A Morning in the Life of an Election Protection Volunteer

by Mary Pappalardo, Writing Intern

Election Protection is a nonpartisan coalition that works to ensure that everyone gets to exercise their very basic right to vote. This year’s coalition was the largest voter protection and education effort ever, and I volunteered to be a part of the team on November 6, monitoring polls, and helping people as questions regarding their ability to vote arose. This week’s blog follows my morning, when I volunteered from 7-11 AM.

5:00 AM – I absolutely haven’t been awake this early in a while, except in the instances of still being awake and doing work due later in the day. I went to bed last night worried that I would oversleep, or that I would be sluggish, but I’m pleasantly surprised. I’m excited to be awake, and to get started. I’m nervous, because I don’t know what to expect, but it’s the kind of anticipation that reminds me of my childhood, when I spent Christmas mornings waiting on the couch while my parents made their first cup of coffee.

6:15 AM – I wish I had a cup of coffee. My hands might freeze off waiting for the bus.

6:45 AM ­– I arrive at the Friends Meeting House, and even though it’s early, and there are only a few people here, it seems bustling with activity. A volunteer, Mike, checks other volunteers in as we arrive, and directs us to a kit of supplies and a stack of t-shirts. He tells me there are some snacks, and I grab a granola bar and find my much needed coffee in the kitchen. Feeling more like a human being, I chat with some of the other volunteers; someone I know from an internship, an older man waiting for his volunteer partner, a woman who works in Harrisburg for a state representative. She and I trade stories of getting interested in politics (it all starts with The West Wing) and she tells me that she came back to Allegheny County to volunteer because she had the day off, and what did she have that was better to do? It’s things like meeting these people that makes me realize that grassroots efforts like our is made up of a huge network of individuals, who bring their own story and motivation to the table. It’s inspiring, to say the least.

7:10 – I catch another bus to meet up with my volunteer partner. All of our assigned polling places are in Oakland, and the first one we’re stationed at is the 4th Ward, 5th district polling place, a fire engine house. My partner tells me that she initially was confused, because the building houses another polling place; the 4th Ward, 16th district polling place, identified as the Oakland Senior Citizen Center. It’s a confusing setup, though maybe just because we are both first time voters. The Senior Citizen Center’s door faces one way and the firehouse door faces another; multiple voters approach the building unaware of which door to go through. We direct them, and while this isn’t a big issue, we acknowledge that the day might be full of small hitches like this. We meet the constable working at the firehouse; he tells us he and all the poll workers have been doing this for years, his arms full of a coffee delivery for the workers inside.

8:00 AM – We decide to move on to the next of our assigned places, as things seem to be running pretty smoothly at the firehouse. We climb up the hill to Carlow College, and again recognize the confusion about locations. The description of the polling place is Carlow College Garage, and identified as the 4th Ward 6th District. The polling place is actually down the street though, in the same room as the 4th Ward 18th District. Despite this confusion on our parts, voters seem like they’re not running into any issues. I get a text from a friend who knows that I’m monitoring the polls today telling me that lines are long down at the Senior Citizen Center. We decide to head to another of our assigned polling places, and stop by the Senior Citizen Center on the way.

8:50 AM – It seems that the Senior Citizen Center is running smoothly, so we move on to our next assignment on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus. It’s listed as Forbes Quad on Bouquet Street. As Pitt students, we’re a little confused, but after stopping in at another campus polling place, we realize we’re supposed to be at the William Pitt Union. Upon arrival, we speak to the Judge of Elections, who tells us things have been going well. While standing outside, we meet two Election Protection Lawyers, who have heard reports of an incident here. After investigating, they tell us they’re heading to the polling place at the Soldiers and Sailors Military Museum and Memorial. We decide to tag along; the Union seems to be in good hands, and Soldiers and Sailors is on our list. While there, we meet a pro poll monitor, who’s been doing this since she was fourteen. Her number one tip is to get to the poll early so you have a seat. It seems like good advice, after a couple hours of walking.

9:30 – We’ve decided to return to the Union, because we figure Soldiers and Sailors is in good hands with two lawyers. I run into a friend of mine who had told me on Saturday how he’d forgotten to change his address, so he still had to vote on Pitt’s campus. I ask him how voting went and he tells me that he wasn’t able to vote, and that the Union is the third place he’s been sent to. He calls a hotline, and while he’s on hold, a few more students come out and, seeming to have a similar problem, also get on the phone to confirm their polling places. In the meantime, a group of other poll monitors (at least one from PennPIRG) tell us they’ve heard of a polling place that has no supplemental list. This means that some voters who are rightfully registered at a polling place, but do not appear in the book of registered voters, might be turned away or instructed to cast provisional ballots (which are unreliable). When we find out that it’s the Senior Citizen Center, we immediately call our team captain, who instructs us to directly call an Election Protection lawyer. When I get through, a lawyer instructs us to go to the polling place and investigate and to call back. As we leave my friend gets off the phone; he tells me he’s in the right place, and is going to try again. My last words to him are advising him to check the supplemental list, hoping that this polling place has one, hoping that he gets to vote.

10:15 – We arrive back at the Senior Citizen Center, and lines are much longer than they were when we checked in an hour and a half ago. A volunteer from the Obama office tells me he’s already called their lawyers about the supplemental list, but we go inside to assess the situation for ourselves. To deal with the problem, an election protection volunteer has been looking up addresses on her phone and confirming that voters are in the right polling place. If they are, an attorney who has been certified to watch the polls has been calling the County Board of Elections. Once this process is completed, the voter in question is allowed to vote. The system seems to be working, but is taking a long time, and this is causing longer and longer lines. We call our lawyer who tells us that he’ll see what’s being done about the situation and call us back. We spend the time waiting for a callback comparing notes on the day with the other poll monitors; regardless of who they’re supporting everyone just wants to make sure people vote. It’s really refreshing, after months and months of political pandering, to see people come together to promote our basic rights.

11:15 – Our shift ends at 11, and my partner leaves, but since I have time to kill I decide to hang around for a bit and see if I hear back from our lawyer. In that time, two women come from the Senior Citizen Center to the firehouse, saying they were told they had gone to the wrong place. A few minutes later, they come out of the firehouse, saying they weren’t on the list there either. They’ve been voting for years, at the Senior Citizen Center, and they don’t know what to do. I call our 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline for them, and after a few minutes giving information to our dispatcher, we confirm that the Senior Citizen Center is their polling place. I take them in and put them in touch with the attorney who is helping voters there; we all agree that they shouldn’t have to wait in line again, and he assures me he will take care of them.

12:00 – I spend the rest of my time helping direct people to the right portion of the building, and encouraging voters waiting in line to hang in, and that the result is worth it. Most of them don’t need my prompting to understand that fact, and some even seem surprised at the suggestion that a long line would deter them. Eventually, the two women I had helped come out and tell me that they successfully voted, and thank me. State Representative Dan Frankel comes with snacks for the poll workers at both polling places; he also gets on the phone with someone regarding the supplemental list and the long lines. More volunteers arrive, from the next shift, and despite not hearing back from our lawyer, I feel the polling place is in good hands. I say goodbye to the new people I met and take off my election protection pin. I have one more polling place to go to, but this time I won’t be monitoring. This time I will be voting, for the first time.

It was a day well spent, in every way.