Reflections of a Poll Worker
In this week’s blog, Residence Hall Director, Will Hsu reflects on his experience as a first time poll worker. It was an election day like no other, leaving Will to overcome obstacles of COVID safety precautions and general nervousness accompanying such a high stakes day. Read on for his insights from voter turnout to his role in civic engagement even after the election.
The 2020 United States General Election was a week of many firsts for our nation, and Election Day itself was a day of many firsts namely within our USF community. Personally, it was my first time working as a Poll Clerk, and being fortunate to be assigned to our precinct’s polling place at the McCarthy Center, it was also my first time meeting McCarthy Center staff and visiting the McCarthy Center space.
Although firsts can be exciting, they can also be nerve-wracking. Several sleepless nights and anxiety-ridden hours were spent leading up to Election Day, mostly centered around attitudes around the political climate, COVID protections for Poll Workers and voters, high numbers of people in space unfamiliar to me, and long hours (Poll Worker shift was 5:45 AM to 10 PM, with breaks throughout the day) spent with people I’ve never met before, etc. When the San Francisco Department of Elections conducted our Poll Worker training virtually this year, everything seemed pretty well-oiled, thoughtful, and efficient. The training was released and required to be completed a little over a month in advance of Election Day. And then the one note that really worried me came up: if a voter doesn’t observe COVID-19 ordinance (e.g. wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart, etc.), Poll Workers must still observe their right to vote as taking precedence over their requirement to comply with public health ordinance. As I was checking my email and reviewing my Poll Worker manual the night before, my Poll Inspector emails informing our team that over half of the people in our precinct had already voted by mail, which could contextualize our in-person voter turnout. Though t was impossible to accurately predict the results of Election Day, I still felt reassurance that this year’s mail-in ballots had already impacted our precinct’s voter turnout that much.
I was off to a rough start the morning-of with only two hours of sleep despite all of the anxiety. But when I arrived at the McCarthy Center, I was greeted by my fellow Poll Workers all ready to work and with positive attitudes. We were also fortunate to have an extra Poll Clerk assigned to our polling place, making our station very comfortably and efficiently staffed. Setting up our polling place was surprisingly like clockwork and everything aligned with astounding accuracy to the online training and manual that the SF Department of Elections required of and provided for us. We were ready to go by polls opening at 7 AM.
Getting to know and build connections with my fellow Poll Workers was a pleasant part of my experience that I just forgot to expect amid all of the anxiety. A fellow Poll Clerk brought their Nespresso machine for the group. Another Poll Clerk’s partner came to vote and dropped off donut holes for the group. As mentioned earlier, this election was also my first time visiting the McCarthy Center and 280 Masonic. As luck would have it, being at the McCarthy Center allowed me to meet Senior Director Derick Brown for the first time, and Assistant Director Angeline Vuong in-person for the first-time since I started at USF 10-11 months ago.
Towards the late afternoon and early evening, we saw an increase of student voters, often coming individually or in pairs. Many of the students were familiar faces that I’d see in Loyola Village. If they came in pairs, one student would vote while the other student stood off to the side. We would ask if they also wanted to vote; they declined, saying that they had already mailed in their ballot and were only at the polling place in person to bring their friend and make sure their friend votes too. While tensions have run high from COVID-19 and this election, I was particularly warmed by the camaraderie and community that our students and USF community show for each other.
While I loved my first poll working experience and my interest and enthusiasm are affirmed to continue doing this for subsequent elections, I can’t help but reflect on some areas of concern regarding our democratic system in the United States. As an Asian American first-generation college graduate and child of working class, ESL immigrants, a common socialization I experienced growing up was to keep my head down, don’t challenge the status quo, and work my way up in the system to achieve a successful career. At the same time, I was also met with reinforced perpetual foreigner rhetoric and sentiments that my community’s voice (vote) doesn’t count because people will never see us as truly American.
This experience working the polls was incredibly heartwarming but also eye-opening to potentially witness voter suppression/access issues, albeit much more nuanced than that of which we see in other states. In California, only “official” English ballots were mailed out to every California resident this year. While ESL citizens can potentially rely on their family/community to assist them with their mail-in voting, that isn’t always guaranteed. And even if it is, it highlights the gray area concern of whether or not ESL voters are able to cast their votes accurately and congruent to their intentions. While national (e.g. presidential) elections are relatively easier to navigate due to candidates being heavily featured in media and recognized and public figures, the language of voting on state propositions is not.
If nothing else, my experience working the polls was a joy because, as a lifelong learner, it expanded my understanding of civic engagement issues and the different ways in which that informs how our historically marginalized communities experience lapses in care and service from our elected governments. I highly recommend getting engaged with the annual poll working experience if you’re able. For me, getting engaged in this way took years of unlearning and interrogating the socializations of my community but it’s so far taught me different ways to conceptualize cura personalis, being for and with others, and magis. But sometimes, learning more about yourself and the things you value can be found through the experiences you never thought you’d try.