Photo credit: Moab Republic/Shutterstock.com

It’s not the least of the paradoxes of the Trump era that this wannabe authoritarian did more than any decent man to lead Americans to assume their civic duties.

Trump’s attacks on the electoral process led 52,000 New Yorkers to sign up for work at the polls, 18,000 more than in 2016. I was one of them. This seemingly tedious task is usually carried out for the most part by senior citizens. But suddenly it became the front lines of the war to save American democracy.

What little feeling of citizenship I have was stirred by the president’s threats to a right I assumed was untouchable. I went online and applied on the website of the Board of Elections.

The New York Board of Elections is by design a political organization, its ten members divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Staff at the Board’s offices is equally political: the personnel are appointed thanks to connections, political and familial. But it doesn’t stop there.

A 2018 New York Times article I found explained that 70 percent of those who apply to work at the polls drop out when they learn they have to attend a four-hour class. I was one of these dropouts until I was notified I could take the class online. Having passed it with flying colors (no great feat, since the answer to each test question appeared at the top of the page) I discovered that my file didn’t show that I had even taken the class. (And it still doesn’t!)

I called the Brooklyn offices three weeks before Election Day and two before early voting and was told by a remarkably pleasant and helpful staff member not to fear: updating was not done automatically but had to be done manually, and they were a few days behind. I had applied to work on several early voting days, when the hours were less onerous: on Election Day you had to work from 5:00 AM until after the polls closed — a seventeen-hour day.

I asked her when I would receive training for that and when I’d be assigned.

The staff member told me point-blank it was unlikely either of those things would happen. Not only are the upper echelons of the Board of Elections political, but so is the opportunity to be a poll worker. She asked if I was a member of the local Democratic Club. I snickered. Did such a thing even exist? Not being a member, I was told, meant working on an early voting day was unlikely, since it’s the local party bosses who pick and assign the poll workers. Early voting being a plum assignment, the slots in my district were already filled. She suggested I call the party to express interest in joining the local club; maybe next time I would be able to get an easier assignment.

Even worse, I was told that not being a club member meant that the deck was stacked against me in general. Assignments to polling places were also in the hands of the clubs, so not being a member made it far from certain that I’d be working in my own neighborhood, much less my regular polling place. I wouldn’t be assigned until political appointees got their assignments, and I could be sent anywhere in Brooklyn. The Times article mentioned a 15 percent absenteeism rate on Election Day, and I now understood it. If I had to travel more than ten blocks, there was little chance I’d appear at a polling place at 5:00 a.m.

Perhaps it was my natural charm, but something led the election board staff member to override the system and assign me to my local polling place as a relief worker. But she added a drop of poison to the gift: political parity, it appeared, had to be maintained, and on my identification card I was designated as a Republican.

What I’d already learned made the misdeeds of the Board of Elections — its purging of a couple hundred thousand voters four years ago, the fiasco of incorrect absentee ballots, the long lines at early voting places this year — all seem natural. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was wrong to describe the situation as “voter suppression” — the Board of Elections isn’t capable of anything so complex. For the first time in years Mayor de Blasio was right; it was all sheer incompetence. And I was now part of it.

And yet, about forty of us having arrived at an elementary school in Brooklyn at 5:00 AM on November 3, everything was set up and ready to go at 6:00 AM. In this neighborhood of single-family private houses, with about 4,000 voters assigned to our polling place, there was never an overwhelming rush, just a steady stream of people. The atmosphere was pleasant. There were a few people voting in Trump t-shirts, with American-flag bandanas as face masks, but I found it touching when a father came with his young son who was waving an American flag.

Early on it was clear that no provocations or scenes were likely. One father told his kids as he went to mark his ballot, “Let’s go have an American experience.” Even knowing that people all over the world vote just as we do, it felt right.

As I checked people in, or explained the voting process to them, I grew to enjoy the symphony of names I was hearing. South Asian names, Greek names, names from Iran, from Lebanon, from Iraq, from Russia, names, both first and last, that fit few people’s notion of what an “American” name is. Most of those with these euphonious names were Orthodox Jews. We discussed the origins and derivations of the names, of the Batshevas and Yeshayahus. I greeted Italians with family names that bore the air of Palermo. Pakistani and Chinese families came to vote together.

I experienced this while working with a young Dagestani woman, and I had a momentary vision of this benighted neighborhood, one buried in obscurantism, as an image of the America Trump and his supporters hate. It is an America where the food eaten is different, where languages other than English are spoken at home, where the color of people’s skin is not always white.

I’ve spent decades living in my neighborhood in the bowels of southern Brooklyn, hating everything about the close-mindedness, provincialism, and racism of those around me. But my neighbors are, despite themselves, in the broadness of their origins, far more representative of the multi-cultural America progressives think they are fighting for than the enclaves of right-thinking in which so many on the left actually live.

These voters are the diversity everyone talks about. They are, despite themselves, cosmopolitans who had become Americans, and they embrace their country of adoption while maintaining close connections to their roots. My Dagestani co-worker, born in New York, admitted to not speaking a word of English until she was five.

But within minutes of the polls’ closing, my unexpected, idealized view of those I had spent the day chatting and joking with evaporated. They were, indeed, Americans, but in the worst sense of the term. If they were cosmopolitans, they were cosmopolitan nativists. When the scanners spit out their tallies, they showed Trump had garnered three times the votes of Biden; in Brooklyn as a whole, the numbers were reversed. Trump, who had once observed there were “good people” among those who chanted “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” had obliterated Biden in our precinct.

There had been signs it would turn out this way during the day. There was the person who asked me how he could vote straight Republican; the voter who informed me that Trump was going to win New York; the man who was disappointed when I told him that though Trump’s name appeared twice on the ballot he could only vote for him once; the West Indian gentleman who, when I showed him how to fill in his ballot using Biden as an example, told me, “I’m not voting for that worthless bastard.”

The idyll between me and my neighbors, and with it, my fantasy about the American Melting Pot, was over. Becoming American involves many things. Among them, I saw, is supporting forms of racism and xenophobia that can also be aimed at oneself.

How is this circle to be squared?

A definitive explanation is, of course, impossible, but some possibilities occurred to me. The people I spent the day helping simply didn’t see themselves as targets of Trump and the nativist forces he represents. If Trump supporters hate people from Iran or Iraq, the voters in my district don’t see themselves as the ones who are hated, but other people — often those from these same countries. If Jews are hated, it’s not they who are hated; it’s liberal Jews like George Soros, who are worthy objects of right-wing hate. If people of color are hated, it’s not they who are hated; it’s other people of color, the ones who blame everything on systemic racism and smash windows.

Trump’s overwhelming success at my polling place carried over to every other race. Republican nonentities running for Congress and state offices — candidates who were eventually crushed — carried my district in a landslide. A hatred of Democrats, a hatred of liberals, and a hatred of everything they represent: the Trump contagion screamed from the scanners reporting out the results.

And that is what haunted me in the hours after I left the polling place. That those people whose company I had, to my surprise, enjoyed, people who laughed at my jokes and helped me parse their names and backgrounds, were bearers of a hatred I had stopped seeing for a day.

It led me to wonder about the definition of “good people.” The people who voted for Trump at my polling place were not obviously evil, but is it possible to be “good” when you countenance and support evil? I felt shame and unease for enjoying the day and my time with these voters. Just as I feel shame and unease at calling myself an American today — a citizen of a country where, after four years of lies, racism, and 230,000 deaths from COVID-19, nearly 70 million people still felt that Donald Trump was not only fit to be president, but the best man to fill that post.

Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.

4 thoughts on “Confessions of a Poll Worker

  1. Your as biased as the majority of the news…Racist Trump accusation is a bit old as calling all white people inherantly racist. I’ve never heard any Democrat denounce white supremacy. Joe Biden has never denounced that…yet, Trump has many times over. Democrats are the party of racism: Slavery, Jim Crow laws and the KKK. Since when to hear Democrats appologize for their party? No, we hear from them that Republicans are responsible for those things. The Democratic Party is not the Party of love by a LONG stretch.
    Trump is somehow responsible for all the Covid deaths? Really? If anything he curbed it from being worse than it is, even though Pharma wont releas inexpensive safe drugs that work. No, they are doing nothing for outpatient covid sickness; only when they progress to icu or on a ventilator. Its criminal. A fourth of the deaths would not have occured if they’d stop controlling this and politicizing it for money. Do some objective research…and not from “fact check” sources. Ivermectin, steroids and yes HCQ/Zitromiacin/Zinc coctail and others ALL work! Rendeziveer works too but costs $3K per vial/dose.

    I don’t see how any of his policies are racist. Not if your a thinking person willing to stand for truth and care less about what people think of you. Think for yourself not through communistic ideology that NY has been breastfeeding its citizens for decades. I love NY and NYC but NYC (a great place to be FROM) is not a representative of the world, only a reflection of a large immigration enclave in America. It has new ghettos that weren’t there 50 years ago. Why? is it white people that pushed them into small colonies? No, its immigrants themselves that do that. Its human nature. Most all immigrants in NYC do not integrate with the population. Are they racist? No, Its human nature. Neither are the majority of white people in NY and elsewhere today. If there is prejudice (thats what we used to call racism, which is a misnomer) among the population it is in all of us, not just white people. In fact it is white people who have done more to accept other nationalities and skin color. It is minorities who are largely behind in that area of graciousness. Minorities are quick to point the finger when they have a great opportunity in a free country to reach out to whites and other nationalities that are their neigbors.

    In any way, other than what the “news” says is he not fit to be President? Is personality more important than policy and actions? I guess because DT does not advocate tearing down all the foundatons of the country and replace it with something that looks like Europe or China, but advocates rebuilding our economy and preserving our institutions and foundations, like our Constitution (as amended), hes a racist and unfit. That is sad.

    This finger pointing and accusing of what’s in someone’s heart is the most base thing one can do. It is hypocracy and does nothing to unify, but to divide. Donald trump has NOT been divisive. He like many in all nationalities in America are tired of having to cow tow to these accusations. It is the progressives that are at the forefront stirring up diviciveness and litterally inciting civil unrest…over accusations of guilt but without facts.Those are called lies.

    I live in another state where immigrants and NY natives have fled NYC and NJ because of the cost of living, taxes, regulation, corruption, violence and liberal bigotry…much more than the cold weather. I couldnt live in NYC for those reasons and that New Yorkers largely look down on the rest of the country. That hasn’t changed since I left the state.

    This four year, reasonless campaign to remove DT is tiring and un-American. Can you blame voters if they feel he is still fit when Democrats put up a very comprimised man who has Dimentia. Are they supposed to believe he is fit? To many DT is the clear lesser of 2 evils.

    I appeal to you to be more open minded and fair.

  2. As immigrants continue to come to America and live out their aspirations, the descendants of slaves become an ever-dwindling proportion of the populace. Time to stop obsessing on “whiteness.”

    Considering the likes of the Chinese Exclusion Act and “No Jews or dogs allowed,” these immigrants have faced ugly barriers and surmounted them. Take a look at the UC Berkeley student body, and try talking about the predations of “whiteness.”

    I’m a gay Jewish male. I’ve fought all my life to advance the proposition that there’s nothing “queer” about being attracted to other guys. That’s a matter of personal freedom, not some arbitrary notion of “social justice.” It’s about inclusion, not “assimilation.”

    Terms like “white” and “cis” are labels others have (hypocritically) attempted to apply to me (much as the neologism “Latinx” is resented by many to whom it’s applied) — all this coming from people militantly demanding that others accept their own self-characterizations.

    Italians were once considered no “whiter” than Latinos. So much for who’s indelibly “brown.”

    Time to stop fetishizing marginality, and to recognize — like generations of immigrants — that (as my immigrant father put it) “living well is the best revenge.”

    None of this excuses anyone voting for Trump — but let’s be clear about why: Trump’s greatest affront has been promoting cruelty over kindness, and giving personal freedom a bad name. Unfortunately, the toxicity has come to infect “woke” ideologues as well.

    Maybe it’s the purveyors of “critical theory” (thse whose mantra remains “combat liberalism”) who are truly behind the curve — and deserving of contempt.

    In the meantime, however — in view of the (all-too-understandable) recoil — we all suffer the consequences.

  3. Thanks again Mitch for this authentic window into life in your Brooklyn.
    You ask: “The people who voted for Trump at my polling place were not obviously evil, but is it possible to be “good” when you countenance and support evil?”
    I always liked what the Hill-Billy Marxist Myles Horton said: “People are experts in their own experience,” and within that world the overwhelming majority are not only good, but also wise. But the horizons of that world are extremely narrow, and despite the illusion created by the media and the internet, people know very very little about how things work outside the circle of their own experience. But this is not an insurmountable problem. …

Leave a Reply