BEHIND ENEMY LINES? MY EXPERIENCE AS A DEMOCRATIC POLL WATCHER IN THE SOUTH

Put your pantsuit on Penny!

I confidently put on my newly acquired pantsuit that warm November morning. 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, once Donald Trump was named as the Republican Party’s candidate The outright racism, misogyny, etc. combined with his complete disregard for the truth, shook me to my core, and living in Tennessee, I was 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, and see what was really going on at the polls.

A spy in our midst

I was assigned three precincts that I would oversee and move between on election day. Upon arrival at each, my first responsibility would be to report to the Precinct Officer, show my credentials and sign the Register of Poll Watchers. I exuded confidence as I arrived at the first polling place, 30 minutes early.

A line of anxious voters already had formed outside, but that didn’t faze the seniors inside. This group of seniors had been working together for decades and they knew who had the keys to the door. Not surprisingly, polling officials are appointed by the party in power, on the state and local level, so 95% of the workers were Republicans. The exception being a lone Democratic polling clerk greeting voters and making them feel comfortable, in a bipartisan way, as their name address and political affiliation are verified. By law, there should be a representative at that table from each of the two dominant political parties, but that was not the case at all three of the precincts I was assigned.

Once inside the first polling place, I introduced myself to the Precinct Officer. He acted indignant, that the Democrats had sent someone in to spy on him, and slowly inched away from me, averting his eyes and anxiously tried to get away from me. You’d have thought I was holding a ticking bomb. He curtly said, “I don’t have time to talk to you, I’m very busy!” and marched away across his kingdom, otherwise known as the Methodist church gym.

I found my way to a table against a wall, and sat patiently, waiting for the polls to open. Suddenly, a brave Republican precinct worker ventured over, introduced herself and took me around to meet the other poll workers. I assured them I wasn’t there to police anyone, just make to sure all those who were registered got to vote. I combined this explanation with some talk about the weather, and the apprehensive seniors seemed to relax a bit.

The polls had been open for a 30 minutes, and the Precinct Officer couldn’t put off talking to me any longer. He made his way over to me, telling me he couldn’t find the official poll watcher sign-in sheet, because, as he told me, “We’ve never had one of you poll watchers in here before. So you’re watching the polls to make sure there’s no cheatin’? Well, good for you, you’re working for Trump then!” I lifted the corners of my mouth, creating a tight grin as if I appreciated his good ‘ol boy sense of humor. I then went through my “I’m not here to police anyone…,” spiel again. He sighed with resignation, knowing he had no choice but to tolerate this interloper’s intrusion, spun on his heel and hurried away.

Grandpa, what big eyes you have!

I wandered toward the exit, and saw a kindly grandpa-type fellow standing at the ballot machine instructing people to feed their ballots into the machine face up, all while grandpa looked down at everyone’s ballot selections!  My jaw fell open in disbelief, but I composed myself and slowly wandered over pretending not to have noticed his outrageous behavior. He told a few more voters how to feed their ballots into the machine. I then asked him if the ballots could also go in face down, and he said, “Either way is fine, but he was making sure their ballots didn’t get hung up.”

I waited a moment to respond, pretending like I could see his point of view, then suggested the voters might not feel like their privacy was being respected. Grandpa considered what I’d said, but said he couldn’t change the way they’d been doin’ things for years, so I’d need to talk to the Precinct Officer. So I walked over and suggested the same thing to him. He glared at me and said, “I’m busy!” then rushed away. It suddenly seemed like a good time to go outside and get some fresh air. When I returned to the gym a few minutes later, I found the Officer instructing grandpa to give people the option of putting their ballots in face down, or up, and avert his eyes as the ballot went in. Soon after, I heard grandpa say, “I  just want to respect your privacy,” as a voter fed their ballot in the machine, face down.

Feeling heard, I headed off to visit my other polling places.

“Can you hold this for a minute?”

By my third visit to each of the polling places, the poll workers greeted me like we were old pals, as I’d walk in the door. I’d proven that I wasn’t a threat to them just a fellow patriot. I watched hundreds of voters come through the polls on November 8, 2016, and was reminded of my southern neighbors’ kind hearts. Their enthusiasm to vote was palpable, and 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, as I try to make sense of the votes many people cast that day. I wasn’t behind enemy lines, as much as I was seizing an opportunity to spend time with strangers.

There are days (in frustration and exasperation) I question our move to Tennessee, but I push past it, attempting to be kind, generous, and a better listener as I interact with my southern neighbors. I strive to find our commonality, especially with those that 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 now begin really listening to each other. In other words, seeking to understand, before being understood.

Once we can identify some common ground, we will be able to start moving forward more united, remembering that future generations are counting on us.

 

%d bloggers like this: