Tuesday, November 24, 2020

A Cog in the Process: Election Day, 2020

For the first time, I was an election inspector here in my small town in the Catskills of upstate New York.  In conversations with people, I've discovered that most of us, including me, never gave much thought to the process--we would show up, chat with people behind the table, sign a book, vote and leave.  That's a privilege that white Americans have been able to exercise without much thought.  But this year has taught us all that it's good--and vitally important--that we understand the process, exercise our rights, and ensure that everyone's rights are protected.  So I thought I'd just share my particular experience as an election inspector.   

I'd been interested in serving as an election inspector for a while--but I was often traveling and it didn't seem practical.  But this year I had seen press coverage that many places needed election inspectors as many who usually worked were older and concerned about exposure to Covid-19.  I looked up my county board of elections, called them in September, and participated in the training (mandatory every year).  It was very clear in the training that the goal was to have every vote cast and counted appropriately.  

Election Day is a long day--every inspector works the full time that the polls are open, and in New York, that is 6:00 am-9:00 pm.  I left my house in the dark and arrived at the town hall.  My town has three election districts, but they all vote in the same space.  We all wore masks, and plenty of hand sanitizer was on hand.  Each district had four inspectors, two Democrats and two Republicans (someone asked me about Independents--I don't know!). What this meant is that there is confidentiality about your vote, but that the process of voting is fully transparent, if that makes sense.  You come in, give your name.  A Republican looks it up and you sign; a Democrat asks your name and confirms; a Republican says "she will give you the ballot" and a Democrat hands you your ballot.  And those positions are switched every hour.  

As a voter, head off to your little voting stand (I still miss the voting machines with curtains), mark your ballot, and feed it into the machine.  Sometimes it gets stuck or takes a moment and then one of the election inspectors (often me as I was often closest) gets up and advises you to give it another try.  Upon occasion, we chased people after they'd already gone out the door to have them submit again to make sure it was counted.  My apologies to the woman named Marge who I made come back inside only to find out that it wasn't her ballot that had come back out!

That day, it was a steady stream of voters all day long.  My town has farmers, lawyers, new transplants from New York City, artists, seniors, young people (and a majority Republican town).  My favorite voters were the 18-year-old first-time voters, sometimes pushed forward by a proud parent saying, "It's his first time,"  and sometimes shyly saying, "I've never done this before."  Some provisional ballots were cast, when the voting status was unclear.  Calls were made to the board of elections to clarify voting status or to answer questions.  

It's sad to me that a decreasing number of people distrust the results of elections in this country.  Part of what seemed to make that day work was a level of trust between all of us working, no matter what party we were from.  We were joined together, with our thermoses and our bag lunches, with our masks and conversation, in a collective effort that mattered.  Just after 9:00 PM, with the last voter gone, all of us gathered around while two folks (again, one Republican, one Democrat) opened the machine and ran the total.  While two folks stayed until the machine was picked up, the rest of us headed out into the night.

I know there is not a nation-wide system of voting and that my experience does not represent the whole.  For a clear analysis of the national changes that would make the entire system more accountable read Zeynep Tufecki's piece in the New York Times today.  She writes, "We have well-studied methods that are effective, and there is nothing more urgent than making sure our elections work — everything else a government can try to do depends on that."

And what does this have to do with museum work?  First, I got to participate in a civic, history-making process.  Second, the more museum folk participate in the civic life of the places where we live and work, the more we understand about our communities and the ways museums can actually matter to everyone.

If you worked elections, please share your experiences in the comments below. I'd love to hear them.

Images:  Washington Square Park, New York City, when the election was called and the end of the day at my polling location.


Amanda said...

I called to volunteer but they already had more people than they needed, so I spent the morning phonebanking instead, and the afternoon in a blanket for eating nachos and watching comfort movies. (True story.)

I agree about museum workers getting more and more involved in their community. I've been getting more involved in local Democratic politics and am finding it a really tricky line to walk. That may be just me, personally, worried about things, but I worry a lot about the ways I represent my institution versus the ways I am working for political and social change on my personal time.

Linda Norris said...

I understand that worry, and this article really made me think about the ways our organizations are represented. I doubt these major donors to Trump gave much of a thought at all to how their relationship to the museum related to their political contributions https://hyperallergic.com/601501/moma-and-frick-trustees-shelled-out-900k-combined-to-trumps-campaign/

That said, bridging this divide we're in, that is far more than Trump, seems really, really hard right now. Do I think I could change any of my Trump-flag flying neighbors minds? Probably not. But I think the more we all work for change (maybe think of it as justice, rather than political change?)the better off all of us will be.

Thanks for sharing your story!

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Cathy Saunders said...

I also worked the polls here in Rhode Island. I resonated with many of your reflections, though as so many took advantage of early voting this year, the polling location I was at was much slower.

I couldn't agree more "that the more museum folk participate in the civic life of the places where we live and work, the more we understand about our communities and the ways museums can actually matter to everyone." I currently work at two museums. New Bedford Whaling Museum gave everyone Election Day off and the director and several others took the opportunity to work at the polls as well. For Lippitt House Museum, I wrote a blog post about my poll working service: https://www.preserveri.org/post/polls-pandemic-and-service.

Unknown said...

Thank so much for sharing your observations, Linda. If all of us took time to learn more about the election and voting process, there would be fewer misconceptions about it. In NYS and Delaware County, NY in particular, we have a good system and an exceptional team facilitating it. My husband served as an election inspector for a number of years. In addition, as Chair of the Democratic Committee in my town for over 10 years, I've been responsible for recruiting and lining up Democratic election inspectors, getting them trained, coordinating with the DCBOE and following up on the process to troubleshoot any problems. Seeing it from the inside and up close, it's clear our DCBOE and our election inspectors do an amazing job making our elections fair, efficient and transparent.