2020 was my first year as a poll worker in Arkansas. I wanted a better understanding of the process and also, during COVID, I knew they would be shorthanded. I had also heard about voter suppression and I wanted to see with my own eyes if it was even possible.
You may not agree with the way a person votes, but in the United States of America we are a democracy, and a majority of us want to live in a democracy. That means we get to vote for whomever we want, regardless if others agree with us or not. As much as we try to protect the vote, there are cracks in our system — a system that gambles on us not being good stewards of our voice and vote.
For context, I do have over 20 years of experience in process improvement and analyzing data to help businesses run more efficiently, so my mind probably analyzes and over-analyzes more than a typical person’s. When I see an anomaly, my brain notes it. Observing human behavior and processes comes very naturally to me, and I can find patterns and trends in a sea of data or a pattern of behaviors.
I worked the polls a total of five days between October 19th through November 3rd.
Overview and Process
In my experience, I found voter suppression, at least in Arkansas, is more challenging once a voter walks through the door. It’s not impossible, but it’s certainly more challenging. Something people like Stacey Abrams and Andrea Miller have told us for years.
Every state has different laws and different ways it operates when it comes to elections. So, for example, in my state of Arkansas, people are required to bring a valid ID with them when they vote, which is another form of suppression.
The most common ID was a driver’s license, but other accepted IDs might be a state-or federally-issued ID, an open carry license, or certain student IDs. You can usually find a list on your state website (visit Vote.gov to find the requirements in your state). These IDs are different from your voter registration card, which has your voter file information, such as your precinct. There are times where this card is needed, and I’ll discuss a situation I found where it was helpful.
After moving, and while updating your driver’s license (or state ID), the DMV should ask if you want your voter registration to be updated, so your voter registration address on file matches the address on your ID. I know the DMV here in my county updated my registration this year; I had recently moved and had to update my driver’s license.
Your address (where you sleep at night) must match what’s in the voter registration file, but it does not have to match what’s on your ID. The ID is simply needed to look at your face and confirm your name. The address on the ID is not relevant to the voting process and should not be used to confirm your address, but it was at times, so it’s important, and makes things much easier, if these two match.
Typically, when a voter comes into our polling place to vote, they first show a valid ID to us (the poll workers) at a check-in table before they get their ballots and proceed to the electronic voting machines.
Once a voter shows their ID, the poll worker will ask them for their address. Sometimes there are “address flag” situations. When the address is not correct in the registration system, the voter is sent to a “help desk” where they fill out a form, and the poll worker there will call the County Clerk’s office to update their address in the voter registration file. Once that is complete, the voter comes back to the check-in table, to start the process again.
After a voter is verified, they get a ballot and they are allowed to proceed to vote. It’s usually a pretty quick process, taking less than five minutes.
Once the voter arrives at the electronic voting machine, a poll worker explains (in their own words) to the voter how to work the electronic voting machines. This means some voters may receive different instructions, depending on which poll worker helps them. Some poll workers take a minimal approach, and tell the voter to slide the ballot in, and then leave them alone. We were trained to ask the voters if they knew how to work the machine, and if they said yes, most poll workers would just say something like, “All right, let me know if you have any questions.”
I always let the voters know they needed to walk through the validation process before they printed their ballot, and then also check again once it was printed, to make sure their voting choices were printed correctly.
Before voters put their ballot into the ballot box to officially cast their vote, another poll worker should ask them to check their ballot. This would allow them a total of three opportunities to confirm their choices before casting their vote.
On my first day of training I came in and found there were several older white individuals, and two people of color. What I found interesting is I didn’t see either of the people of color while I was working the polls. They may have been there on days I wasn’t. I did see one Black female working at the polling station, but she wasn’t in my training session. I noted the lack of representation at polling locations, which was a contrast to other states I have voted.
When a husband and wife came in to vote I noted an interesting address flag situation. The husband’s address was updated in the voter registration file, but the wife’s address wasn’t. But, both of their driver’s licenses had their correct address. If this type of situation had only happened once, I probably wouldn’t have remembered it, but it almost always seemed the husband had the correct address and the wife did not.
It happened disproportionately with people of color. At one point there were four people waiting in line at the help desk — two Black men, one Black woman and one white woman. They were all in line to get their address changed. I found it was fairly common, when I happened to look toward the help desk, the line there contained mostly people of color. Often, if they came to the check-in table, I would see their address was correct on their ID, but it wasn’t correct in the registration system.
What I also found interesting was sometimes we would send a person of color back to the registration desk, and for some reason they would be told they would have to vote provisionally. I’m not saying there were no white people who had to vote provisionally. What I’m saying is, when I was working, I rarely saw it happen to white men. More people of color were asked to vote provisionally during my shifts.
One time we had a young woman come to our check in table after she went to the help desk to get her address updated. Somehow, she was no longer in the voter registration file. She had on her beautiful Black Lives Matter shirt with red colors and sparkles, and she was ready to vote, and it was very obvious she had been purged on the spot. She voted, but I was told it was an emergency ballot.
Another issue I found was with Hispanic voters’ names. Often their names were spelled wrong or put in the system incorrectly. Their name was correct on their ID, but incorrect in their voter registration file. So, in this situation, it might have been an honest mistake (or multiple mistakes) at the County Clerk’s office. My advice is, if you are Hispanic or have an Hispanic-sounding name, or a name that is spelled uniquely, to double-check that your voter registration file matches your (correctly-spelled) name, and bring your voter registration card with you when you vote!
This happened to one gentleman who approached our check-in table. He had recently registered to vote, and I couldn’t find him in the voter registration file, so I asked him if he had his voter registration card with him. Luckily he did, and when he showed it to me, I could clearly see his name was misspelled, so I was able to find him in the system and give him a ballot to vote.
As poll workers, we take an oath to protect people and their right to vote. We are instructed to exercise every option in our limited power to ensure a person votes as they wish.
I reported anything I saw while working at the polling place to our state voter protection hotline. Arkansas is a red state, and I didn’t expect anything to change, but I wanted to at least report what I had witnessed. I want everyone to understand these things happened, and my biggest hope is to empower people to protect themselves and their right to vote.
We can’t change the system until we can vote to change the system, but if people aren’t allowed to vote, they can’t change the system that is suppressing them.
My day job isn’t only to point out problems in efficiency, it is also to propose solutions to those problems. Voters can take action to protect themselves from being suppressed. We voters alone have the power to ensure our voter registration file:
- Has not been purged
- Address is correct and up-to-date
- Spelled our name correctly
- Has a matching ID (where required — your local party should be willing to help with this, or at least give you resources to help)
Following are some actions we can take as a community, and as a nation, to make sure people have their voices heard — what can we do to make sure all of our collective voices are heard, especially in locations where they are trying to silence those voices.
Again, you may not agree with the way a person votes, but in the United States of America we are a democracy, and a majority of us want to live in a democracy.
Value your Right to Vote
It’s not enough to tell people to vote. We also need to treat our ability to vote like it is insurance. You may not need it and you may not ever want to use it, but when you do decide to, it’s critical you have it. If we treat voting like it’s insurance, we should mark our calendar so every year we make sure our voter registration is up to date and active. Make it part of your Independence Day celebration!
At the polling place, we had people come in who hadn’t voted in four or eight years, and had been purged from the voter registration file. We had people come in who said, “You know, I wasn’t planning on voting, but I heard/saw something, and I decided I needed to vote.” And it was heartbreaking to see those people weren’t given the opportunity to have a voice because they had been purged from the system.
Participate in all Elections
Be an active participant in each and every election when possible, even the smaller elections. Flex your voting muscle! The issues on the ballot affect you, and the lives of those around you.
Check your Voter Registration Information
Make sure your valid ID and your registration match. If you are in a state where you have to have an ID to vote, ensure your ID matches your address. If you move, make sure the DMV is the place where you update your voter registration address. If it’s not, find out how to update your address. Go to Vote.gov, select your state and follow the instructions. Fill out any required forms and physically take them to your County Clerk’s office (rather than send them in).
At the polling place, there were several people who said they had mailed their information, and it didn’t get updated in the system. A few people didn’t get their voter registration card or didn’t bring it with them. Although you shouldn’t need your voter registration card to vote (in Arkansas you should only need your ID), have it with you just in case.
Again, I would suggest you mark your calendar or set a reminder, and every year make sure your voter registration file is up-to-date and active. I think it’s worth repeating — it’s a great way to celebrate the independence of our country — make sure your registration file is up-to-date (and, again, if you move, you need to make sure it is updated).
If you think the DMV is automatically doing it, and even if they tell you they are doing it, you still should put a reminder on your calendar a month later to check your voter registration is up-to-date and the address is correct. If it’s not, start at Vote.gov, and walk through steps to find your county office or a contact person there. (You do not have to go to any website that’s going to ask you for your email or your phone number.)
Check the Voting Laws
Voting laws are specific to each state.
We did have a young woman come in who had a misdemeanor on her record, and she originally thought she didn’t have the ability to vote. Then she learned, despite the misdemeanor, she was able to vote. I think she had been given misinformation or there was just a lack of education about her situation, but she was allowed to vote in Arkansas, even with a misdemeanor.
In my opinion, once a sentence is served, the citizen should have their voting rights back. The only time they should have their voting rights taken away is if they try to cheat the system, this includes poll workers.
Scripts for Poll Workers (at the voting machines)
For polling places, it would be great to develop and have a script for poll workers to reference (that is agreed upon by all party representatives) to help voters at the polling place. Go over it during training. Poll workers should be instructed to not deviate from the script. Have the script visible if possible (perhaps posted on the side of the voting booths or on the walls behind them). That would have also stopped a poll worker from looking at the voters’ machines while they were voting.
Instructions to Help Voters
Develop and post educational material (approved by all parties) on the walls, or in the voting booths for the users. If voters had the ability to educate themselves on how to work the machines, we might have avoided some of the issues that occurred.
Checklists for Poll Workers to Follow (checking in voters)
I’m a programmer, so I think a lot about flowcharts and how the computer processes information. Along these lines, I think it would have been very helpful if the poll workers checking in the voters had had a checklist of solutions and options for what to do in various situations.
Give poll workers helpful visuals and references so they have the ability to answer something like, “Okay, I didn’t find the person this way in the list; how else can I do it?” On November 3rd we had already been in the early-voting phase for a couple of weeks. I told one of the workers to look up a voter by their address. They had never heard of doing it that way; they did not know they could look up a person by their address.
This would be useful for name changes or misspellings as well. These are covered in the training, but not every volunteer retains or remembers everything. Having a helpful checklist or flowchart reference would help!
Our job as poll workers was to make sure, to the best of our abilities, people had the ability to exercise their right to vote and to vote in a free and fair election. Any helpful checklists or flowcharts to assist us would only help things run more smoothly.
Be a Poll Worker!
Be a poll worker at least once in your life! Do it when you are young. Hopefully, it will be so rewarding, you’ll continue. Do it for the smaller elections if you can, and also the larger elections.
Shout out to all the poll workers, the election commissioner, the people working the hotlines to protect voters’ rights, and the people counting ballots, all while checking your personal and political beliefs at the door! Thank you!
Thank you also to the veteran poll workers who have been doing this for years. Now that I’ve done it myself, I understand how hard it is. I honestly believe it’s our civic duty!
If you are able to and you have the time to be a poll worker, you should do it. Maybe it should be a requirement as part of our civics classes, or once we graduate from high school. It is really important for people to see the process, understand how it works, and be an active participant.
Once you have been a poll worker, you can see not only where the system is broken, but, more importantly, where it’s working, and the checks and balances that are in place. And when issues arise, you can see how they are reported and addressed.
Most importantly, you will see that, despite our party affiliation, most of us are good people who want to protect what has made the United States the country it is. Our free and fair elections are so sacred; they should be protected regardless of party.
Special thank you to my friend and fellow #PostcardsToVoters writer, Heidi Leech (https://heidileech.com), for helping me tell my story and edit the content.