A young Black man approached the tabulator and inserted his ballot. He stood back, unsure of what would happen next.
The machine inhaled it.
Moments later, a message on the screen signaled that his ballot had been accepted. In the most historic election in modern history, his vote would count.
“First time voter!” a poll worker announced.
The polling place erupted in applause.
Over the 17 days of early voting, this scene replayed dozens of times at the Durham County Main Library, where I regularly served as a poll worker. While police were committing civil rights abuses and intimidating potential voters in Alamance County, while the far-right was trying to suppress the vote in Pennsylvania and Texas — in this corner of the world, in a majestic auditorium with long windows that let the light pour in, democracy prevailed.
I think I can speak for my colleagues when I say we often felt inspired, even awed, by voters’ determination, patience and kindness. No one griped about wearing a mask. No one bemoaned the length of the line, the heat, the rain.
Some days the mood was lightened by a DJ playing soul music in the parking lot. A booth gave away tamales and cups of steaming Mexican coffee, which, laden with cinnamon and sugar warmed those helping curbside voters on a recent cold morning.
Inside, behind masks and a layer of plexiglass, day after day we checked people in, straining to decipher the muffled sounds.
I’m sorry, can you spell your name one more time?
The voters always did, without complaint.
I have your name and address as … and we have you as duly registered to vote in Durham County.
Duly registered, we were instructed to say, as in “properly,” “rightly.”
Among the duly registered voters were a 108-year-old woman, a man freshly sworn in as a U.S. citizen who proudly brandished his naturalization papers, and a woman who said she hadn’t voted “since Kennedy.” A weary third-shift worker, who instead of heading straight home to bed, stayed up and stood in line for an hour before the polls opened. People whose permanent addresses were at Urban Ministries and the Durham Rescue Mission. Young voters who dashed off their signatures. The very old who scrawled their name with a wizened hand. There were first-time voters in their 40s, 50s and 60s, who, for whatever reason felt that this election, above all previous ones, needed their voice.
Some voters were nervous. North Carolina has a long ballot, and some contests were unfamiliar. The voters were concerned about filling in the circles correctly, about stray marks that could invalidate their ballot. Sometimes that happened even to experienced voters.
No worries, I told them. You can get a replacement ballot. This sort of thing happens all the time.
What the voters didn’t know was that I felt nervous, too.
The responsibility of democracy weighed on me. (I read the poll workers’ manual — twice.) So much is at stake in this election: existential threats to human rights, civil rights, public health, the justice system, the economy, education, national and global peace, the very habitability of the planet.
And I wanted people to have a positive voting experience, one that affirmed or restored their faith in democracy. For new voters, my interactions with them could make them feel confident — or not — to vote in future elections.
Don’t screw this up, I told myself.
The voting logistics were myriad and demanded an attention to detail. Absentee votes went in the blue bag, provisionals in the black. Machine-rejected ballots in yellow, spoiled ones in red. Black totes, red totes, blue folders. Every hour, the chief judge verified numbers from each check-in computer against the number of ballots distributed and cast.
Please let my numbers add up.
They always did. So did everyone’s.
First-time or first-in-a-long-time voters often had to visit the Help Desk. The Help Desk is the customer service of voting: where problems are solved, but also where no one wants to be. Geocoding issues will send you to the Help Desk, which can entail verifying an address that’s in the Durham portion of Orange or Wake County. Or same-day registrations, which required not a photo ID, but some type of official proof of residency, like a pay stub or a lease or a utility bill. Provisional ballots are also distributed here.
Not only do you have to solve problems at the Help Desk, but you also have to work extra hard to assuage a voter’s anxiety, to reassure them that if they have lived in Durham County for at least 30 days from the election, they can register and cast a ballot, even if it’s a provisional one, come hell or high water.
The core rights of voters, page 14 of the manual:
The right to cast a ballot
The right to privacy
The right to request assistance
At check-in a few voters needed assistance from a friend with language translation. I remembered enough Spanish from my five years in Texas to communicate the basics, but it is more difficult to understand a second language when it’s spoken through a mask.
Cómo se llama? (What is your name?)
Cual es su dirección? (What is your address?)
Firme aquí, por favor. (Sign here, please.)
Cómo se dice “ballot”? (How do you say “ballot”?)
One evening, a man accompanied his friend to the library to vote. The man stayed outside, and as the greeter for that portion of the shift, I chatted with him.
The man was a Dreamer, a person who was brought to America from Mexico as a child. Since he wasn’t a U.S. citizen, he could not vote. But his young friend, who was a citizen, could.
Cómo se dice “first-time voter” en espanol? I asked the man.
Shortly afterward, his friend approached the tabulator.
His ballot went in. It was accepted.
“El primer vez en votante!” I exclaimed. “First-time voter!”
Everyone in the polling place clapped.