If you want your faith in humanity restored, sign up to work at the polls
Christine Riley (right) registers a new voter while working at the polls on Nov. 8 in Manchester’s Ward 3. (Casey McDermott | NHPR)
Starting in the early 1960s, both my parents were active in New Hampshire politics. They always “worked the polls” when I was a kid growing up in Manchester, though I never really knew what that meant. As an unsuspecting fourth grader, they had me stuffing envelopes for Barry Goldwater when he ran for president in 1964. When my father died in 2006, he had a pile of “Goldwater for President” pencils in his desk, still unsharpened. Clearly, I was raised by dyed-in-the-wool Republicans who put their money, time, and energy where their mouths were.
No longer a fourth grader, I have been a Democrat now for the past 50 years. Even if I seldom agreed with my parents on policy issues, I continued to admire them for their commitment to what they felt was important, and willingness to work for it.
My parents each took a turn representing Manchester’s Ward 4 as Republicans in the state Legislature, my mother’s tenure coinciding with that of the sassy, vocal, and uber-liberal New Hampshire legend Arnie Arnesen.
To say that they were on opposite sides of the aisle would not do their differences justice. In the year 2000, Arnie began dating, and subsequently married, a well-loved extended member of our family, Marty Capodice, a New Hampshire legend in his own right. When it became clear that Arnie would become part of our family, I think lots of people expected fireworks, or at least a tense silence at family gatherings.
I remember my mother taking an obvious pause when she heard Arnie would be joining us, and then said, “Arnie and I want the same things; we just go about it in very different ways.” Those differences never once caused a tense moment at our family gatherings. I like to think it was because they now knew each other as people, not adversaries.
This is what I grew up observing about how people navigate their political differences. I recognize how naive that sounds now, in today’s political environment. But I do appreciate knowing – for an absolute fact – that it is possible, despite the lack of evidence around us right now.
Fast forward to 2022, when I read about the poll workers in Georgia being hounded, harassed, and ultimately chased out of their own neighborhood, just for working at the polls – a completely nonpartisan, and most likely volunteer, job. I was horrified, and fearful that people all over the country would no longer feel safe working at the polls.
It also made me ask myself why I had never volunteered myself. Though I still don’t have an answer for that, I signed up immediately and was given the job of deputy registrar in Manchester’s Ward 3.
My job was to register people to vote. After completing a thorough training, both online and in person, my first assignment was in the September primary, where we registered over 100 people to vote, and I had the chance to learn the process in real time. I was acutely aware of how important it was for me to get this right, and to do well by each potential voter. When preparing to work this same job in the general election on Nov. 8, I had been cautioned that the volume would be much higher, and that there may be disruptions at the polls. Though we did have observers and challengers, for the most part they followed the rules set forth for these roles, and it was mostly just busy. All. Day. Long.
Seeing so many people lining up to vote was so very encouraging to witness. I think it’s safe to assume that anyone who takes the time to stand in line to vote has at least some confidence that their vote will be counted and treated fairly. And it was our job to make sure that was true.
As an introvert who is perfectly happy being an introvert, I rarely volunteer to put myself into these large-group situations. But after working the primary, I realized that each person who sat down at my station brought a totally unique situation, and we problem-solved together, one-on-one.
I helped a naturalized citizen from Argentina who was voting here for the first time. I helped a few people who had changed their first name, and more than a few who had changed their last name. Though there were four deputy registrar stations, it was just luck that put a cheerful elderly deaf man at my station; it gave me a chance to practice my sign language, and help him out in the process.
The deputy registrar working beside me helped a recently naturalized citizen from Ukraine who didn’t speak much English. She was able to use her high school Russian language skills to help him register; he was so happy to have someone understand him enough to help. Big smiles all around. Some folks didn’t know which ward they were supposed to vote in. Some moved from another ward, another city, another state. Some were born in U.S. territories and brought piles of documents, expecting to be given a hard time (spoiler alert: none was given). And my favorites were the 18-year-olds who were registering for the first time – some with a Mom or Dad standing proudly behind them.
I wished we had a bell to ring every time we registered a young person for the first time. It is so energizing to know that, even though they are at a confusing and awkward time in their lives (likely focused on several dozen more pressing issues than politics), these young people know enough, and care enough, to want to vote. In all, we registered almost 500 new voters in our little ward on Nov. 8. After 15 hours of working the polls, I was certainly tired, but mostly I was exhilarated and hopeful for the future.
For anyone who is despondent about the state of the world right now, I want to encourage them to work at the polls, even just once. It is amazing to see how many people dedicate themselves to each step of the voting process: how well our city hall staff prepare the workers for this work, and stay there until the work is done, no matter how difficult or how late it goes; how careful the poll workers are to follow the rules precisely, double-check each other, and document everything they do.
And then there is their kindness. The few times I had a chance to look around the ward, poll workers were happily greeting voters, answering questions, helping people with mobility issues, and making it as easy as possible for voters to do their civic duty.
I know this doesn’t fix the world, but it most certainly lifted me out of my own political skepticism and restored my faith in our individual abilities to rise above whatever chaos may surround us at the time.
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