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An election worker helping someone vote

Being an Election Worker: 101

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One of the most important ways you can get involved in promoting the freedom to vote and keeping our elections fair and accessible is by serving as an election worker.  

There are many different roles election workers can play, from ensuring that polling places are accessible for those with disabilities to counting ballots to running a polling site. Their one commonality? Every role is best filled by someone who cares about strengthening their community and allowing their voices to be heard. 

To learn more, we interviewed Pinny Sheoran, president-elect of the League of Women Voters of Arizona, Isabel Longoria, former League of Women Voters of Houston Board member and current Harris County elections administrator, and Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, both of whom have extensive experience as election workers. Here's what they shared:  

How did you get involved as an election worker? 

PS: As a naturalized citizen, I have voted in every election since 1990.  For over two decades, I would meet the same individuals at the polling location administering and managing the polling location. One of these individuals was an older woman, who lives down the street from me – we had many conversations about how important it was to vote, which, for her, was the most important thing a citizen could do. 

It's through her I learned about becoming a poll worker.  Busy with professional life, I put this on my “when I retire” to-do list.  In 2012 I started trying to find out more about becoming a poll worker, and in 2014 I applied to become a poll worker at the local county recorders/election office. 

DC: As a member of the League of Women Voters for over 30 years, I have had the opportunity to participate in many elections, primarily as an observer. Before electronic reporting, I would go to the polls at the end of the day and watch the tabulation of ballots. Once the counts were available, I would transmit the totals to local media so they could begin reporting.  

In more recent years, I have been a League observer during polling hours and at central count locations.  

IL: All the way through college there was never an inkling that I would work in government.

Then the perfect storm came along in 2011; there was the redistricting year and anti-LGBT legislature, and I wanted to be right there in the middle of it. I started off in the mailroom with Jessica Farrar’s office, then with Sylvia Garcia and other campaigns, and then in November 2020 I was appointed to be Harris County’s first Elections Administrator. The League of Women Voters has always been a constant through this career path, whether I was a volunteering with the League or referring to them as a valuable resource and partner for the Elections Administrator’s Office.

What did your job entail? 

PS: Since 2012, I have served on the election board of poll workers assigned to a polling location to manage a particular election. This includes acting as a: 

  • Clerk: guiding voters standing in line, printing and handing out ballots; 

  • Marshall: calling for the opening and closing of polls, ensuring that campaigners stay outside of the 75 ft line, ensuring signage is prominently displayed, keeping general order; 

  • Judge: providing backup and support for the Poll inspector;  

  • Poll Inspector: you have to go through rigorous training to become a poll inspector. The poll inspector runs the polling location, adjudicates any conflicts, and works to ensure that all voters and poll workers have a positive experience and are treated fairly. 

DC: Being a League observer entails ensuring that all election administration laws are being followed -- that curbside voting is available, the polling place is accessible, voting equipment for use by persons with disabilities is set up and working properly, there are enough poll workers to avoid long lines, the voters are all treated equally, etc. Discrepancies are reported back to the State office for compilation in our post-election report. 

IL: This office and role is simple and complex. I administer elections for the third-largest county in the United States, with 2.5 million registered voters over an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Many people think that all my office does is register voters and then show up on Election Day, but that is a very small slice of a much larger pie. A free and fair election requires year-round staffing, logic and accuracy tests that must be completed with zero errors, the logistics of delivering 13,000 pieces of equipment, training election workers, and so much more. Then you have to rinse and repeat because there are multiple elections in one year. In 2022, Harris County is on track for seven elections, a record high.

Did anything surprise you about the experience? What did you learn? 

PS: I never expected the work to be so satisfying. To see firsthand how important it was to ensure that everyone was able to vote, and to contribute to ensuring their experience, was positive and worth repeating.  

I also learned that poll workers who have been doing this for a long time are truly dedicated to non-partisanship. I had great role models in inspectors who ensured that the poll workers stayed neutral, followed the law, and did not impede anyone's right to vote.   

In 2020, for the very first time, I experienced poll workers behaving in ways that were not representative of the training we received, allowing hyper-partisanship to intrude at the polling location. I was so surprised to see this hyper-partisanship from certain poll workers. The level of intimidation and fear that the “Big Lie” proponents brought to the polling location was surprising, but we were undaunted. 

I have now learned that we must stay strong and firm, and not succumb to the bullying that is sure to occur in the 2022 and 2024 elections. All poll workers are heroes and need to be supported in staying neutral. 

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DC: Despite the good intentions of clerks across Wisconsin, not all polling places look or operate the same, resulting in varying experiences for voters. Wisconsin has over 1800 clerks administering elections. Some use central count locations for counting absentee ballots, and some count at the polls.  

Wisconsin has many restrictions on who can vote - you must have a valid photo ID, proof of residence, be able to access a ballot online or vote in person, etc. Additionally, the rules around voting are changing constantly causing the need for frequent education for voters on how to successfully vote. 

IL: I’m a huge elections nerd, yet I was even surprised by the complexity of elections. Everyone thinks they know how it’s done, but even the smartest people only scratch the surface.

Having run campaigns, I knew how to communicate with voters at all levels, but to administer is so much more than that. You’re educating voters every step of the way, from how to use the equipment to what’s going to be on their ballot to how this new voting law is going to affect them.

On top of that, now that elections have been dragged into the political arena, our office now has to protect voters and fight for election equity, whether that’s me going to testify at the state legislature or us allocating extra staff members to call voters who had their mail ballots flagged for rejection because of a new law that was unclear.

What was your favorite part of being an election worker? 

PS: Helping a voter navigate the process and seeing them successfully cast their ballot after having made their choices without any influence or intervention. 

DC: Knowing that you have helped people participate and be civically engaged. Everyone should have their voice heard! 

IL: Being at the pinnacle of democracy. When you talk about running a government, elections are the foundation of democratic governance. Every policy can be traced back to a vote. Women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, immigration reform… it all stems from who and what we vote for.

Also, the dedication that you see in elections is unmatched. Everyone I’ve met here has completely dedicated their hearts to this cause, and that is really what keeps me hopeful at the end of the day. I’m not just talking about the staff at the Elections Administrator’s Office either, but people who stay active in this outside of their normal jobs and lives, and show up with groups like LWV, or sign up to be clerks or volunteer deputy voter registrars. You all keep me and democracy going.

Contact your local League to learn how you can get involved as an election worker in 2022! 

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