A new generation of poll workers steps forward to run the machinery of democracy

October 19, 2020 12:02 am

A voting sign at Pemberton Elementary School in Henrico,, November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

If you vote, you know them.

They greet you at the doorway to your polling place. They examine your identification, match it to registration records and verify that you’re an elector eligible to vote at that precinct. They hand you a ballot and show you to a voting booth where you exercise, in secure secrecy, the most treasured right you have as a United States citizen.

They help you feed the completed ballot into a scanner. And as you depart, they offer you your own badge of honor — an “I Voted!” sticker. In some precincts, they’ll also hand you a piece of candy.

They are poll workers — or, more formally, officers of election — a group traditionally dominated by people sufficiently aged to have bought 25 cents-per-gallon gasoline and watched Jack Paar host “The Tonight Show” on flickering black-and-white televisions. In what has been a quintessential golden-years civic pursuit, they’ve been the essential moving parts in the complex machinery of American democracy.

This year, the look of those on duty at polling places across Virginia will be a bit younger. Many older workers have opted out of serving again, fearing the threat the novel coronavirus presents, particularly to people over 60.

In Richmond, the dropoff has been noticeable, said Jerry Richardson, the deputy director for voter registration in the office of General Registrar Kirk Showalter.

In Bedford County, General Registrar Barbara Gunter has seen as many as 20 senior poll workers step aside over the course of the year out of concern for their health. Every Election Day, she deploys 225 to 250 trained poll workers across 32 precincts in her community nestled amid the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“They don’t want to risk exposure of working the election this year, but we have seen a trend over the past five years of our average poll worker age coming down,” she said.

Her new workers fall mostly within the age range of 45 to 60, Gunter said. Some of her younger workers participated in a student page program that exposes high school students to aiding on Election Day in roles such as greeters, she added.

The rookie poll workers could not have picked a more heavily contested, consequential or emotionally freighted election.

“It’s a huge election to be your first one,” Gunter said, noting absentee and early-voting totals that have shattered previous records. As of Oct. 15, nearly 1.8 million people had either voted early in person or applied for absentee ballots, more than three times the 538,410 absentee ballots cast in the entire 2016 election, according to the independent and nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

Virginia is blessed that her people consistently recognize a need and rise to the moment for the sake of a better commonwealth or nation. That was true in June 1944 when no American community lost proportionately as many of its sons in the D-Day invasion on Normandy’s beaches as Gunter’s home, Bedford. It was true in 1951 when the all-Black student body of Farmville’s Robert Russa Moton High School walked out of their dilapidated building, at tremendous personal risk, during the  Jim Crow in a protest that would help end “separate but equal” schools in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling three years later.

Among those who see the need today to assure the smooth continuation of democracy are Jay Lidington and Sonja Barisic, a husband-and-wife team who jointly volunteered to serve at the polls in Norfolk.

“People who vote on a regular basis, we see these people doing these tasks and sort of even take them for granted over the years,” said Lidington, a Isle of Wight Academy English teacher who had undergone hours of training and is taking vacation time to toil on Election Day at a Norfolk precinct.

“What drove me toward pursuing it was curiosity: Exactly what goes on? These people — the poll book ladies in particular — they seem to be the same ones every time, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, I wonder if this is a population subset that’s graying out?’ It turns out that’s exactly the case. They were more than happy to have both of us,” he said.

His better half, Sonja, had experienced the same things as a voter in Norfolk but had also reported on many elections in Hampton Roads as an Associated Press correspondent. Knowing that the COVID-19 threat was thinning the ranks of poll workers this year, she said, she and Jay decided to give back.

“All those years as a reporter, obviously I couldn’t do something like that. But I was always very impressed with the people who did,” said Barisic, who runs her own public relations firm for nonprofits. “So, I thought that here it is all these years later and I have the availability and it just seemed like a good opportunity to do it.”

“I also think this is a very, very important election. I want to be there to help other people cast their vote. I will be one of those people in the background who helps make sure the process works as smoothly as possible,” she said.

The charged political environment and the prospect of voter interference, suppression and intimidation is not lost on this year’s workers. President Donald Trump has actively exhorted his followers to patrol polling places and “watch very carefully,” perhaps unaware that trained observers from each party are already positioned at election precincts for that exact purpose. He made the appeal during the same Sept. 29 debate in which he refused to renounce white supremacist militias and advised one right wing, the Proud Boys, to “… stand back and stand by.”

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit nervous about people showing up at the polls for reasons other than voting,” Lidington said. “But, you know, they’ve got a plan for that and procedures for what to do if people show up to observe, monitor … whatever they say they’re going to do.”

Nobody gets involved for the money. When you add the hours of mandatory training to an Election Day that can easily run 16 hours or more, the $150 stipend comes out to about $5 an hour with no provision for covering incidental out-of-pocket expenses. Once poll workers are on-site, they are not allowed to leave their assigned precincts until they’re dismissed after the last of the voters who are waiting in line by 7 p.m. have voted, the counts have been reported and the equipment has been securely, methodically shut down and stored according to exacting protocols.

“The day of election goes from 5 in the morning until, we’re told, about 9 at night,” said Cara Clements, a marketing executive at Call Federal Credit Union in Richmond who will work her first election at a Richmond city precinct. “Part of the deal is you’ve got to stay on site, so they tell you to pack your snacks and food.”

She’s got generous leave time from her employer and support from her family in sharing the sacrifice. When she heads out well before dawn, her husband, Whit, will care for their young daughter until mom returns home exhausted long after dusk.

It’s always been that way. Dealing cheerfully and professionally with hundreds — even thousands — of voters from all backgrounds, temperaments and ideological leanings for hours on end is service in its truest and most humbling sense and no place for a ravenous ego. It’s no place for people who expect a quid pro quo.

“I would do it for free,” Barisic said. “I feel it’s really that important.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]