Things I Saw While Working the Polls on Election Day in PA

Nicole Hallberg
9 min readNov 6, 2020

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Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

My husband Chris and I worked the polls all day Tuesday here in our hometown. Our official role was as designated Poll Watchers, as members of our town’s Democratic Committee. At my request, I spent the day outside working the Democratic Committee table, directing voters and handing out sample ballots, while Chris stayed inside as a Poll Watcher, directing traffic, sanitizing, and showing voters how to use the new machines. (There are stricter rules governing Inside poll watchers than Outside, and I much preferred dealing with the cold than the triple strength anxiety cocktail of inside germs, election law, and potential confrontations with voters and officials who potentially hated my guts.)

It was a brutally long day, with setup starting at 6am until final machine tally and breakdown at 10pm. I’m honestly still not fully recovered after tabling outside and directing voters for 15 hours straight, it’ll probably take a few more days of sleep and some serious Vitamin C to fend off the head cold and brain fog I’m dealing with today. So, I don’t quite have a polished blog post in me yet, but I wanted to compile some of my observations, thoughts, and impressions of my first Election Day from behind the scenes while it’s still fresh in my mind, and while we’re still waiting on the results. So, in no particular order, here are some things I saw and did while working a Pennsylvania polling place on Election Day 2020:

  • Our sign game was pretty weak, the Republicans blew us out of the water in terms of presentation. Another committee member told me that its’ pretty common for Republican campaigns to outspend us in terms of merch while Democrat campaigns tend to spend more on voter outreach and education, but they observed that the gap was especially big this year. The Republicans rolled in with a huge tent and piles of yard signs, we brought three for each candidate on the ballot but they easily had maybe three times as much. Later in the evening, they pulled out Trump branded bumper stickers and flags, and were handing them to each voter. It was actually kind of funny; they were literally putting these things into voters hands as they passed their table, and Chris told me later that he saw more than a few folks go “What the hell is this?? I need a sample ballot, not a stupid bumper sticker”. One effect this had is that Trump support looked a lot heavier locally than it actually was. Our precinct favored Trump for President by less than a hundred in-person votes, according to the machine readouts, out of about a thousand voters we processed that day. But to look at the place, and to see every person walking around with Trump gear in hand, (some of whom were Democrats who just didn’t make a fuss about it and threw them out on their way out the building,) you might easily have expected to see a blowout win in our Precinct.
  • The Republicans would. not. lift a finger. Chris was essentially recruited as a volunteer, because we just didn’t have the hands we needed, and we were trying to get folks in and out as fast as we feasibly could to limit their exposure to one another in the building. We had volunteers directing traffic, answering questions, showing voters how to use the machines, and sanitizing booths and pens after every single user. Because inside poll watchers are very much not allowed to wear partisan campaign materials or rep their party in any way, it was not immediately obvious, but by the end of the day Chris had realized something: almost every single volunteer helping out was a Democrat. Some of them we had to recruit last minute and shuffle around different precincts to get coverage, because the Republicans just didn’t offer any extra help to run the actual poll, and a few Republicans actually pulled out at the very last minute, leaving a scramble. Their designated Watchers were there, the Judge of Elections was there, and their Inspector was there like they were supposed to, but they could have had more people working inside than they offered to bring. Which is weird, because their committee is bigger, more established, and more well funded than ours, so they should have more hands available, not fewer. We frankly desperately needed the help to make things go smoothly. They seemed kind of lackadaisical, to be honest. They had the right to have someone inside observing the proceedings at all times, and they did have one, but the rest of them kind of just milled around getting snacks and chatting with one another and their neighbors at their table outside. It honestly kind of pissed me off to watch them treating it like a neighborhood social gathering while we ran around with our hair on fire to help voters. About half of whom hated us and complained about us cheating the entire time. You’d expect that Republicans worried about election shenanigans would have been all over it, and they could have been, but they weren’t, to the point that it actually caused us all problems.
  • Two different times I saw when the tabling Republicans could have been helping, they actively made things worse. I was handing sample ballots out to voters, and making sure they knew that there would be paper ballots inside rather than the machines they were used to if they hadn’t voted in the primary, to save the inside poll workers some questions and time. One presumed Republican lost it when I told him this, and started cursing and muttering about how “You’ve gotta be kidding me, the Democrats freaking changed the machines? This close to the election and you went and changed everything? Why not just fill out my ballot for me too!!” I tried to reassure him that these new voting machines had been in the works for a long time, that the Republicans had signed off on them (and in fact had insisted on them, from what I heard, but I kept that to myself,) and that the paper ballots were more secure than the electronic machines had been, but he was having precisely none of it. So I directed him to the Republican table, hoping they’d calm him down and explain that they had been in favor of the new machines and it was by no means a “last minute” change. They didn’t. They actually seemed to kind of rile him up more, and he was still causing a scene when he went inside. I took a break afterwards to go peek inside and check that Chris was okay, I was so afraid this guy would get belligerent. His party’s committee members didn’t seem to do anything to help de-escalate him. I was honestly disgusted that they would put the poll workers at risk like that.
  • Chris told me about another voter who took ages to vote, because she had been told by the Republican table that any wrong mark and her ballot for Trump would be thrown out. Which was absurdly untrue; the scanning machines spit the ballot out immediately if they can’t read them, and even tell you what’s wrong, and you get to fix it then and there and re-scan and confirm everything before you submit your vote, they don’t just ‘throw them out’. But this lady was so anxious about an accidental stray pen mark on her ballot that Chris offered to get her a new clean one, and guided her through the process of properly spoilering her old one and making sure she was reassured that her vote would be counted. She spent ages perfectly filling in every single centimeter of each box until she was satisfied, inside the whole time. I pray that lady didn’t get sick.
  • The Republicans weren’t really doing much to answer their own constituents’ questions or help them vote. I noticed that the folks who identified themselves to me as Republicans were more often confused or misinformed about basic stuff to vote that no one in their own party had set them straight on, as compared with the Democrats, who we’ve been canvassing and coaching and calling for months on how to cast their vote. They didn’t even have sample ballots to help drive downticket Republican wins; just Trump branded bumper stickers and flags. Chris mentioned that several confused voters asked for his help, because they wanted to vote for Republicans but couldn’t tell who they were, and all they’d been given was a bumper sticker. We of course had no problem helping both Republican and Democrat voters, but Chris and I both said afterwards that it felt pretty bizarre that it seemed like we did more work to help constituents vote for Donald Trump than their own party did. I have to admit that it really chapped my ass to overhear the Republican table cracking loud jokes about how us Democrats were all over here cheating. It took a lot of self restraint not to go over there and tell them that if they were so worried about us cheating, then they were more than welcome to get off their asses, stop stuffing donuts in their face, and actually help out their own voters.
  • Speaking of donuts, the food game was real strong. Our Democrat and Republican committees coordinated to split the cost of breakfast, lunch and dinner for the poll workers, and they came through with some takeout chicken parm from a local caterer. We also had all the Dunkin coffee and discount Halloween candy we could eat between rushes. Good stuff.
  • The two committees were more cordial and friendly with one another than you might otherwise think. We’re all neighbors, and we all know each other. Not a ton of mingling, but we had a few friendly conversations.
  • One of the highlights of my day was when one of the Republican commitee members asked me whether I “worked outside the home, other than this?” No, friend, I’ve been pregnant for six years straight and this is my first time ever wearing shoes. The sun is so bright out here!
  • Turns out that the Republican tent game was so strong partially because one of the guys on their committee owns a tent rental company. I know this because he low-key tried to sell us a tent. I did not offer to buy one of his tents, because he had just asked me whether or not I worked outside the home, and I was trying not to burst a blood vessel from the effort of not laughing at him.
  • I failed at the effort of not laughing at his friend, (and legitimately burst a blood vessel in my eye at some point,) when he tried — and failed — to sneakily pop our only balloon with his hand. When I say our presentation was lacking, I mean that I had to bring our own folding table from home after scrubbing most of the pumpkin guts off of it, and I had managed to find a single opened package of multicolored balloons in my house, which had a single blue balloon left in it. I duct taped this balloon to the corner of our table, and called it a day. A local plumber that may or may not have been on their committee, and is unanimously regarded as a mediocre plumber and a Grade-A asshole, picked a fight with one of our watchers and got into a minor pissing match. Later on while no one but me was watching, he nonchalantly strolled by, and when he passed the balloon, he looked around and quickly tried to grab it and pop it. The balloon prevailed, he saw that I was watching him, and he powerwalked away as I lost it laughing at him. I made loud jokes the rest of the time he was there about his weak grip strength, and how he might need my help taking down their tent. I am only human.
  • I laughed aloud at a Republican for a second time when the only woman on their committee came by to take our dinner orders, and she told me we would all get a side salad with it, “But we’re just going to get one type of dressing for everybody to keep it simple, we’ll ask them for some Russian— UHHH I mean Thousand Island.” She corrected herself so quickly and so defensively that I literally could not hold it in. I can’t prove anything, but I did notice that the dinner orders came in with a few items missing. I think she sanctioned my salad.

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Nicole Hallberg

Philly freelance blogger. Follow @nickyknacks for the personal stuff and www.nicolehallberg.com for my work stuff.