Some months ago, I decided I needed to so SOMETHING on Election Day other than work-work because I knew I’d be too distracted. I wanted to do something to help the process. After considering driving people to the polls, handing out literature at a polling site, applying to be an Election Judge, I decided to become an onsite Democratic Party Poll Observer. This is someone who is at an assigned polling place all day, assuring that those who are eligible to vote get to vote, or get to the correct polling place, or don’t have to wait any longer than necessary, etc. so I applied, and about two weeks before Election Day, I did an online training, and the week before the election, I got a packet with my lanyard and credentials and my poll assignment, Greater Faith Church, in North St. Louis City. I would be there from before the 6:00 AM opening and stay till the last voter in line at 7:00 PM had voted and everything was packed up.
I am not a morning person under the best of circumstances, and frankly I did not sleep very well the night before. I am often nervous, even apprehensive about tasks I have taken on, but in this case I was out-and-out terrified. I was entering an entirely new domain, a terra incognita of arcane rules and regulations and — most frightening of all — the not-inconceivable threat of coordinated violence from white supremacist groups.
I got up at 4:06 AM, had some coffee, did some yoga, took a shower, and threw my phone and a couple of chargers and my manual and three large scones and a book and some magazines and a legal pad and some pens and some hand sanitizer and a lot of cough drops and masks and Kleenex in a bag and — after taking a deep breath — headed to my site.
I arrived at 5:43 AM and found the Greater Faith Church, an unassuming, white, neat, cinderblock building on Natural Bridge Road. About a dozen voters were already waiting outside. I greeted them, and an older woman with a cane said gleefully, “I’m number one!” Smiling, I went inside. Here are my notes from the day.
5:50 AM: Everything is set up and seems to be in place. They are ready.
6:00 AM: The doors are open. I can see the line stretching out to the sidewalk. Here we go!
6:05 AM: Check-in is taking about 1 minute/voter. Most people are taking paper ballots.
6:20 AM: Setting up another table for voters using paper ballots.
6:35 AM: A good morning rush. The line seems to be taking about 20 minutes. No one is complaining.
6:50 AM: A few people have come to the wrong polling place. The poll workers are working with everyone to find out where they need to be and making sure they have directions.
7:25 AM: The early morning rush is over. People are coming in one and two at a time now.
8:25 AM: Two men walk in, and the older gentleman greets the room with an expansive “Good morning!” “Good mornings” are expressed in reply. He indicates the younger man with him and says, “Now you all time your time with this one. It’s his first time voting.” The entire room bursts into applause.
8:30 AM: I’ve been made! A voter glances as me as she walks to the registration table and stops, narrows her eyes, and says, “Dr. Haller?” We are both wearing masks. “Yes,” I say. “I’m sorry. The mask. You are…” She pulls down her mask for moment, and I recognize her as the mom of a couple of my patients. We talk briefly about her kids, the oldest of whom is now 21 (“How did THAT happen?!”), and she says, “You know how I recognized you? Your shoes.” I look down, and yes, I am wearing my very old, very comfortable black loafers. I did not realize they were my “trademark.” We wave to each other as she goes up to the registration table. I hear her say to the poll workers, “Do you know who that is?” “Really?” they answer, and they look in my direction.
8:50 AM: A lull. I chat with the ladies (they are all ladies, their preferred term) at the registration table. They tell me stories about how much they love Cardinal Glennon and how they have brought their own kids there and how they went there when they were kids.
9:05 AM: A City election official stops by to check on things. He asks for my credentials. He looks through his folder, and there I am. Everything is copacetic.
10:05 AM: People really like to bring donuts to poll workers. Three dozen so far! Not complaining.
10:35 AM: This room has two smoke detectors, and they are both chirping. I use my stopwatch to time the chirps. Each one has a periodicity of 30 seconds, i.e., two/minute. Since there are two alarms, that’s four chirps per minute, which is 240/ hour, which for a 13-hour day is a grand total of 3120 chirps, not counting set-up and break-down time. The saving grace is that there are two of them so I am pretending that I’m in an aviary and I’m listening to two birds having a conversation.
12:30 PM: 6 ½ hours down. 6 ½ to go!
1:00 PM: I’ve had an opportunity to talk to most of the ladies. Fascinating lives. Two of them are sisters who have worked elections at this site for about a dozen years. They ask me about being a pediatrician and about my life. I talk about the Blue Strawberry. The sisters plan to make a reservation for Saturday night.
1:20 PM: Very slow now. We are reading “The Plague” by Albert Camus for the SLU Literature and Medicine group. Now is as good a time as any to start.
2:25 PM: Stepped outside to enjoy this glorious day. Talked to the electioneering folks, all more than 25 feet from the door. All for Democratic candidates and various propositions and amendments. No signs for Republicans here. And no Republican Party Poll Observer at this polling place.
3:05 PM: Maybe 5 or 6 people who showed up today have been unable to vote here. I’ve been very impressed with the individual attention each one has gotten from the poll workers who have worked to either direct them to the correct polling place or to get them registered when possible.
3:40 PM: Quiet. Just finished my third scone. With the two donuts from earlier, totally a carb-loading day.
4:30 PM: Up to page 105 of “The Plague.” Obviously a very meta read during a pandemic.
5:00 PM: Numbers starting to pick up again. After work surge?
5:40 PM: Steady stream of voters but no real surge. Longest line about 5 or 6 at a time in the past hour. One of the sisters theorizes that a lot of the folks who might have voted after work did so absentee so they wouldn’t have to wait in line after a long day.
6:10 PM: Standing outside with one of the sisters waiting for voters. She asks if I’d do this again. “Sure,” I say, “I really enjoyed it.” “Well, if you do, tell them you want to be at Greater Faith Church. Our poll worker group is like a little family, and we’d love to have you back.” Of course, this makes me smile.
6:20 PM: A City cop who knows the poll workers stops by. Warm greetings all around. He finds out I’m a pediatrician and shows me pix of his very cute one-year old son. He is checking his phone and is excited to see that, right now, Kentucky is trending blue. “I was all in for Bernie. I hope we can make this happen. Maybe AOC runs for president in 2024?”
6:40 PM: Every single person who entered this building today was wearing a mask.
7:01 PM: The last voter left at 6:53. I stand at the open door looking out at the parking lot for last-minute voters. I do the countdown. “!0–9–8–7–6–5–4–3–2–1.” I shut the door. I feel like Jimmy Stewart in that scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when they are able to close the doors of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan with two dollars to spare at the end of the day when there was a run on the bank. We did a good job, and we made it through the day.
7:15 PM: Everything is packed up, the floors are swept, the furniture is put up. Around 225 citizens voted here today. I will do this again.