How I Have Hope: Poll Workers

There has been so much that is fraught about our election this year, so I'm grateful for the people telling you exactly what you need to do.

On a cold and rainy morning, I went to vote. I had been anxious all week trying to figure out my early voting plan — I wanted to vote in person, and I didn’t want to vote on Election Day — and I had just committed to waiting in however long the line would be. The first day New York City offered early voting, lines at my polling place, Madison Square Garden (MSG), were between three and five hours. The next day, they weren’t any better. Gothamist reported that the MSG lobby had 110,847 voters assigned to it as an early voting site — with only two other polling sites having more voters.

I kept searching “Madison Square Garden” “MSG” “vote” on Twitter, trying to gauge the lines. All I really discovered was that Timothée Chalamet voted at MSG:

Wearing a Veselka hat, natch:

I also learned Mariska Hargitay went to hand out cookies:

However, I had no sense of how long it would actually take me to vote.

On Monday, my boyfriend’s mom voted (like Timothée, my boyfriend, me, and 110,843 other New Yorkers, she was also assigned to MSG) and texted us “24 minutes and done.” Were we going to wait for four hours? Or were we going to waltz in and out, no problem? We decided to vote Thursday morning, rain or shine, five hour line or 24 minutes.

So, Thursday morning came, we bundled up, grabbed our masks, umbrellas, granola bars, fully charged phones, and walked 20 blocks to MSG.

The last time I had been at the stadium, strangely, was late February, just before the world changed. My dad had tickets to a Knicks game at MSG and brought me. The Knicks played the Bulls, and shockingly won. I instagrammed a selfie of us, writing “cheesin at the Knicks game 😁😁”  It was one of my last normal nights in New York City — four days later, my office closed, and within a week, the entire city had shut down.

I was thinking about that night as I walked to the stadium to vote — thinking about how we were already aware of COVID-19 (we brought mini Purells!) but not fully aware of its dangers: We ate pretzels in the stands, sitting mask-less in a crowded stadium cheering on the consistently terrible Knicks. Now, eight months later, we’re still dealing with a pandemic that has killed 225,000 Americans, a beyond incompetent, corrupt, and racist administration, and are terrified that our votes won’t even count.

Enter the poll workers.

We arrived about 25 minutes before the polls opened, and two poll workers (their name tags said “Line Management Clerk,” but I’ll stick to “poll workers” for clarity here) helpfully pointed out where to stand. We were in a part of the line that wrapped around a corner, and one poll worker kept having to redirect people to the end of the line.

In line to vote, with a poll worker (in the blue jacket) watching

They pointed out the stickers on the ground, made sure people were standing six feet apart, and answered anyone’s questions. The poll worker nearest to us kept sharing a countdown until the polls opened. “10 minutes!” she shouted. “2 minutes to go!” “Get ready!” Even though it was pouring rain, they were upbeat, cheery, and completely assured. They knew exactly what they were doing and what they needed you to do. They were competent, and they gave me hope.

There has been so much that is fraught about our election this year, so much fear and anxiety, that it was a real sigh of relief to have a group of people telling you exactly what you need to do to vote. (Maybe your poll workers weren’t on this vibe, but the NYC poll workers at MSG: You have my heart.) Plus, there were volunteers who would walk by the line every so often, with cups of hot coffee and hot chocolate. It was the simple reminder I needed that people are good. 

Once we turned the corner, we were greeted with a new sticker pattern (exciting) and even more poll workers (even more exciting).

As soon as the polls opened, the line moved pretty quickly — and soon enough, we were inside MSG. We were sorted into three different lines, under the watchful eyes of the New York Knicks. We were reminded to take out our voter ID cards (or a driver’s license, if you forgot the ID card), and to make sure our umbrellas don’t get water on our ballots.

msg lobby
Waiting to vote at Madison Square Garden

We waited, and kept moving forward, and eventually ended up in the lobby. This is where things got a little chaotic; we were directed to one line to check in, where we’d wait to print our ballot, then another line to go fill it out. Yet, the poll workers remained clear and direct and I trusted them immensely.

I filled out my ballot, scanned it, and walked toward the exit. I got two stickers (“I VOTED THEREFORE I ROCK!” which is kind of meh, but Timothée wore it so it became immediately cool, and “I VOTED EARLY”). And just like that, I was done.

I am immensely grateful for the ease with which I was able to vote, for my ability to stand in line and wait, and for the poll workers.

As the famous Mr. Rogers quote goes: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Let’s update that, a bit, for the 2020 election: Look for the poll workers.

And as we look to the poll workers, we also need to remember that they are just one part of the puzzle keeping our democracy (that too often doesn’t really feel like a democracy) from completely collapsing.

The New York Times reported that “historically, most of the state’s poll workers have been over the age of 60, according to the New York State Board of Elections. It’s a demographic typically vulnerable to the coronavirus. And yet, if the early voting lines are any indication, this year’s presidential election needs poll workers more than ever. Fortunately, new generations of New Yorkers have stepped up.”

The poll workers we saw were young and old, but they had one common thread: They knew exactly what you needed to do. They directed you, expertly, through the socially distant lines, ensuring that your vote would count. They gave me hope.

how I have hope

How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. We’ve slightly reframed that to How I Have Hope, in light of, you know, everything. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail with “How I Keep Calm” or “How I Have Hope” in the subject line.

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