When a New Generation Works the Polls, Change Can Happen
By Erinda Sheno
When I stepped out of my house on Beyer Avenue on November 3rd, I took small sips of my coffee, believing I would have time to finish it while it was warm. Returning home 14 hours later—wiped out, hungry, mentally drained—I could almost laugh at how I started that morning. I had looked up and appreciated the predawn sky. I strolled, did not rush, out of the house and into the driver’s seat of my parents’ car. I didn’t know. No one knew how the day would go. But separate from that feeling of anxious waiting that charges Election Day, I held an inexperienced ignorance towards poll working. (By evening, I could say I felt a little wiser.) Not much later, I realized I should have left the house with a lot more haste: when I pulled in to park at my division’s polling place, the line to vote was nearly around the building.
The banquet hall of the Bustleton Memorial American Legion Post 810 resists change, I thought. Perhaps that is fitting for a neighborhood’s polling place. The chandeliers, drab carpeting, and white walls transported me back four years , to when I was 16 years old and accompanying my mother as she voted. Now the room held about two dozen people. All were in motion at their stations—setting up voting machines, taping signs announcing ward/division info to plexiglass barriers, organizing voter address books and provisional ballots before the polls opened at seven. Suddenly my coffee cup was forgotten. I joined the crowd and spoke to the first woman I saw by my table, 56/31.
“Good morning, are you Sharon?” I asked. She looked at me expectantly as if I was going to present a problem (“One of the machines is broken!”– God forbid).
Her accent was thick Northeast Philly. “I’m Sharon, who are you?”
“I’m Erinda. We spoke on the phone. I’m the machine inspector.”
Her face changed from worried to excited. “Oh, Erin! Fantastic! The machines are over there, they both need to be set up.”
Sharon is the judge of elections in our ward and has held this position for almost 20 years. She said it was relatively easy work that kept her busy only a couple times a year. Though she’s never seen a turnout like the one for this year’s presidential election.
With the kind help of a fellow machine inspector, both machines were up and running. The remainder of the day, from the minute polls opened until when they closed, I was on my feet. I led voters to the machines, handed them paper slips and showed them how to insert them into the machines. There were a couple issues I was not as prepared for; things that couldn’t fit in a poll worker’s training video. In one instance, my coworkers accused a young Black woman of coming in “to cause trouble." The woman was worried she was being disenfranchised because she was handed a provisional ballot, but she never said anything that did not relate to her rights as a voter. Clearly, if my coworkers had listened just a little more carefully, they would have understood that they should not have given the woman a provisional ballot. She was eligible to vote by machine in the first place. Because of their mistake, she had filled out the ballot they gave her, which they should have realized was wrong and then corrected. But the situation did not get sorted out that way. While the woman did end up voting by machine, she had to fight for it. I wish she hadn’t had to.
What I learned that day is that the Bustleton Memorial American Legion Post 810 resists change in more ways than just the shabby decor. And that is not fitting. In the course of my 14-hour workday, I watched people from my neighborhood come in to vote. At my side, I’d hear my fellow poll workers express frustration at their foreign-sounding names. I thought, “I have been on the receiving end of that interaction.” So have my parents. How could my coworkers do that to their neighbors?
When City Commissioner Omar Sabir issued his call to Philly Youth to fill the city’s urgent need for poll workers, I volunteered. After my 14-hour poll working experience, I thought about that call to action. It’s not just about filling empty positions. It’s about calling on a new generation of people, people with different-sounding names and different backgrounds, people who can ensure no one that walks into their neighborhood polling place has to fight for their vote.
Erinda Sheno is a junior from the University of Pennsylvania studying English and creative writing. She is excited to be spending another semester taking a class centered around #VoteThatJawn and getting out the youth vote.