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What volunteering as an L.A. County poll worker taught me about politics

People standing in front of yellow voting booths.
A voting center in Los Angeles in 2020.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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When I used to complain about the divisiveness of American politics, my son, Henry, would often suggest I do something about it. Henry had been a poll worker during the 2020 elections, when he was 17. It was his first official job and he loved the experience. He even wrote about it in his college essays.

After Henry was tragically killed in an accident on Aug. 29, 2022, I followed his lead and signed up to work that year’s midterms. It could have been a mistake committing to something this important when I was struggling with my grief. Instead, I became completely engaged in the work and learned, through my son’s example, how we can all still find nonpartisan ways to better our political process and rise above our country’s fragmentation.

Until November 2022, I never thought about the mild-mannered poll workers I’d encountered and the herculean effort required to run an election.

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Assigned by L.A. County to be an “election coordinator,” I was responsible for auditing five voting sites in the week leading up to — and on — election day. I attended a one-day training session where instructors explained voting procedures, demonstrated the electronic poll book system, gave me a county-issued phone and helped fill my trunk with boxes of supplies. I was ready to go.

That first morning, I arrived at Westminster Avenue Elementary School in Venice at 7 a.m., nervously clutching my clipboard, as the vote center opened. By 8 p.m., I was on hand to help the Venice Boys & Girls Club site complete its closing procedures. For the 13 hours in between, I audited each of my five assigned voting stations, driving a constant loop between Venice and Santa Monica.

Was the official table set up with the required forms, flyers and guides? It was. Were the printers working? Check. Was curbside voting available? Yes. Did anyone need extra provisional envelopes, posters, registration forms, “I voted” stickers or scissors? If so, I had extras in my car.

Everything about the work surprised me. The entire process had become digitized, with procedures in place to keep the voting data secure. Each evening, the team printed the voting reports, counted all the ballots (voted, provisional, conditional, curbside, write-in), packed away machines, printers and supplies into carts, and then locked them with scanned zip-ties to ensure the “chain of custody.” Finally, two people were required to drive the ballots to a central location. By then, it was usually close to 10 p.m.

I assume the other poll workers had strong political opinions, as do I. But we didn’t discuss the candidates or the endless propositions on the ballot. Everyone was calm and professional.

We were an incongruous group, ranging in age from 16 to 70 and coming from every corner of Los Angeles. Most of us were paid a stipend, but no one was there for the money. It wasn’t picture-book patriotism. There were no lofty speeches. I never heard the Pledge of Allegiance. But we were all on Team Democracy. I was proud to be a part of it.

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My experience tracks with data that found, “Among the possible motivations for serving, a sense of civic duty and commitment to the election process were most important. Showing support for one’s political party was a rarely stated motivation” among poll workers.

In short, there is nothing political about being a poll worker.

Most of us worked consecutive 14- to 15-hour days, and things didn’t always go as planned. We had to redirect crowds after a power outage during a storm. The county sent an electrician within hours to get the power back. Nevertheless, one woman barked that we were preventing her from voting and threatened to call her lawyer.

Poll workers tried to stop several attempts at “electioneering.” That’s campaigning or soliciting votes within 100 feet of a vote center. The local school board candidates were the problem. One tried to hold up their campaign sign in the parking lot outside the polls. They were asked to move. Another handed out balloons to kids in the park next to the polls — balloons printed with the candidate’s name.

There were several highlights for me. I drove a 94-year-old woman home the evening she voted. A group of election observers from Western Europe watched as we closed one night. They didn’t ask questions, just looked on serenely as everything ran smoothly. I thought: “We must be doing something right.” An Iranian American man became tearful while casting his ballot. He spoke of women in Iran being killed defending their human rights.

On election day, I arrived home exhausted, but fulfilled, close to midnight. I’d found a small way to support our democratic process and it felt good. I’d also honored my son and created a new shared experience for the two of us. I knew Henry was proud of me. Maybe I hadn’t stopped complaining about politics. But I’d done something to help. For both of us. I’ll be working the polls again this November.

Elizabeth Kopple works in content marketing and lives with her husband in Santa Monica. She is working on a memoir focused on the loss of her son.

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