Powering the Polls

Despite the pandemic, East Bay residents stepped up as poll workers and watchers in record numbers

Over the last four years, the word unprecedented has been called into action so frequently (and also mangled, by a notable Twitter user who complained in 2016 about China’s “unpresidented” actions) that it might seem charitable to let the overworked, mistreated adjective rest. But here’s another instance where we need it: The number of Bay Area citizens who applied to serve as in-person poll workers and poll watchers this year, in the midst of a pandemic, was—that’s right—unprecedented.

“It’s a historic high,” says Rusty Hicks, chair of the California Democratic Party (CADEM), referring to the 300 attorneys, including many Bay Area residents, who volunteered this year as poll observers with the CADEM Voter Protection Team.

“Turnout has been amazing,” says Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis, referring to both the number of applications his office received from prospective poll workers—4,800 applicants vied for 1,800 slots—and the region’s extraordinary early-voting tallies. (As of Oct. 30, Dupuis reports, 52% of registered voters in Alameda County had already voted, as had 60% of voters in Marin County.)

What’s more, Dupuis adds, “Our story is not unique.” San Francisco, San Mateo, and other counties have also been inundated with poll-worker applications. “You can see the enthusiasm all over California,” Dupuis says. “People really want to get involved, and they really want this election to go off without hitches.”

Oakland resident Ann Richardson Berkey is one of those motivated to serve by personal concerns about election safety, and despite fears about COVID-19. A retired senior vice president of communications for McKesson Corporation, Berkey will work four long days as a poll captain in an Accessible Voting Location (AVLs are the new polls) in West Oakland, starting at 7am for three days and at 5am on the final day.

Although Berkey spent her career in government and government relations, starting as a Nixon-administration appointee in the early 1970s, this is the first time she’s been an election worker.

“When you have a candidate, and in this case an entire administration, instilling fear in people about whether or not the election process will be legitimate, that is very concerning,” Berkey says. “That and my belief that every vote counts motivated me to apply.”

As poll captain, Berkey will lead 16 poll workers in her location in duties such as opening and closing the poll; checking voters in (using new, electronic Poll Pads, which facilitate residents voting at any of Alameda County’s 100 AVLs, rather than at specific assigned polling places where voters’ names are listed in physical books); supporting voters who need provisional ballots or language assistance; handing out disposable gloves and masks as needed; sanitizing voting booths between uses; and more.

Election officials across the country realized early in the pandemic that the seniors and retirees who have long comprised the majority of poll workers might sit out this election to safeguard their health. “A lot of people my age—over 65—are not willing to work this year,” Berkey says. She herself has confidence in the precautions the county is taking to safeguard poll workers and voters, including supplying plentiful PPE, training poll workers to do rigorous cleaning between voters, and even facilitating curbside voting service for residents reluctant or unable to leave their cars.

Younger people, who are considered to be at lower risk of complications from COVID, have stepped up to serve as poll workers this year. “When I went to my poll-worker training,” Berkey says, “I was amazed at how many of the people there were in their 30s and 40s.”

That didn’t happen by accident. State and county agencies collaborated this year to increase their recruiting efficacy by replacing fragmented county-by-county poll-worker recruitment and sign-up systems with a statewide messaging campaign and application portal. In addition, says Sam Mahood, Press Secretary to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, “our office partnered with the group Power the Polls, to provide information they collected from prospective poll workers to county elections officials.”

According to CNN, Power the Polls is a non-partisan poll-worker recruitment initiative that is itself powered by a consortium of high-profile, deep-pocket companies, including Comedy Central, Levi Strauss & Co., Patagonia, MTV, Uber, and others. The group’s savvy, social-media-centric approach proved effective at attracting younger prospective poll workers.

“I started seeing encouraging messages about becoming a poll worker in my Twitter feed in early August,” says Oakland resident Christa Dahlstrom, a content strategy consultant who first found herself moving off the political-action sidelines in the 2018 midterms. “They were welcoming and eye-catching, and within days they were being retweeted by so many celebrities that I like. So one night, in my election anxiety, I just clicked a link and signed up.”

Dahlstrom didn’t land a coveted poll assignment, but says, “I was really looking forward to seeing voting in action in a concrete way. I will apply again in the future. I’ve got the bug.”

Alameda attorney Todd Boley, one of the 300 lawyers CADEM is deploying as poll watchers in CA counties with particularly tight races, caught the bug years ago, serving as a poll watcher in Florida in 2004 and the Central Valley in 2018; but he too felt a particular need to serve this year. “This election is unlike any other,” he says. “There’s a lot of concern [about election fairness], with litigation in the Supreme Court that’s really troubling, and kidnapping plots [such as the one targeting MI Gov. Gretchen Whitmer].”

Foley believes that poll watching, which he will be doing in Tulare and Kings counties, can and should be a non-confrontational and non-partisan act; and that it can make a real difference to people’s faith in election integrity. “Our focus as poll watchers is on making certain that people are not prevented from casting their vote, and getting all ballots counted,” he says. “If we do that, our concerns are going to be taken care of.”

While Foley and Berkey each have some anxiety about this election (“I asked what to do about conflict at the polls,” says Berkey, “and was told, ‘First try to defuse, but call 911 as necesssary’ ”) both remain cautiously optimistic that all will go well. “We’re trying to be prepared for anything,” says Foley, “but I’m hoping any problems are just administrative.”

Like Dahlstrom, who says her primary motivation for wanting to work the polls this year was “to take positive action to make sure this election is fair,” Foley and Berkey agree that inherent risks are less important to them than protecting election fairness. Berkey’s son, a paramedic who worries about her safety, told her, “ ‘You’re really putting yourself out there in terms of risk,’ ” Berkey says. “But I said, ‘I have to do this. I have to help make sure this election is safe.’ This year is absolutely critical to our election integrity.” In other words, it’s unprecedented.

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