I Worked the Polls in Trump Country — and Left More Confused Than Ever

There aren’t a lot of Democrats up here, which is why I got the job

I didn’t check the box volunteering to be an “election inspector,” as poll workers in New York state are called, just to have an excuse to stay off my phone on November 3. That would be the bonus. I did it to be civic-minded. To support the democratic project at a time when it seemed uniquely threatened. To thwart whatever chicanery the powers that be in my newly adopted rural burg might have up their sleeves. And mostly to spare at least one of the seniors who show up year after year for the $250 fee — “their Christmas money,” as my board of elections trainer put it — from having to expose themselves to the virus-shedding electorate.

The Covid-19 crisis created a nationwide shortage of poll workers this year as the retirees who have long kept the system humming along opted to play it safe. (In 2018, according to a Pew analysis, 60% were over 60, and 30% were seventysomethings.) As a result, many states have shut down polling places — sometimes in a craven attempt to disenfranchise voters on behalf of the GOP. While that didn’t seem like a danger in New York, a shortage of workers could nonetheless prove disruptive. It seemed like the least I could do. Of course, I wouldn’t be the only one bearing the risk. My wife and I agreed that I’d quarantine myself, at least nominally, for the rest of the week until I could get swabbed.

Navigating an icy country road before dawn on Tuesday, I tried to prepare myself for the worst. It was, we knew, the most divisive, hotly contested, emotionally explosive election in our lifetimes. The likelihood of political violence ran high. Election interference, whether from foreign governments or rat-fucking Trump partisans (there is some overlap), seemed all but inevitable. The president’s campaign had called up an army of poll watchers with the presumed goal of disqualifying voters, illegitimate or not. Arms-toting militias might show up to intimidate people. And I still hadn’t wrapped my head around the basics: What to do with a spoiled ballot? How to handle a voter who’s registered at an old address? How to spell affidavit?

To be honest, I didn’t expect to be chosen for the job when I offered my services. But as it happened, I had a unique qualification: I was a registered Democrat. Inspectors are supposed to be evenly split by party, and in the lightly populated upstate county to which I’d relocated in July (oh, no reason; why do you ask?), I apparently represented a rare political species.

I’d steeled myself for any eventuality except one: Crushing boredom. I picked up the ins and outs of the job fairly quickly. The four-person team working my designated district had the process down to a science within the first half-hour: directing a voter to the proper district table, checking their name on a list, having them sign the poll book, handing them the ballot, explaining the proper use of the scanner. Every hour or two, we rotated tasks just to keep things interesting, to no avail. This was democracy in action. It wasn’t supposed to be interesting.

Meanwhile, we made friendly chitchat. We talked about our kids, our pets, and how you could pay $20 to the automotive department up at the college to get the undergrads to put on your snow tires. Sometimes, we ran out of topics and stared into space. Several of us knitted. Whenever a voter walked in with a kid in tow, one guy on our team inevitably joked about whether the sheepish youngster was “ready to vote, so you can be good and stressed out like your mom and dad?”

The only moment of excitement came when two guys — a mountainous dude in a hunting jacket and his similarly clad large adult son — walked in wearing telltale red hats.

People trickled in, a handful at a time, hour after hour. Aside from a few Black students from the college, nearly everyone was white. They all complied with the mask rule (we studiously ignored the occasional sight of a bare nose). No zealots braved the cold to tout their chosen candidate within the 100-foot “no electioneering” zone. Several voters thanked us; a few brought doughnuts from the Price Chopper. If anyone was toting a firearm, they kept it on the DL.

The only moment of excitement came when two guys — a mountainous dude in a hunting jacket and his similarly clad large adult son — walked in wearing telltale red hats. One read “Trump 2020”; the other read “Keep America Great.” Political garb is not allowed in the polling site, and although the risk that the hats would actually sway someone’s choice at this stage seemed remote, when the duo approached my table, I decided to enforce the rules, albeit gently. “Hey, I know this seems weird,” I said, adopting a strategically nonthreatening tone, “but there’s actually a law against wearing those in here. If you wouldn’t mind?” The older man towered over me. He thought about it for a second, then doffed the cap. Junior followed suit.

My fellow poll workers were duly impressed, although there then arose some confusion over whether the MAGA hat was technically allowable since it didn’t name a particular candidate. (It wasn’t.)

In general, we avoided any talk of politics. We were there to support the process, and it felt good to remain neutral, at least for a day. As the minutes slowly ticked by, I made a study of my new community. Everyone was affable and mild-mannered. They all seemed to know one another. “You should see this kid’s three-pointer,” a fellow inspector told me as I signed in a tousle-haired 18-year-old. “Oh wow, you’re the Cody Ferguson?” I joked. “It’s an honor.”

Over time, a mild esprit de corps developed among us. Whatever unrest might be brewing at election sites around the nation — and for the first 10 hours or so, I gave Twitter only the most fleeting glance — our own modest polling place in the local public safety building was a model of democracy. We were more than adequately staffed; unlike what happened in other areas of the country (particularly urban areas), no voter waited more than five minutes. When another inspector compared our polling site to Norman Rockwell’s series of Election Day paintings, the reference seemed apt.

At 9 p.m. sharp, 15 hours after we’d begun, we packed it in. A few of the veterans initiated a shut down of the scanning machines, which then spit out ribbons of receipt tape reflecting our county’s vote tallies. All day, I’d tried to keep track of voters’ party affiliations; I estimated that they were more or less evenly split among Democrats and Republicans with a smattering of independents and a few who hadn’t declared. But the tape told a different story. Well over two-thirds of the ballots had been cast for Donald Trump. I felt my heart sink. I knew it was a heavily Republican county, but somehow I’d convinced myself that — what with 230,000 people dead and all that chaos and economic ruin — Biden might just pull off an upset. My new neighbors seemed so reasonable, so nice. I didn’t spot a single Three Percenter tattoo or QAnon patch all day. The unhinged, spittle-flinging rants I’d become accustomed to seeing on my new favorite subreddit, /PublicFreakout, seemed a world away.

I tried to process it on the drive home. All I could really come up with is that somehow my compulsive reading of social media had warped my sense of the world. (Duh.) That while I’d of course known on an intellectual level that “Twitter isn’t real life,” I’d nonetheless allowed it to shape my understanding. Online, it seems, every Trump supporter is brimming with open racial resentment and nihilistic contempt for the rest of us. But as awful as the hardcore MAGA-ites are, somehow this was even more disheartening. The folks I encountered struck me as more or less average people, whatever that means — not at all the “wingnuts” or the “chuds” or what were once called a “basket of deplorables” you see online. And yet one by one, they had smiled, made a little small talk, and marched off to their respective privacy booths to enthusiastically bubble in their endorsement of the worst, most destructive human being our nation has produced in decades. As bad as the last four years have been, these people wanted more.

At home, I smoked a little of the homegrown reefer that one of my new neighbors had kindly gifted me as a house-warming present. I blew up an air mattress and stretched out in a sleeping bag on the floor of the laundry room.

How to make sense of it? I’m still not sure — despite spending half the night on Twitter, scrolling and scrolling, trying to figure it out.

Medium editor-at-large, with bylines in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times and numerous other publications. ¶ aarongell.com

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