Tens of thousands of Americans work the polls on Election Day. They decide who gets to vote straightaway and who must first fill out an affidavit. They are charged with troubleshooting the machines, keeping the lines moving, and conveying the vote tally to their local board of elections.
Poll workers are widely maligned, but not always with good reason. Often, the workforce tasked with this crucial responsibility is poorly trained. It is also poorly paid, and as a result, attracts primarily people with little else to do. Like retirees. Or—like me, when I worked the polls in 2013, 2014, and 2015—freelance writers.
On paper, being a poll worker is not a great part-time gig. The number of hours I worked on election days—17—was considerably higher than my hourly wage, about $11.70 with breaks included. Cops assigned to voting locations in New York City, where I worked the polls at a senior center in the East Village, split the 5 a.m.–to–10 p.m. workday into two shifts; I got an hour for lunch and one for dinner. One year, a voter mistook us for volunteers and gave her children a talk on civic duty. “You think we do this for free?” my co-worker scoffed once the lesson moved out of earshot.
It turns out that poll-worker competence is a strong predictor of voter confidence in elections, according to a handful of academic reports. “When voters feel good about their interactions with poll workers,” a 2008 study put it, “they feel better about their voting experience and more confident about the electoral system.”
I could feel that. But it wasn’t just that I was partially responsible for the democratic confidence of my neighbors. The pleasure of the work was more immediate and less serious. It was the joy of spending the whole day watching and talking to people. On one particularly slow Election Day, I had my nose deep in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. An older woman gave me an appreciative nod. Decades earlier, she told me, she had his poster on the wall of her dorm room.
New York City may be a hub of activism, but that doesn’t mean life here revolves around electoral politics. Only a handful of our district’s registered voters showed up, for example, for the 2014 Democratic primary for governor. Of the rest, some were dead and some were Republicans—more the former than the latter, I suspect. Most just didn’t care.
Since I was working as the door clerk on that day, I had a long, slow look at life in one of America’s most densely populated neighborhoods. My assignment was technically to be a kind of greeter. But its reward, to borrow Andy Warhol’s remark about a 1964 movie he made in which not all that much happens, came primarily from watching time go by.
Passersby gave the day its rhythm. When I put my chair out on the pre-dawn sidewalk, no one was out but the homeless. Trucks carrying bread, newspapers, and drywall groaned toward the East River. As the sky brightened, joggers in spandex and workers in suits hustled down the sidewalk. Finally the dogs emerged, owners in tow, the trips to the laundromat began, and the kids tumbled out of the school bus across the street. I had the impression of watching the great city cranked into action by a block-sized cog, stuttering, grinding, whirring in blurry concert with 4,000 peers.
I started work with coffee from Hampton Market, a bodega bravely standing between a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Starbucks. At 7:15 a.m., a local elected official brought us a batch of chocolate chip cookies in two empty yogurt containers. Not long after, Veniero’s opened and I dashed over for some breakfast rugelach. At lunchtime, I headed across the playground to Russo’s for a mozzarella sandwich, followed by an afternoon coffee from the nearby outpost of the Porto Rico Importing Co. It was a diet prescribed by proximity.
If this was the ideal vantage point for folding-chair anthropology, it’s one particular to a small subset of urban polling places. Being inside offered a different sense of the neighborhood. The district I worked is one of the smallest in America; its 700 voters live in just one–one-hundredth of a square mile. Manning the voter rolls fulfilled the curious urbanite’s fantasy: Either in name or in person, I was introduced to the (citizen) population of an entire city block.
I started to recognize particular people. There was an old couple in our district in their 90s who had showed up arm-in-arm to every election since I started working, and surely many before. They had lived in the East Village since the Eisenhower administration. It was hardly breakfast time when I began to worry that they wouldn’t show up, or that one would come without the other.
I never felt much different from one election to the next, but the world seemed set on reminding me that it had been a long 10 months since I was last here. “I remember you from last year,” said a voter herding two kids toward my desk as I found her name in the rolls. This old routine shrank the interval to nothing. And yet: Her son and daughter, though still eager for “I voted” stickers, had counted a great fraction of their lives in those seasons.
For the oldest voters, like the youngest, the wedge of intervening days holds value. When the elderly couple finally approached on the day of the gubernatorial primary, I abandoned door duty in order to be at the table when they arrived and let them know that I remembered them by name. “We’ll see how many more of these we can make,” the man said. He was demure in a denim shirt, khakis, and a hat; she elegant in black slacks, a polka-dot jacket, and a black-and-white hat.
“We like the lever,” he said of New York’s old mechanical voting machines, when I handed him a paper ballot with three tiny ovals. “We still use two soup cans and a string for a telephone. Worked great during Hurricane Sandy!”
He passed away the next summer. Only then did I learn that the couple spent the summer in the same beach town where I, as a kid, spent mine. I saw his obituary posted on a bulletin board next to the lifeguard hours. I learned other things about his life. That he had proudly commanded a mixed-race unit in World War II while the Army was still segregated. That he had been an Academy Award–nominated film producer and, with his wife, the recipient of a James Beard Award for a cookbook. That he was from the Bronx, and she from Brooklyn—“a mixed marriage,” he quipped to a newspaper reporter. They had always been just two names in my book, waiting for signatures.
As the day wound down, I took up my perch outside. The custodian of the senior center swept up coffee cups and cigarette butts, and sloshed a puddle out of the curb cut. A handful of older men assembled their electric wheelchairs across the street, transistor radios murmuring in the dusk, to watch the people go by.
It reminded the custodian of fire drills. He had to post the times in advance, and the more vigilant residents trudged out to the street 10 minutes before the alarm sounded. The others removed their hearing aids and remained inside, ignoring the sirens. “Stuck in the anti-conformity of the ’60s,” he groused. “Just don’t expect me to put you on my back.”