Until I got involved with volunteer boards and consumer cooperatives, and took an actual government job, election work was my widest window into self-organization. My family was associated with politics — I attended a birthday party for Haley Barbour long before he was chair of the Republican National Committee — but I failed to heed machinations. (My political leanings have improved with time, at least.)
I started election work as soon as I was of voting age. A tornado struck outside my hometown and damaged longtime polling places; the election commission established backup locations with something like one day’s notice. My grandmother, who was in charge of organizing poll workers in my home county, asked if I would work at a temporary voting site wedged inside an already cramped convenience store on the edge of town. Having accompanied her to vote in previous elections when I was a child, flipping little green switches and pulling a big red lever, I was happy to help.
It was a painfully long day, full of lively chit-chat among coworkers (friends of Mamaw’s), handy snacks, and stories of storm damage. At the time, even though multiple-choice bubble sheets had entered our school system, we used the same gear and lever voting machines that my grandmother had used. I finally saw some machinery and relished my job of turning a stubborn crank to print the day’s tally. I found myself enamored of the ground-level work to make government run while still being far removed from where actual policy is made. (As I would eventually come to learn, this is the ideal work condition for me.)
No matter how heated you get about politics, a day of poll work is a nice cooling-off period. In the midst of the worst muckraking, mudslinging brawls, here is a day spent (by statute) without electioneering, political discussion, TV watching, or listening to the radio. People are funneled into engagement unrelated to the duty at hand, while also actively participating in the wider partisan process — a sort of idealized microcosm.
After moving around in my early-20s, I ended up here and signed up to be an Election Board worker, spending years as Clerk (verifying voters) and Judge (issuing and receiving paper ballots — we use the bubble sheets here). Eventually I was invited to be a reserve Precinct Inspector: supervising the process, answering questions, and filling in for other Board workers as needed. I never received a permanent — in my county’s case, two-year — assignment to a precinct, instead serving as a roving replacement for other Inspectors who were unable to serve on a given Election Day. It was good, honest fun for years. And then 2016 happened.
I’ve told this story a couple times — forgive me for repeating myself. I was serving as a Clerk in a suburban precinct. A voter came into line wearing a TRUMP 2016 ball cap. State law is pretty clear on this point — “no electioneering” at polling places — so I asked the man to remove his cap. He went from pasty swagger to boiling, red-faced rage in just a few seconds; utterly unabashed frothing. Our Precinct Inspector came over to see what was happening. He took Rage Face aside and murmured to him for a minute. Rage Face removed his cap and allowed himself to be escorted through the voting process. Afterwards, our Inspector walked him towards the exit, mollifying all the way. At the end, Rage Face put his hat back on at me and said “He can go to hell!” I made sure not to break eye contact while visibly stifling a laugh.
Afterwards, the Inspector said to me, “Ah well, what can you do?” And my thought was, “Literally anything? The law’s on our side.” As the moment passed, I could clearly see the end of my interest in the job. Something broke through my attachment to the codified neutrality of election work — even though I knew it was always an illusion. I limped along through a few more election cycles and finally, when approached about working this year, I declined and asked to be removed from the election worker roll.
At the time, I was thinking of my health, which has taken wild turns recently. But beyond that, I feel unable to overcome disaffection. Our legislature passed a bill last year and now we are implementing Voter ID. I want no part in that. Our Election Commissioner resigned, and his replacement was appointed by the Governor. Nothing is neutral and laws aren’t real. In that case, I’d rather do civic work towards progressive self-organization. There’s been a lot of self-loathing in the emotional fallout.
Last week, as these thoughts caromed around my head, I got a letter from the Election Commission with a certificate acknowledging years of dedicated service. I ugly cried in the kitchen. You’re damn right I’m going to frame it.