Local journalist becomes poll worker
There are easier ways to earn $13 per hour.
We’re publishing this piece as part of nationwide collaboration called Democracy Day, which aims to draw attention to threats to democracy and what can be done to stop them. We believe the best way to save democracy is for more people to engage with it.
If you want to become a poll worker, head to GetInvolved.Maricopa.Vote in Maricopa County, or check with your local county recorder or elections department.
We also recorded a shorter audio version of this piece for KJZZ for your listening pleasure.
I decided to become a poll worker for probably the same reason that most people do: some sense of civic duty or curiosity or the $13 an hour that they pay you.
Anyway, I figured I could get a story out of it for the newsletter.
As a political reporter, I usually spend election day getting shooed away from one polling place after another while explaining to poll workers where I’m allowed to be, chatting with voters about the candidates and occasionally catching an argument. At the end of the night, I write up the scores and head to the parties to try to get the winners and losers to say something interesting.
It’s probably very similar to how a sports reporter spends Super Bowl Sunday.
But this year, I spent the August primary election on the other side of the line 75 feet from the polling station that divides poll workers and voters from the press.
Reporters write a lot about elections. But we rarely get a chance to see how they work from the inside.
As MAGA Republicans spew a steady stream of conspiracies about what’s going on inside your local polling station, and liberals worry that poll worker positions are being infiltrated by election-denying partisans, I wanted to get an inside perspective on what really happens at a polling place.
So I replied to a “help wanted” ad and warned Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer that I would likely write something about the experience. He was all for it.
After three hours of training that was mostly reviewing a manual and playing with the poll book tablets, I got a call from the county telling me I was now officially qualified to work inside a polling place.
Instead of a stinky high school gym, I was stationed at the Phoenix Art Museum, holding down the museum grounds from a clean office building that led out to the courtyard full of lush green grass, trees and hummingbirds.
Being a poll worker is not just about showing up when the polls open on Election Day. You have to set up the polling location with booths, printers, computers and other voting technology, meticulously document what you’re doing and be prepared for just about anything to go wrong. If voting is easy, people love you. If they don’t have proper ID or otherwise have problems voting, they’re generally pretty upset.
On the Friday before the primary, my fellow poll workers and I showed up at the museum to put all the individual polling booths together and meet each other.
The most memorable was a woman, probably in her 70s, who spoke to me at length about the different regions of the U.S. and how they each have their own distinct drug culture centered around a specific, dominant drug. In Pennsylvania, where she was originally from, it was mostly oxycontin because the miners all had pain. In the southwest, she told me, it was mostly meth because people are bored out of their minds.
On the first day of early voting, she didn't show up.
Setting up the booths took a few hours. We all went over our roles. I was supposed to be a voter registration clerk, helping people who needed to update their address online. But our marshal never showed up. I jumped at the chance to play cop for a day and patrol the grounds for reporters and politicians, or anyone else who wasn’t there to vote, lollygagging on the wrong side of the 75-foot line.
There’s a lot of redundancy in a polling place. Our polling station would have been fine with half the number of workers. But those redundancies are by design — if a location is busier than expected or the temporary staff flakes out, the election must go on. And the extra manpower ensures we’re all able to check each other’s work for mistakes.
As marshal, I also had to do the all-important job of shouting: “Hear ye, hear ye: The polls are now open” when the polls opened, and at the end of the day, I would also warn anyone listening that the polls were closing.
I had always thought I’d make a good cop, and the irony of being able to kick out my fellow journalists was just irresistible.
On the Monday before Election Day, we showed up at 8 a.m. and opened the polling place for early voters and ballot drop offs. “Hear ye, hear ye: The polls are open,” I shouted, startling some poor guy on an early morning walk with his dog.
Monday was a slow day. A few dozen people trickled in, mostly in the morning and later that evening. Most of the poll workers brought a book. I looked at Twitter and tried to work. We all went home as soon as the polls closed at 6 p.m. I couldn't escape the feeling that this was a total waste of time.
But on Tuesday, the big day, the primary election, I was on my feet.
Just after sunrise, before the polling place even opened, I spotted a familiar face. My first journalist. And she was already causing trouble. Caitlin O'Hara, a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, caught the attention of security. They told her she couldn’t be on the museum property. I intervened, saying the property is the museum’s to police as they like. But as far as I was concerned, O’Hara could walk right up to the door since the 75-foot limit only extended from the polling place through the long hallway to the front door of the building at the museum.
After I walked the distance with the head security guard, he went back and told her that she could go anywhere she wanted as long as she didn't cross that 75-foot line.
I felt like a good cop.
Most of the reporters were actually quite timid. Several times, I ventured out to the parking lot to greet them and tell them that they could hang out in the shade and take their photos inside the lush green grounds as long as they stayed outside the building and on their side of the 75-foot line.
By 8 a.m. on Election Day, the Phoenix Art Museum was popping off. There was never really a line because most people were there to drop off mail-in ballots. But hundreds of people streamed through in the first few hours.
I mostly patrolled the grounds or stood just outside, opening the doors for voters and catching puffs of air conditioning.
Besides poll workers and the voters, the only other people that allowed to hang out inside the polling station are the partisan poll watchers. Our first one wore a T-shirt that read, “America: Love it or leave it.” He was from the Republican Party. The Democrats didn’t bother to send one.
As I scrolled Twitter, I saw Richer was out touring election sites, facing his first test of overseeing an election since he won the office in 2020.
Since I had his cell phone number, I started sending him harassing texts about how his poll workers at the Phoenix Art Museum were starving and would appreciate a round of breakfast burritos.
I was surprised when he showed up and disappointed that he didn't bring the burritos.
Stephen Richer—Maricopa Cnty Recorder (prsnl acct) @stephen_richerBurton Barr library. Votin’ all over the world. https://t.co/sn3xKGj7hv Choose any. @MaricopaVote https://t.co/9bFRV9gXju https://t.co/HkXDClVZXk
I also met Jeff Silvey, a Republican write-in candidate for the Arizona Senate in the heavily Democratic Legislative District 5 who successfully landed a place on the November ballot with 992 write-in votes. He was pretty excited to be voting for himself, and he told us all that he was a candidate. I warned him he can't really talk about that inside the 75-foot line.
As poll workers, we weren't supposed to talk about politics, but of course we did. Not in front of the voters — but as we stood around in the slower hours, the election did come up.
I initially figured all my fellow poll workers were liberal do-gooders, or at least that none believed the conspiracies about the 2020 election.
That wasn’t the case.
One woman, a lady in probably her 60s, explained that she liked Trump because America was falling apart because of the “illegal” immigrants invading and that we needed a strong man to fix it.
She believed that the 2020 election was rigged, but it was clear she didn't really understand elections. And she saw potential conspiracies everywhere she looked.
She was confused by the concept of a primary election. I had to explain that Republicans could only vote among a field of Republican candidates, and Democrats could only vote for Democratic candidates, because the primary was each party's way of whittling down their fields to one nominee to represent them on the November ballot.
She asked if in November, Democrats could vote for a Republican candidate or vice versa. (They can.) That's how we started talking about how she supports Trump.
Besides believing the election was rigged, she also told me she believed the county IT worker who had joined us Monday was an undercover cop, and she told a long story about how a Russian construction crew was tunneling under her apartment complex parking lot. And when she called the police, everything got swept under the rug, she claimed. That's how she knows the government is corrupt and our elections can be stolen.
She wasn't alone.
After more than a decade of working in politics, you kind of can guess who's a Republican and who's a Democrat just by their vibe. People will surprise you, of course. But there was a clear trend of blue-collar white dudes wearing T-shirts with political slogans or the word “patriot” or pictures of ammunition. They were voting in person rather than dropping off ballots. And by and large, data show those in-person voters in the GOP primary were supporting election denier Kari Lake over her more moderate opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson.
Meanwhile, Gail Golec, a Republican candidate for Maricopa County Board of Supervisor whose platform was centered around the 2020 election, was online urging voters to steal the felt-tip pens, continuing the long-debunked SharpieGate conspiracy. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office issued a cease and desist letter to tell her to stop encouraging people to take the pen.
Very few, if any, people stole the pens from Phoenix Art Museum. One man voted and then returned later to give back the pen, saying he read about the pen-stealing on the internet and felt guilty for accidentally taking his home with him.
Besides the occasional pen thievery, the only real problem we encountered was a woman who was legally blind who needed to use the machine that reads a ballot aloud.
None of us really knew how it worked, and it took some time to get it running properly. She was gracefully patient, and in the end, thankful that she was able to cast her ballot.
When the polls closed at 7 p.m., I shouted my last “hear ye.” It took another hour or two to break down the polling station, then pack up all the voting booths, computers and printers.
We loaded the boxes of ballots into my car. Ballots always have to be accompanied by two people of different political parties, and since I am a registered Republican, I was teamed up with an independent — a by-the-book lawyer who did not seem to appreciate my jokes about swapping these ballots out for the bamboo ones. Our second-shift poll watcher dutifully followed us in her own car to the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center, the ballot processing facility south of the train tracks in downtown Phoenix.
The election officials at the tabulation center also did not appreciate my sense of humor. That was understandable — they had been working a lot longer than I had. To them, election night was only the culmination of a monthslong event, the scope of which pales in comparison to my tiny part.
Working the polls was one of the harder jobs I’ve had. There are no shifts; everyone works from sunrise to after sunset. You’re not allowed to leave, even for lunch. I was exhausted, and I was the youngest poll worker in my group. Most were retirees.
Nearly 1.5 million Arizonans voted in the August primary, about a third of the electorate. In November, that number will more than double.
And me? I’ll be back at the polls in November — on one side of that 75-foot line or the other.
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