Where have all the election workers gone?
On Massachusetts’ primary day earlier this month, as I swiveled around on my perch behind the voter check-in table and scanned the community center gym serving as our town’s polling station, I couldn’t help noticing that we had half the number of workers we had the last time, during local elections in June.
I’ve worked at my local polling station since the 2020 presidential election. Even amid national tensions over mask mandates and a deeply contentious presidential race, the voters that day were kind, respectful, and appreciative of the election workers. Prior to that day, as election offices scrambled to send out and count mail-in ballots, I volunteered at our local town clerk’s office with a group of retirees. Even then, with the looming threat of COVID-19, we had ample volunteers.
But since that election and the unfounded assertions that Joe Biden stole his win and that Donald Trump was the real victor, I’ve witnessed an alarming escalation of abusive rhetoric and threatening behavior at polls. For those working at polling stations, it’s uncomfortable, and it makes us question whether we want to keep showing up. How long will it be, I wonder, until no one wants to work at polling places?
At the local election in June, a man in a Nantucket-red baseball cap stepped out of line and surveyed the room. He had the weather-beaten face of a lifelong sailor. He wasn’t next in line, but I smiled and asked how I could help.
He scowled at me and said, “I’m looking for irregularities.”
He pointed toward the election warden and asked, “Why is he preventing people from voting?”
The election warden in question was threading yellow caution tape through the legs of voting cubicles — not to prevent people from voting but to better enable them to do so by keeping voters within their precinct’s row. If someone mistakenly tries to vote in the wrong precinct’s row, the corresponding voting machine will not accept their ballot.
When I tried to explain to the angry man that ensuring that people vote in their precinct is a way to prevent election irregularities, he began yelling that we were trying to prevent certain people from voting. As he waved his arms at me, I flinched, fearing that he might accidentally strike me. I shook my head sadly; there was nothing I could do to quell his suspicions. The man finally moved back into the line, and I proceeded with my job as if I hadn’t just felt afraid as I worked at my small town’s polling station.
His was one of several accusations of fraud that day.
Soon after the caution tape fiasco, another man stepped to the front of the line. It seemed he had just gone for a run — he was dressed in workout gear and drenched in sweat. Instead of taking his ballot and voting, the sweaty man wanted to talk about why Massachusetts doesn’t require voter ID. As sweat dripped from the tip of his nose onto my paperwork, he peppered me with questions about how I could guarantee someone’s identity without seeing their driver’s license. He raised his voice. He waved his hands toward the growing line and said, “Just anyone could walk in here and commit voter fraud!”
I sighed and tried without success to get him to take his ballot and vote. He turned instead to a fellow election worker, a regular volunteer at the town clerk’s office and just about the kindest senior citizen in town. She blinked owlishly at him, unsure of how to respond. “Sir,” I said sharply, “please either go vote or go away.”
He stared at me as if I were the one who had been out of line.
All voters have a right to their opinions. In line at your polling station, while verbally harassing busy poll workers, is neither the place nor the manner in which to express them.
In the wake of Trump’s and his followers’ false allegations of voter fraud in 2020, as videos of election workers falsely alleged to have committed fraud went viral, I wondered: What if my family’s safety is threatened because I’m an election worker? The people in these videos were regular Americans, just like me. Maybe they were working at the election because they needed some extra cash. (In Massachusetts, I make $55 for seven hours. I am not paid for staying after the polls close to count the ballots, nor am I paid for volunteering at the election office before election day.) It’s more likely the poll workers were there because they care about the democratic process.
Given my experience last June and the MAGA Republicans’ ferocious and conspiracy-theory-fueled reactions to the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago in August, I was worried about working in the primary elections on Sept. 6. I am my children’s primary caretaker, so it’s not always easy for me to get to election day. This time around, it was especially difficult because election day was also the first day of school.
In the end, I went because the election office needed me. Voter turnout promised to be higher than normal, and the office was short of workers.
The insults and false accusations were worse than I had feared. For the seven hours that I worked, poll observers from campaigns and political parties stood over us, watching. The nape of my neck prickled in anxious discomfort.
Voters’ rants escalated. They aimed their yelling and gesticulating at the helpless workers. One registered independent who had chosen a Republican ballot returned after a few minutes to request a Democratic one. I told her that I couldn’t legally change her choice in the system. She threw a fit, asking other workers to switch her ballot, and when they told her they could not, she went to the warden and began yelling at him. She left her ballot blank and stormed out. But the voting machine would not accept that blank ballot, so at the end of the night, the number of voters we had checked in did not match the number of ballots. Such a discrepancy might suggest that an election worker destroyed a voter’s ballot, fueling yet more fraud allegations.
A man waiting to vote in another precinct questioned me about the need for independents to choose between the Democratic and Republican ballots. I began to answer, but he cut me off. With a smirk, he said, “Independent is a party, and in Massachusetts we have the right to vote on both ballots.” I tried to tell him that wasn’t the case, and he smiled patronizingly at me. He nodded at me the way I’ve seen men do so many times, as if I were too unintelligent to understand. He shrugged dismissively and walked past me.
No wonder we’re short-staffed, I thought.
I know my town will need workers for the midterms next month. I must decide whether I’m willing to subject myself to the experience of working at an election again.
Am I the only poll worker contemplating a decision not to go back? I don’t think so.
Jennifer E. Rizzo is an election worker in her small Massachusetts town. Her work has been published by Vanity Fair, Motherwell Magazine, and Zibby Mag, among other publications.