Politics in the Time of Covid
We were in the midst of a pandemic that was killing thousands, was denied by many, and was apparently endless. Despite this, life and politics must go on, albeit in ways that are constricted and confusing. It was, after all, the year of a presidential election and the decennial census. Plus, of course, let us not forget that people still need to feed, clothe and house themselves. Businesses need to make money. Things need to be built, torn down and rebuilt. The sun will continue to rise and set. Water will still flow downhill and seasons will change as if everything were normal.
It wasn’t, but we carried on.
My way of carrying on was to be in strategic confinement that included not seeing my grandchildren who are growing up faster than I can catch my breath. It also included strategic involvement in things that I believe will provide a brighter future for those rapidly aging members of the twice-next generation.
This was the year I had been both an election judge and a census taker.
Prior to all this chaos, I was semi-retired, or purportedly self-employed, without a regular paycheck but living a comfortable enough life as the dependent of an actually-retired person. And I was spending much of my time researching family history. I was scouring old census records to trace the movement of my mother’s people across the south, uncovering forgotten stories, realizing ancestors’ links to enslaved people who are probably also my relatives. And I was filling in gaps in my knowledge of who I am and what it means in today’s world to be a white American of colonial background with brown grandchildren.
So working the census was personal as well as political for me. It was a matter of understanding the connections between the past—even the long past—and the future my grandchildren and their grandchildren would live to see.
Assuming we would all make it through the pandemic.
At first I was assigned cases in my neighborhood. I walked from location to location trying to get responses from households that hadn’t returned their original forms or replied online. It took me a while to become comfortable with what I would have considered an intrusion into my personal space, if some stranger (or known neighbor) would have appeared at my door asking questions. I understood the lack of trust people had in responding, or even in answering the door.
But I soon got the hang of knowing what to say to reassure those who were simply reluctant, and in figuring out how to get around the locked doors of apartment buildings by tracking down landlords or property managers. I was surprised at the openness of many new immigrants to provide information and even to invite me into their homes, despite my white skin, my semi-official demeanor, and the raging pandemic. They either understood the importance of being counted or were fearful and hesitant to disobey the government that had granted them access to this country. Or both. I worked at being friendly and worthy of their trust.
But where I had more difficulty was with African American neighbors—those descendants of enslaved persons whose history in this country is as long as mine, but entirely different. In some cases, I connected with African American women who embraced my potential as a trustworthy person, who wanted to assure that their community was represented in the count, and who lived with hope that such representation would ultimately mean something positive for their children and grandchildren. We connected as sister-mothers in our concerns.
It was with young African American men that the refusals stuck. And time and again, the reason given was that they did not want the government to know where they lived because that information would be used to hunt them down. Not track them down. But HUNT them down. They didn’t mean by these statements that they had done something wrong and they were hiding from its punishing repercussions. They meant that the government intended to kill them.
They were open and honest with me about this. They didn’t say to me that they saw me as an instrument of this horror, only that they didn’t trust that the information they would provide to me would be used as I claimed it would be, as the Census Bureau insisted it would be. Several of them even told me that they wished me well in my efforts—that my job was difficult, and that I should take care as I went about it. But they were insistent that they would provide no information.
This was the hardest, most heart-breaking, most shaming part of the work.
I thought about the early census records preceding Emancipation. About how the “Slave Schedules” were separate listings from the “Regular Schedules” in which white people were counted. That the Slave Schedules, like the agricultural schedules that listed the livestock under the landowner’s name, listed enslaved persons only by age, degree of Blackness, and sex under the name of those who enslaved them, held them as property.
The Census had, in those days, erased the written history of individual Black people so that today’s descendants would have a much harder, if not impossible, task than I did of finding their ancestors and uncovering forgotten stories, of knowing more about who they are.
It seemed as if the young Black men of today were carrying out the wishes of white supremacists by removing their presence in the records of our community. In my aching heart, I felt these young men were erasing their own historical record. They are somebody’s ancestors—I know this with certainty—and their descendants will want to find them—I know this with certainty, too. Their presence in history, as well as the here and now, is important. It matters. I understood why they feel the way they do, but it feels too much like a misguided reaction.
So the work for the census was eye-opening, and both heart-warming and heart-breaking.
After the work was done, I quarantined and rested.
Then the election.
I’ve been an election judge or poll worker, as we are called in other parts of the country, for over 20 years. I’ve been a head judge for close to 15. I have worked very nearly every election in that time, and for most of those years, I voted by absentee ballot without any problem at all. At the time of the Al Franken/Norm Coleman close election and recount, absentee ballots were still being delivered to the polling sites, for opening and counting after they had been verified at the main office. We had to know how to duplicate ballots that were damaged, and that had stray marks that prevented them from being counted by the machines. At times, this involved judges of different parties having to decide voter intent when the machines assumed too many votes for a single race because of these stray marks. During that heated, extremely close and difficult race, there was not a single instance of disagreement about that intent among us—regardless of our party affiliation. All judges took their oaths and jobs seriously. We acted as if democracy depended on us.
Since that time, processes have changed. Election officials have diligently listened to judges, examined procedures, and tweaked their processes so they are more clear, transparent, straightforward, and remain compliant with changing law. Absentee ballots remain safe and secure in the hands of professional election officials, under lock and key until counted, a process that starts a bit before actual election day. Training and recruiting of judges have become ever more consistent, in-depth, inclusive and replicable. Access to training materials is available 24/7. Judges continue to take their oaths and jobs seriously—committed to the democratic process. Their work has become more precisely defined.
I can honestly say that the people who run our county elections are some of the most dedicated and honorable people I have ever met. And the election judges at polling places follow their example.
So this year, after the early March Presidential primary, I was confident that, despite the pandemic and the partisan, disruptive and deliberately debasing rhetoric about poll workers and their efforts, the election here would run not just smoothly, but would epitomize the “free and fair” banner of American electoral processes.
There was added training about pandemic procedures to keep not only voters but poll workers safe. There were harsh chemical cleansers for equipment and furniture, and whole tubs full of personal protective equipment, gallon containers of hand sanitizers, and suggestions for setting up the polling place to ensure social distancing for both voters and workers.
I worked both early voting and election-day. In each case, the actual ability for workers to keep a six-foot distance from each other and voters was not always possible. But the number of voters who came to vote without a mask and who refused to wear an offered mask was very small. There was only one among the 2,500–3,000 voters at the two sites over a 7 day period who was belligerent about refusing. This voter came pumped for a confrontation as had been the case at the August primary. The blind hate of election workers expressed was as evident as its reasons were mystifying.
Judges maintained cheerful demeanors even as they diligently cleaned surfaces with toxic sprays. Most voters expressed deep appreciation for our efforts.
Voters tolerated long lines with good humor, asked for help when confused, questioned processes when they didn’t understand them, and listened graciously to answers and explanations. Several returned with food and coffee to show their support of our work.
When, at the early voting site, the whole system crashed so we couldn’t look up voters and therefore couldn’t allow their votes to be counted on site, the behind-the-scenes staff came up with an alternative process so that we could take absentee ballots from each voter for complete processing when the system came back online that evening. Voters waited patiently while the on-site judges learned the alternative process on-the-fly. Everyone was professional and the integrity of voting remained central.
At the election day polling place, for the first time in over 12 years, we had challengers. In other places these people are called poll-watchers, but in Minnesota poll-watching is illegal, so political parties and candidates can send “challengers” who are able to call into question the eligibility of any person for whom they have PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE. This is an obvious partisan political fiction and in most elections there is no reason to have challengers at polling places. This year we had a Democratic challenger sitting in the polling place all day. No challenges. Half way through the day, a young—unmasked—woman arrived to say she was there to watch how we did things. I asked her who she was. “I’m just here to watch how you do things.” Who was she? I insisted on knowing if she was from a campaign. She admitted she was from the Trump campaign. “I need to see your credentials,” I said. This is a requirement of the law allowing challengers—they must have the official authorization of political parties or candidates. “It’s in my car,” she said. “You’ll have to go get it. I need to see it.” She left, and as she passed one of my judges on the way out, she told them she was leaving and “to have a nice day.” She didn’t return.
This year was different at the early voting site, too. There we had both Republican and Democratic challengers—but with official credentials. However, at least one of the Republican challengers arrived announcing that he was “a poll watcher for the Republicans.” This, as I mentioned, is against the law in Minnesota. The challengers were so poorly trained that they didn’t even know the law that governed their presence. Most of them had no idea of how voting worked. The idea that they could evaluate what we were doing was ludicrous.
At the election day polling place a young man in a “Make America Great Again” hat and wrapped in the flag came to vote. One of my judges mistakenly told him he had to remove his hat, and he complied. I told him he could put it on again and explained the rule again to the judge. The legal ruling on political clothing says that as long as the attire doesn’t name a candidate or proposal on the ballot that election, it is allowable. We may not agree with the logic of this ruling, but we abide by it.
Later, this young man confronted one of the judges about what it takes to be an election judge. He was referred to me. I explained the process and he proceeded to ask leading questions that he obviously considered to be designed to make me say that the election judges in our city favor Democrats. I explained that we take an oath to be nonpartisan and to insure free and fair elections. I told him that we had to have judges of different parties because, in order to assure fairness, certain of our processes required judges of different major parties to complete them. He said a judge could SAY they were of one party but vote for another. I reminded him that everyone’s ballot is secret and no official knows how a given individual has voted. He remained convinced that somehow we favored the Democrats. He left unconvinced of my explanations and I was left to breathe deeply and try not feel personally insulted by his inference that we are not serious about this job.
There was a bit of an air of paranoia among the judges. The news had included stories that armed “defenders of democracy” would be outside polling places. One judge asked me to check on a suspicious character hanging around outside (in the uncommonly warm November sun). This man turned out to be the maintenance person for our polling place. I had to ask a left-leaning organization with their “Election Protection” sign on the car door to move out of the parking lot of the public property on which our polling place resides. They told me they were there to answer voters’ questions. I told them that was our job. At the end of the evening, they brought us the leftover snacks they had brought for voters. They hadn’t seemed to have any customers.
But in all this, there were moments that lifted our spirits and confirmed our purpose. There was the young woman who came in on her 18th birthday to vote for the very first time at the early voting site. There were the other 18-year-olds there with their parents to vote for the first time. There was the 77 year old Somali woman who was voting for the first time anywhere in the wide world she had lived. There were the new citizens voting for the first time. There was the 55-year-old African American man voting for the first time. There were the young Hispanic men who had looked on-line to make sure they had the proper documents with them to assure that they both could vote. There were the voters who needed to re-register and left and returned several times until they had the proper documents with them to register.
And there was the young man, a former felon, who answered the challenge on his record about his eligibility to vote, and then, after casting his ballot, turned in the doorway and announced proudly to the entire room, “I am off parole and voting for the first time.”
In each of these cases, everyone present clapped and cheered, welcoming these fellow citizens to the community of voters.
So it bothers me, after going through all this, of enduring two weeks of subsequent quarantine while I waited to see if, despite every precaution, I had contracted COVID, that anyone, let alone the man occupying the Presidency, would imply that any of us had been deceitful in the conduct of this election. All I can say is, “Shame on you.”
And I add to that my praise for all the voters who cast their ballots in these perilous times, for all those who answered the Census, and even for those who chose not to be counted but took the time to explain to me why they made that choice. They respected me as I respect them.
We don’t have to agree on everything except that we are in this together. It serves no purpose and does none of us any good to assume we are out to harm each other, especially when harms aplenty confront us all and confront the future we hope to leave for those loved ones who come after.