upon arrival at each, my first responsibility was to report to the Precinct Officer, show my credentials to them, and sign the Register of Poll Watchers. I tried to exude confidence, as I arrived at the first polling place 30 minutes early, as instructed.

A line of anxious voters had already formed outside, but that didn’t faze the polling place veterans inside. This group of seniors have been working together for decades and they knew who had the keys to the door.

Polling officials are appointed (on the state and local level) by the party in power, so 99% of the workers in this precinct were Republicans. The lone exception being a quiet woman who greeted voters as the came into the gym. She was there to make voters feel comfortable, in a bipartisan way, as she verified if they were in the right place. By law, a representative from each party should be sitting at that table. Unfortunately, that was not the case at all of the precincts I visited.

My “Poll Watcher” badge helped me sidestep the long line of waiting voters, and get inside before the precinct opened. I asked a white-haired woman, if she could direct me to the Precinct Officer. She led me across the divot-filled wood plank floor and introduced me to Ed. Inspecting me from head to toe, he then suspiciously raised an eyebrow at me, as if he was questioning my legitimacy. “I don’t have time to talk to you, I’m very busy!” he announced, marching away across his kingdom (otherwise known as the Methodist church gymnasium.)

Unfazed by Ed’s dismissive greeting, I sat in a metal folding chair against a wall, and waited patiently for the polls to open. The other poll workers attempted to look busy, while stealing sideways glances at the interloper in their midst. They sat like judges at a competition, behind the long tables lined with large lined registers broken down by voters’ addresses. Suddenly, one of them pushed back in her chair, got up and bravely ventured over to me.

Betty, the one-woman welcome committee, wore a holiday-type sweater embroidered in a voting day motif (I kid you not!) She kindly stuck out a slender hand that looked to be riddled with arthritis and introduced herself. She said I should meet, “the others,” and took me around to introduce me to her fellow poll workers.

Repeatedly, I assured my new friends that I wasn’t there to police anyone. Like them, I was simply there to make to sure all registered voters had the opportunity to vote. By combining this explanation of my presence, along with some talk about the weather, the apprehensive seniors seemed to relax a bit.

At the appointed hour, they unlocked the glass doors, and voters filed into the gymnasium. Trying to project a slightly authoritative (yet neighborly) posture, I smiled at the voters as they slowly passed by. It was important that I keep a respectful distance away from everyone yet try to observe what was going on. I wandered around at a casual pace, nonchalantly noting what was happening at each station, while making sure no one felt like they were being ‘watched.’

30 minutes later, Ed the Precinct Officer, couldn’t put off talking to me any longer, and made his way over. He’d been unable to find the official Register of Poll Watchers, and said he wasn’t really sure he’d ever seen one, because, “We’ve never had one of you poll watchers in here before.” Reinforcing his attitude of dismay and frustration at my presence. He followed with, “So, you’re watching the polls to make sure there’s no cheatin’? Well, good for you, you’re working for Trump then!” I forced the corners of my mouth, into a tight grin, as if I appreciated his good ‘ol boy sense of humor. Trying to break through his crusty veneer, I repeated my “I’m not here to police anyone…,” spiel yet again. He sighed with resignation, handed me a sheet of blank paper to sign, shoved it into a stack of file folders he held, and hurried away.

Grandpa, what big eyes you have!

I wandered toward the exit, and saw a Grandpa-looking fellow standing at the ballot box/machine instructing people to feed their ballots in face up. Grandpa then looked down at everyone’s ballot selections as they rolled into the machine!  Shocked and in disbelief, I needed to confirm that what I just saw happen, was actually happening. “There you go, just like that.” OMG he did it again! Taking deep breaths to compose myself, I waited for a break in the line and asked him if the ballots could also go in face down. “Either way is fine, but we want to make sure their ballots don’t get hung up.” he responded in a professorial tone.

I attempted to act like I could see his point of view, then suggested that perhaps the voters might be feel like their privacy wasn’t being respected. Grandpa considered what I said, “Well, we’ve been doin’ it this way for years, so you better talk to Ed.” I found Ed nursing a small styrofoam cup of coffee and nibbling on a donut with sprinkles, by the gym’s kitchen. I repeated my concerns for the voters’ privacy, and he dismissed me by rolling his eyes and suddenly rushed off, saying, “I don’t have time for this!”

It suddenly seemed like a good time to go outside and get some fresh air.

When I returned to the gym about ten minutes later, I saw Ed giving some instructions to ‘Grandpa.’ I made my around the different stations, and when I finally got to Grandpa’s, I heard him say, “We just want to respect your privacy,” as a voter fed their ballot into the machine, face down.

Relieved, I headed off to visit my other precincts.

“Can you hold this for a minute?”

By my third visit to my assigned precincts, the poll workers greeted me like we were old pals, as I arrived. I’d proven to them that I wasn’t a threat, just a fellow patriot.

I watched hundreds of voters come through the polls on November 8, 2016. My southern neighbors’ enthusiasm to vote was palpable, and I secretly hoped at least some of their excitement was because they could finally vote for a female presidential candidate. As I held babies, loaned my glasses out, and gave them “I Voted” stickers, I simply saw people peacefully participating in the democratic process. I came home heartened that night, even if the odds weren’t truly in our favor.

I continue to think back to my poll watching experience two months ago, as I try to make sense of the votes many people cast that day.

As I interact with my conservative neighbors in Tennessee, I’ve had the opportunity to practice patience, kindness, generosity of spirit, and become a better listener. I strive to find our commonality, even with those who doggedly continue to defend their candidate months later.

Inevitably, many our friends, family and neighbors will realize the truth about the man they voted into office, so it’s vital that we not ostracize and vilify each other. We will need to come together as a country and move forward at some point, and we can’t do that if we’ve become sworn enemies.

If we can identify some common ground with our family and friends, we can find a way to maintain our relationships with those who supported Donald Trump. That way, when it’s time to start moving forward, and repairing the damage he will most certainly do, we can do so united, remembering that future generations are counting on us.

Pura vida, Penny

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