Increased threats to poll workers across country haven’t dampened enthusiasm in Tennessee
Poll worker Victor Nelson at Belle Meade City Hall in Davidson County. (Photo: Dulce Torres Guzman)
At Belle Meade City Hall, Victor Nelson took a quick break from his work as a poll worker, a job he says is as rewarding as it is challenging.
Nationwide, poll workers have reported feeling threatened since the 2020 presidential election cycle after former President Donald Trump propagated false claims about the election. The threats contributed to election officials leaving their positions and election commissions struggling to hire poll workers.
After watching pro-Trump rioters storm the U.S. Capital on Jan. 6, 2021, Nelson also briefly considered quitting after 14 years of service.
“It made me think twice,” he said.
But despite nationwide trends, the Davidson County Election Commission has not experienced any significant drop in poll workers, according to John Hite, staffing and training manager.
“We have natural attrition, of course, but that hasn’t deviated from past years,” Hite said.
Instead, Davidson County experienced historic levels of people applying to become poll workers in 2020.
“It was a moment I had been waiting for my whole career,” said Hite.
And aggression at the polls is uncommon in Middle Tennessee.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the tensions felt by voters, some of whom turned their anxiety to the poll workers.
“It catches me off for a little bit because people are normally nice, but I realize they come to vote,” said Nelson, comparing incidents at polling places to mild cases of road rage. “They have a lot of anxiety and my responsibility is to help them vote the way they want to vote.”
In Williamson County, poll workers have learned that voters don’t always understand the role the workers serve.
Tennessee poll workers must be at least 16 years old, have no connections to candidates on the ballot and be able to read and write in English. Poll workers must take an oath to be nonpartisan and take classes before every election cycle. In return, they are compensated for a 12-hour election day.
Workers make $150 to $200 for each Election Day but “it’s much better than working at McDonalds,” said Jane Newton, a Williamson County poll worker.
“If you are always kind and nice to people, they’ll be nice back to you,” said David Kauffman, who has worked as a poll worker for 20 years.
First-time partisan school board elections, which have led to some interesting interactions with voters wariness about being hesitant to tell announcing their party affiliation when pulling a ballot, said Madeleine Baldwin, an 18-year-old poll worker.
“In the last election (May 3 primary) it was for the school board and it was mainly Republicans running so a lot of people who were normally Democrats voted Republican so they could actually vote,” she said. “But everyone has been nice.”
This year, not as many people have applied to be poll workers as in 2020, but there continues to be an increased interest in the position, said Hite, as people seek to get connected to their communities and get involved in the election process.
Because without poll workers, hosting elections is impossible, he added.
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