There’s been a lot of talk and worry about how the November election will proceed amid the pandemic – will it be safe? (Maybe.) Will there be massive amounts of fraudulent absentee ballots cast? (No.) I spent Tuesday as a volunteer poll-watcher in Westbrook, and I can say that at least in Westbrook, the election is in good hands.

I signed up for the poll-watching shift because my schedule is pretty clear since I’m unemployed, and, like most writers, I’m naturally a people-watcher. My job as a poll-watcher was to, well, watch the polls, the voting and the procedures, and make sure there were no irregularities or voter intimidation or poll workers giving voters bad information (such as asking for ID when none is required). I was told that this was a vital task, and made me the eyes and ears of democracy, but in practice, it meant sitting on the bleachers of the Westbrook Community Center from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Another reason I volunteered was my relative youth – I figured my back could handle it. My back mostly held up but my rear end went numb after hour six.)

It was gloriously boring.

The Westbrook city clerk, Angela Holmes, runs a tight ship. She and the poll workers were like a well-oiled machine. (The actual ballot machines kept beeping loudly if you put a city ballot in the state machine and vice versa, but for municipal technology it was pretty slick.) Angela was also extremely welcoming to me, answering all my dumb questions even though she definitely had more important things to do, and she gave me a soda, without which I might not have survived. I never had to intervene to help a voter because all the poll workers were well-trained and unfailingly helpful and polite to every voter. I was extremely impressed.

I was also extremely impressed with their commitment to coronavirus-related safety. Around 1,400 voters came to vote in person, and I saw only three adults without masks on. Three. (And two toddlers and a dog, but they’re excused from the mask mandate.) Good job, Westbrook! The election workers all had face shields and plexiglass shields at the check-in tables. Hand sanitizer was everywhere. Nobody grumbled or complained about the 6-foot marks on the ground for social distancing. One poll worker seemed to have the sole task of buzzing around the voting tables like a yellow jacket, except instead of a stinger, she had a spray bottle of disinfectant.

A few days earlier, I also spent a morning in Sanford observing the absentee ballot count. Maine makes it very easy to get an absentee ballot (and easy to vote in general, thank goodness), and because of the pandemic there were far more than usual this year. I voted by mail, too, as a matter of fact – my whole family filled out our absentee ballots around the table on July 4. And if you have worries of massive numbers of fake ballots pouring into our elections, fear not: The Sanford city clerk’s office is also filled with competent election workers who opened the envelopes, checked the voter information against their town records to make sure they were appropriately registered, marked the voter off as having voted and then carefully processed the ballot into the machine. The list of voters who already cast an absentee ballot is available to the poll workers on Election Day, and everyone who checks in to vote in person is cross-checked to make sure they don’t vote twice.


I saw the poll workers cross every T and dot every I. Their work was slow, steady, by the books and extremely competent. The most dramatic moment happened when one ballot turned out to have been torn and repaired with scotch tape, and everyone held their breath to see if the machine would accept the ballot with the tape on it. (For the record, it processed the ballot just fine, but still, be careful.)

The biggest complaint about absentee voting I have seen in Maine has been the lack of “I voted” stickers. Towns should consider instituting some sort of program, maybe in collaboration with the post office, which makes sure absentee voters get their “I voted” stickers.

Local elections are the building blocks of democracy: slow, occasionally messy and boring if done correctly. I didn’t feel particularly useful, sitting there for 13 hours, just watching, even though my volunteer manual said that my very presence alone improved democracy and the voting experience. (By “my presence,” they meant poll-watchers in general, not specifically me, Victoria. I’d like to think that my specific presence improves the experience, though.)

But of course, casting my single ballot feels like I’m not making any particular difference, either. I’m only one person, casting one vote. It’s only in the larger context that the individual action of my vote begins to matter. Just like I was only one random volunteer poll-watcher in the Westbrook Community Center, dozens of others were doing the same around Maine, and hundreds, maybe thousands more, hopefully, were doing the same around America. And as our numbers rise, so does our influence, and our ability to make a difference as a whole.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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