Dispatches from first-time poll workers
Two UM-Dearborn staff talk about their experience working the polls on Tuesday and why they think everyone should do it at least once.
Even with a lot of uncertainty still surrounding many election results, it’s quite clear, at least, that the state’s polling locations worked pretty darn well on election day. That was no doubt in large part thanks to hundreds of people who answered the call to be poll workers, including here in southeast Michigan, where the pandemic threatened to cause major shortages. UM-Dearborn External Relations staff members Maria Cheatham and Domeda Duncan were among those who put in a 17-hour day to help people vote at polling locations in Southfield and Detroit, respectively. And even though they didn’t get home until after 11 p.m. on election night, they were still generous enough to chat with us early the next day about their experiences. Our conversation below has been condensed and edited lightly for clarity.
So, Maria, do you want to start by telling us why you wanted to do this?
Maria: Well, I’m so not into politics. But I think I just sort of went on alert hearing and seeing everything that was going on with the racial divide in the country. That started with George Floyd and then continued throughout the summer with the protests. I just started thinking a lot about my son and the men in my family and stories that my mother and grandmother told me. I felt like I needed to do my part, in some way, and when I heard about the shortage of election workers, that made sense to me. The last election in Michigan was decided by 10,000 votes, so I just wanted to do what I could to make sure everybody who wanted to vote got to exercise that right without any problems.
And how about for you, Domeda?
Domeda: It really started with the call to action around the shortage of poll workers. I had read some articles about how election workers are typically older, and of course they’re more vulnerable to COVID. So I thought it would have been a disservice for them to continue working in that capacity, and that maybe it was no longer optional for young people to step up and participate in ways we haven’t before.
So do you want to take us through each of your days, and what you found most interesting or memorable about it?
Maria: Well, my day started at 4 a.m because we had to be there at 5:45 a.m. We started by getting all the computers powered up and put up the signage for social distancing. I split time between handing out ballots and checking in voters as they arrived. We had a large rush in the morning. There were actually people outside, in line, at 6 o’clock, which was pretty cool, because the pressure was on and it was a big adrenaline rush! But mostly it was steady after that, because so many people voted absentee.
One thing I found really interesting was we had two challengers at our location. When I heard “challenger,” I immediately felt like I had to be on defense, but the one lady was really down to earth. I had a lot of questions, as did a lot of the other poll workers, so I just went over to her to ask if she could explain the whole challenge process to us. And she explained that she wasn’t there to hinder the process. She was just there to make sure people are voting in the correct precinct and things like that. That made us feel a lot more comfortable, and she even admitted she felt a little nervous, because it was her first time too.
Later on, we had another challenger pop in and that was a little more intense. I don’t want to judge, but she came in and her persona was much different; it was like she was there to find something wrong. But everything was organized and we were super on point with everything, so she only stayed for 15 minutes and then left.
And how about you, Domeda? What did you find most interesting about the experience?
Domeda: For sure, I’d say my experiences with what I guess you’d call non-traditional first-time voters. I met people in their 30s, who were really excited, but then when they got there and were filling in the bubbles, it all started to feel a little overwhelming for them. Like, we had someone who had to submit their ballot three times, because she accidentally marked her ballot in ways that the machine flagged as an error. A lot of times that’s because someone has overvoted, or maybe marked the straight-ticket section and then continued to select candidates. So in that case, you just hang in there with someone and try to keep their spirits up, especially with first-time voters.
I actually had one first-time voter who came back three times. The first time, she came to get a sample ballot so she could take that home and look it over. Then she came back, voted, submitted her ballot, but it came back in error. And she was like, “Forget it! I’m leaving!” She was really, really down about it. But then she came back a third time, this time with her kids, and she finally got her ballot cast. That was a pretty amazing moment — definitely a peak for me.
So would you do it again?
Maria: I haven’t decided yet.
Domeda: It’s probably a ‘no’ for me. In the moment, everything moves very fast, and you don’t want to feel like something you’re doing is holding up someone so you lose that voter. It’s a lot of responsibility, and there are a lot of things to remember, and I just don’t know if the training was thorough enough to make me feel as confident as I would have wanted to. So it was very stressful. I still have a headache.
Whether or not I do it again, I do feel like this experience has had a ripple effect. I’ve noticed when talking with peers or family, just me sharing that I was planning on participating in the process in this way led to us having more conversations about voting in general. And not just about the president. We were talking about judges, and prosecutors and how to research candidates. You’re just that much more tapped in, and I think it’s important for young people to model this for other folks. So maybe it’s one of those things you don’t have to do every election, but everyone should do at least once.
Maria: I agree, absolutely. Kind of like a civic internship or something. I definitely feel like I have a whole different understanding of the process, and I think of all the people out there who think their vote doesn’t count. I think if they did something like this, they’d see that it does.