4:15 a.m. is not the ideal wakeup time for a college student, especially when you’ve barely gotten four hours of sleep. Yet, the shrill sound of my alarm and my mother’s nagging reminded me of the importance of the day — Election Day. In the quietest, darkest depths of the morning, I struggled to both rush and prepare myself calmly for the long day ahead, packing personal necessities while donning my mask. I wasn’t feeling anxious — perhaps due to my body’s shortage of deep sleep or that I was truly confident in my abilities at the moment. Nevertheless, I managed to make it to my home precinct, unknowingly making two mistakes at this point — not packing enough coffee and wearing Vans slip-ons with no arch support.
The beginning of the day was filled with many awkward first acquaintances, evoking feelings of familiarity and discomfort. It has been a while since I had directly interacted with adults other than my parents and professors, so it was a comfort to reclaim this part of my life. But it also acted as a rude awakening for my introversion and how it has become even more vulnerable from my lack of social exposure over these past few months.
After the ritual form signing and election officer pledging, the hustle and bustle of precinct setup began. There was the usual setup of Poll Pads, which are electronic poll books, and ballot scanning machines, but also the relatively new ones as well — social distancing signs and six-feet markers had to be plastered on both the interiors and exteriors of the polling location. Before any of us knew it, it was 6 a.m.
What I didn’t realize about poll-working was the hidden unpredictability of the job. The training course heavily prepared us on the hard logistics such as the responsibilities of each position, but failed to outline the emotional commitment many were least prepared for. The rest of the day blurred together as I took over many roles such as overseeing the ballot scanning process and directing traffic flow, leaving me with tense shoulders and aching feet. There was also the dull, repetitive nature of the work, whether it be from reciting a “ballot monologue” to each voter — “Good morning, I’m going to give you your ballot which is double-sided …” — or counting fresh ballots by tens. It is no wonder that many of my fellow election officers joked around, counting down the hours until 7 p.m. when the polls closed.
Thankfully, my mind didn’t drift too much towards thoughts of election anxiety, as there was little time to catch my breath during the constant role rotations and short meal breaks. While working, it was difficult to see the value in the work I put in, as personal mundanities and physical grievances tend to dominate priorities. It was only when returning home around 10 p.m. did my feelings and observations mesh together as I reflected upon the significance of the work I had contributed.
For example, some of the relationships built between myself and the other election officers ran deeper than I had originally thought. We’ve strengthened our bonds by exchanging thumbs ups and small words of encouragement during our fatigued moments. There was always time and space for natural conversation as we shared election-officer roles and rested during our breaks — parents telling a variety of stories of how their children and grandchildren are adjusting to the pandemic, how a college student felt about his Zoom University experience and more.
I was also able to see glimpses of familiar faces behind masks — those of neighbors, former classmates and parents. From these fleeting moments, I was able to garner a sense of relief in that they seemed to be well, despite them not knowing who I was behind the mask. Beyond the comforting familiarity, there was something even more profoundly moving as I silently watched those hunched behind their privacy shields — voting booths which ensure the privacy of their vote.
I saw a microcosm of America. I saw many people representing their diverse social identities — workers wearing suits and uniforms and parents who brought their sons and daughters with them. I saw many people who were elderly, freshly 18, non-English speaking and of various races and ethnicities. I saw a diverse, but united front — all of us struggling to live our lives but still making the time to exercise the right to vote.
But I also saw some of my precinct voters frustrated and impatient with the registration process, as the voting process did not run as smoothly as they wanted it to be. As a result, they left without having their vote honored and valued. This can be seen throughout the nation as voter suppression is still prevalent in many forms. Long lines, inefficient voting infrastructure and voter disenfranchisement are all symptoms of a country deeply rooted in racism and neglect. The voting system, something that should be pure and transparent, has become tainted with privatization and complacency — serious reform and revamping are needed.
Missing an entire school day also diverted my attention away from solely focusing on the election. My mind was conflicted between whether I should feel pride or regret over missing time I could have spent to attend my classes and prepare for upcoming midterms. There were some feelings of bitterness directed towards the University for not canceling classes on Election Day, although many other Virginia colleges such as William & Mary and James Madison University have done so. The University failed to ease the access for both students and faculty to perform their fundamental voting duties and to serve their communities as election officers.
I’m ultimately proud to be one among many of the election officers around the nation who facilitated the voting process for individual voters across the nation. Then after Election Day officially passed, many continued to work to count absentee and mail-in votes to properly tabulate the results that the country was desperate for, despite attempts to stop vote counting and thwart our democracy. Although I am still unsure if I caught the “election bug,” I know that you can find me working at the polls again in June for Virginia’s primary elections, well-caffeinated and sneakered for sure!
Sarah Kim is a Life Columnist at The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org