Poll volunteers fulfill ‘civic duty’, witness history this election season

Elections officer Emily Libecap, who is earning a concurrent Master’s in history and library science at UK, assists a voter with the ballot scanner while working the Dunbar Community Center polling location in Lexington, Kentucky on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Natalie Parks

As the presidential election begins an inexorable slide to its conclusion, patterns are emerging about Election Day and voter turnout. The story so far is one of increased civic engagement. President-elect Joe Biden was carried to victory by women voters and voters of color; Georgia was flipped blue because of years of grassroots community organization; Americans across the country volunteered with campaigns, voting registration groups and their local county clerk’s office as poll workers.

Poll workers run the nitty-gritty of Election Day: checking in voters, assisting with ballot scanners, resolving registration issues. It’s a 15-hour day that, for volunteers like Frank Cannavo, is a matter of civic duty.

“It’s not like I have to grab the musket off the wall to go face the redcoats or go march to Valley Forge and starve or freeze to death. A lot of people did that so we have the right to choose our government, so I think it’s really important to be a part of that process,” Cannavo said.

Cannavo, retired from the air space industry, is a model of the typical poll worker: a retiree with lots of time on their hands. He has been volunteering at the polls for 16 years.

“It’s sort of a family tradition. My parents did it for years while I was growing up and I just had it sort of bred into me, so to speak,” Cannavo said. He said this election season had the biggest turnout out of all the elections he’s seen.

Cannavo and other poll workers confirmed a trend from this year’s voter turnout: lots and lots of first-time voters, both young and old.

“Lots of first-time voters, the kids who just turned 18 but lot of adults who could have voted earlier,” Cannavo said. “Very excited and happy to do it, also very cooperative face masks social distancing.”

UK graduate student Emily Libecap, a volunteer poll worker who was placed at Dunbar Community Center, said she also saw lots of new voters.

“Our location is probably the closest to UK, so I’ve had people that I’m assuming are UK students or maybe Transy students saying like, ‘oh, this is my first time voting, I’m so excited’ or ‘am I doing this right? this is my first time voting I want to make sure I do it right’,” Libecap said.

At other polling stations, first-time voters were celebrated with claps and cheers.

“I think it was a very collaborative spirit of being excited for a new generation, voting for young people to exercise their voting rights and to encourage them to do so. You know, so that was really cool to see. And some of them got very embarrassed. It was pretty cute. And the other ones are like, ‘yeah, voting!’ Really excited,” said Margaret Kelly, a PhD student and English instructor at UK.

Kelly volunteered in Jefferson County, where she lives, after her councilwoman, Paula McCraney, sent out a newsletter.

“I responded to that call and said, I can be a poll worker, we get Election Day off,” Kelly said. “I don’t have to teach, so I’m happy to do that. I was also thinking that usually poll workers are older, retired folks who are more at risk for COVID. And I am a young person without any comorbidities and so I can show up and do that with less risks for myself.”

Unlike Cavanno and Libecap, Kelly only worked Election Day itself. Cavanno and Libecap are what’s known as election officers – volunteers who worked all three weeks of early voting and were given a small stipend.

“Normally they have people that do every election because it’s only like one day, typical retirees or whatever, they only need four people and it’s in your precinct but this year because it’s so different and so long they needed us very single day for three weeks,” Libecap said.

Kentucky’s early voting plan required each county clerk to operate voting locations beginning on Oct. 13. Instead of requiring voters to vote in their precinct and having a large number of locations, cities like Lexington and Louisville said voters could vote at any location and created mega polling places. Lexington had eight of those, including the Lexington Senior Center, where Cannavo worked.

Libecap, who is earning a concurrent Master’s in history and library science, heard about the need for poll workers back in August.

“The Lexington subreddit is pretty active and Don Blevins, the Fayette County Clerk, he himself post on the Lex subreddit pretty frequently, which is interesting because it’s very like transparent of a government official to post on there,” Libecap said.

In her three weeks as an elections officer, Libecap said she spent a lot of time thinking about the security of the voting process. Security cameras were installed and there is a long checklist of safety measures like shutting down the machines and verifying the ballot counts at the end of the day.

“I know there’s accusations of voter fraud or suppression all across the country but honestly I feel like voting suppression is happening like before anybody gets to the ballot,” Libecap said.

Prior to the election, political commentators across the country predicted issues with voter registration and backlogs due to mail-in ballots. Cannavo and Libecap said they had limited problems at their location.

“Luckily in Fayette County they’re being really legit about it, and if there’s a problem with your ballot they’ll call you and give you a chance to fix it,” Libecap said. There was one occasion – an elderly man whose registration wasn’t mailed in time and couldn’t vote – that made Libecap emotional, but for the most part voters went to the so-called “resolutions table” and to find a solution.

“Worst comes to worst they file a provisional ballot,” Cannavo explained. The county clerk’s office will go back through provisional ballots to see if someone’s vote can be counted.

Libecap said her time as a poll worker helped combat a feeling of powerlessness from the COVID-19 pandemic and tense politics.

“What am I doing? Nothing, just sit at home and do my schoolwork, which feels ever more futile. But this feels like something I can do to help. I can’t make huge donations to political campaigns, there’s no door knocking anymore, I’m not going to run for anything,” Libecap said. “So maybe this is a small way that can help because the more poll workers they have the more locations they can open, the more locations they can have open the easier it is for people to vote, the easier it is for people to vote the more likely they are to vote.”

Libecap estimated that her location saw about 100 people per day. Cannavo said this his location saw 1,300 voters on Election Day; throughout the voting period, he has worked as a ballot scanner, a greeter and a line monitor.

“It’s focus all the time, maintain your politeness, maintaining your discipline, saying the same thing 50,000 times, realizing that for every single one of these people it’s the first time they’re doing this, we have to treat it like it’s special for them,” Cannavo said.

But there are sweet moments too – Libecap said one of the best parts of her experience was watching voters submit their ballots.

“They’ll pray over it or give it a little air kiss or have a little moment of silence or as soon as it goes in say ‘woohoo’ or ‘yes’,” Libecap said.

Kelly said that her experience was hopeful because it was collaborative, not partisan, and it let her be engaged without being consumed.

“I was able to stand witness to and participate in the election without having to be engulfed in the minute by minute news projection of what’s going to happen next,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t waiting for numbers to come in all day. I wasn’t anxious thinking about numbers coming in. But I also wasn’t ignoring the election and hiding away from it.”

After Election Day, poll workers said they felt a sense of relief and relaxation, even though the day of was energizing. Cannavo said he was going home to sleep. Kelly said she spent the day after recovering and walking her dog, having already cancelled classes so her students could have time to process.

“I felt that I had showed up and participated and paid attention that I was allowed to go to sleep and, you know, the results are going to be the same no matter what I do at this point, you know?” Kelly said. “And so that was kind of a relieving moment that, hey, I showed up, I stood witness, I participated. I can rest now, and that’s OK.”