The November 8 midterm elections are less than two weeks away, with early voting underway in most U.S. states. At stake are the small Democratic Party majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate, as well as numerous state and local political offices around the country (BBC). Around 20% of U.S. voters are worried about intimidation or violence at the polls, with 67% fearful of political violence post-election (Reuters). In Arizona, armed individuals with tactical gear and paramilitary-style clothing showed up to “guard” a ballot box from voter fraud. Threats against local election workers have increased in an election season with “tension” that one political scientist describes as “unprecedented” (Yahoo!).
It’s not too late to take action against right-wing intimidation at the ballot box by becoming a poll worker on election day. These opportunities are available across the country and are usually paid gigs. Having enough official poll workers means that more polling places are open. Without enough polling places, people with the least access are the most likely to be deterred from voting. It’s hard to vote if you don’t have a car and you have to go across town without paid time off work or childcare. This deficit disproportionately disadvantages low-income voters and voters of color (The Atlantic). Black and Latine people wait almost 50% longer than white voters (Brennan Center).
• Sign up to be a poll worker. Requirements differ from state to state, but positions are paid and usually require working on Election Day plus additional training. Go to workelections.com and select your state for more information.
• Serve as a voting resource. Read up on voting rules and regulations in your county. Push out accurate information on early voting, absentee voting, etc., on social media. Make sure your friends know they can come to you with any questions!
• Push for your workplace to make Election Day a paid holiday.
Poll workers also individually can influence who gets to cast a ballot. Before, I didn’t realize they had any authority; I thought their duties were just administrative or clerical. But research shows that even though election workers don’t make the voting rules, they can influence how those rules are implemented. Poll workers, election officials, and county recorders often have discretion in what kind of minor errors in voter forms or registrations they can decide to let slide or not. Studies show that election workers enforce the rules unevenly, and the decisions often come down to racial bias (Michigan Journal of Race and Law).
In Big Horn County, Montana, officials made the voter registration process more complicated for Indigenous voters than for white voters. Election workers looked for minor errors to use as excuses to deny the Indigenous voters’ registrations (Windy Boy v. County of Big Horn). Another report from Arizona showed that Indigenous voters were often “placed… on ‘suspense lists’ (similar to inactive lists) when the recorder was not satisfied that an applicant sufficiently clarified his or her address. There are few guidelines on what should constitute an adequate address in Arizona; instead, it is left to the recorder’s discretion and may be influenced by implicit bias” (Michigan Journal of Race and Law).
Similarly, the ACLU discovered that “black and Latino voters in Florida were more than two times as likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected as white voters—because of a mix of voter error and how the state processes ballots” (The Atlantic). But blaming these rejections as “voter error” is a way officials can blame the voters themselves without considering the inequality in voter information access. Even when voters ask the right questions, they might not get the correct answers depending on their race.
In a study from before the 2012 election, researchers sent almost two thousand emails to legislators in 14 states, pretending to be constituents unsure if they could vote without a driver’s license. Half the emails were signed “Jacob Smith,” the other half “Santiago Rodriguez.” None of the states required an ID, but legislators supporting voter ID laws responded to “Smith” much more than “Rodriguez.” Even legislators that didn’t support ID laws responded more frequently to the white-appearing name, though the difference was not as large (Legislative Studies Quarterly). These reports and studies show how people of color face barriers in voting – not only from unjust voter suppression laws but also from clerical and administrative workers throughout the voting process.
Despite idiosyncrasies ranging from the anti-democratic Electoral College (Zinn Educational Project) to elections decided by a statewide game of glorified musical chairs (BBC), many U.S. citizens believe their political system is a model for democracy. The provocations in Arizona highlight the risk of voter suppression, which has been as central to the U.S. political system as democratic inclusion. Though the 15th Amendment banned discriminating against voters based on race, less than 2% of eligible Black voters were registered in Alabama and Mississippi in 1910 because of poll taxes, literacy tests, and voter intimidation.
Voting is a tactic and should just be one tool in our fight for equity and justice, alongside protests, community organizing, and other types of activism. But if you are willing and able, you can apply to be a poll worker by going to workelections.com and clicking your state. I just sent in my application here in Illinois. If you can’t be a poll worker, help other people vote. Study up on all the voting regulations in your county and serve as an information hub for your family, friends, and social media feed. And, of course, make sure your registration is accurate and up-to-date.
• Systemic voter suppression has always been central to the U.S. political system.
• Trust in this year’s midterms is at a historic low, and far-right organizations are mobilizing to influence the vote.
• You can sign up to be a poll worker to ensure that doesn’t happen.
*This piece was originally published on 9/27/20. It was updated and edited by The ARD on 10/31/22.