I admit I’ve been sitting on the sidelines of this election. Heck, I’ve been so far removed I may as well be in the bleacher seats. It’s not that I don’t care. I do. Passionately. Which is probably why I couldn’t stand an up-close and personal view of what was unfolding. I simply don’t possess a fatal, voyeuristic drive to watch a race to the bottom.

Yet I love democracy.

And I spent decades in Catholic schools where refrains of  “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem” solved everything from putting away the tables from bingo night to stocking the local food pantry.

So I decided to become a poll worker, thinking if I can facilitate the crucial act of  ensuring a person casts a vote, I should.

But that was before voter intimidation became part of our daily lexicon and threats of violence at polling places emerged. I was tempted to just not respond when someone from the Orange County’s Register of Voters sent an email requesting an online interview.

“Let it be someone else’s problem,” I thought. “I vote by mail anyway,” I justified.

Yet that “If you’re not part of the solution…”  phrase kept rolling around in my head.

I answered the email, had an online interview, had my fingerprints inked, read most of the 100+ pages of documents about working for the county, showed my passport and was hired.

I conducted days of online training, learned which questions to ask to confirm voter identity, how to deal with election day quirks and how to secure voting machines. I was taught proper COVID protocols including mask wearing, disinfecting tablets and printing ballots.

And then, I went to my in-person training.

There, I remembered why democracy is so wondrous.

On a recent Saturday, as the sun rose over the palm trees at the elections office in Santa Ana, about 20 people of all shapes, sizes, races and ages stood in line, socially-distanced, waiting to start our 7:30 am poll worker training.

We spent the entire day together and not once did partisanship rear its ugly head. In fact, I have no idea if my fellow poll workers are Republicans, Democrats, Independents or have no party affiliation. It was so refreshing. We were just united with the common goal of learning how to make sure each person’s vote is cast and counted, of upholding the very foundation upon which democracy thrives.

Throughout the day other training groups arrived. It was as if a synchronous dance were being performed throughout the huge elections office warehouse. Videos were shown, a mock polling location was set up and torn down and hands-on training for all the different roles at a polling location were rehearsed by each group, taking turns. The eight-hour day was filled with information, questions and what-if scenarios. It was a tad overwhelming and every bit amazing. Especially when I realized this training has been going on every day for weeks. The Orange County elections office has had a heavy lift, especially with COVID, and they hit it out of the park with this extensive training process.

By the end of the day I was proud to be affiliated with my county  – and my country. I remembered why it such a gift to live in America, where there is room for each of us to be part of the solution. It’s always important to remember that in every election season really good people, from Anaheim to Yorba Linda and from Alabama to Wyoming, are working really hard to make sure this election happens with integrity and with safety in mind. This year, that message must resonate.

Are there flaws? Of course. And will there be hiccups? Most likely. Will some poll workers need to reissue ballots because they misclassified a voter? Indubitably. Is it intentional? Unlikely. Will all the vile threats of voter intimidation be allowed to play out? Hopefully that’s a resounding no.

I truly believe poll workers are there because they want people to vote, not because they want to keep people away.

And yes, despite our effort, nefarious enemies both foreign and domestic may also be at work. I may be optimistic but I am not Pollyanna. However, that is not something I can control and I’m just not willing to give up on voting. And so, I will do what I can: I can greet all my voting neighbors, assure them that their vote is important and do the poll worker jobs that I’m tasked with so the voting process is as smooth as possible and that the votes cast will be counted. It’s better than sitting on the sidelines.

And I believe most, if not all, poll workers understand voting is democracy’s oxygen. This year we are partaking in the process, doing our part, to make sure it stays alive.

Theresa Keegan is award-winning freelance writer who lives in Orange County. Her work has appeared in USA Today, Miami Herald, Newsday and NPR. This is her opinion alone about her experience and does not reflect or constitute any situation, thought or idea on behalf of the Registrar of Voters. She can be reached at tkwriter44@gmail.com. 

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