This election I wanted to do something different other than writing postcards and sending in a few hundred dollars to my party of choice. So, when a friend sent me an email that outlined how to become a poll observer for the Biden/Harris campaign, I signed up.
This was about 5 weeks before election day. I took an online class that lasted two hours, read the manual sent to me via email, downloaded the polling station rules cheat sheet and waited for my assigned location.
On Election day, I find myself in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles from downtown Philadelphia. This small rural town of about 5,000 people that falls under Bucks County is heavily pro-Trump and it shows. There are plenty of Keep America Great flags waving from pickup trucks, a few Confederate tags and yard signs supporting the incumbent.
I have been designated to be an “outside election observer” at a local church turned into a polling station. I have to remain outdoors because I am from out of state. Luckily, it is a sunny fall day but the temperatures have dropped significantly compared to a few weeks ago and the wind is chilly.
My original plan was to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive from my house in Maryland in the middle of the night before election day, but at the very last minute I had a change of heart. What if I get a flat tire and end up stranded on the highway at 4am? I opted to drive late Monday afternoon and stay at an Airbnb, about a 20 minute-drive from my designated location.
By the time I got to the polling station at 6.30am, there were already 157 people lined up to vote. The ones in front of the line arrived at 5am. Everyone seemed eager to cast their vote and move on with their lives.
Bob, a Republican campaigner with a red hoodie that reads Trump 2020, has a booth set up near the entrance of the church building, and is handing out Republican sample ballots to people standing in line. He is friendly and courteous with everyone, though his occasional comments about the specter of “socialism” have the potential to trigger a reaction from some folks queuing up.
The “Dems,” on the other hand, are not handing out any campaign materials. “It’s about keeping people safe,” says Gregg, who is a member of the local Democratic Committee and a political activist. The Committee has opted to have a gigantic cardboard sign with their preferred candidates by the entrance to the polling station. It is definitely less effective, as it goes unnoticed most of the time but it is surely a safer strategy in pandemic times.
My job is to periodically use my cell phone to log into a digital dashboard and enter the approximate wait time of the outside queue. Throughout the day, there have never been fewer than 70 people patiently waiting outside to vote. The average wait time through the day has been about one hour.
This polling station has been incredibly busy and the parking lot full to capacity every hour of the day. I am told by local poll watchers that they have never witnessed anything like this before. They also say there are many first-time voters.
It is clear to me that people know each other in this small town and many are on a first name basis with one another. Although theoretically people are not supposed to wear campaign gear when going to the polls, there are many showing up with MAGA hats, shirts and even facemasks. Those wearing anything blue or overtly pro Biden-Harris are clearly outnumbered and appear to lie low.
As a designated poll observer, I am also responsible for reporting anything that could be characterized as “an incident” or “an irregularity.” This specifically refers to acts that might be considered voter intimidation or disenfranchisement, like asking someone to present a form of identification in order to vote, something that is only necessary if the person is a first-time voter.
As the day warms up, the process remains orderly and uneventful. Even though Pennsylvania is an “open carry” state, I do not see anyone carrying a firearm outside of the polling station. According to Gregg, someone did come armed earlier in the day but I personally did not witness that.
What I did notice however, is the lack of diversity in the county. The majority of voters have been white. I only saw a handful of Black and Brown people throughout the day. A local poll watcher tells me there has been a lot of voter intimidation in this county, even neighbor-on- neighbor.
As an electoral poll observer, I only had to report one “incident” throughout the entire day and that was when Bob used a megaphone to amplify a robo call from Trump that he had on his phone. Technically, that’s a no-no because it can make people feel uncomfortable, setting aside the fact that it is annoying to have anyone’s voice blasted from a loudspeaker.
“Tell him that he cannot do that,” shouted an angry voter at me. Mind you, I am a 5’4” white woman from Italy wearing a printed paper tag around the neck that reads “Voter Protection.” I explained to the irritated voter that I am more of “an observer” rather than “a protector” but that I would report the incident to the managers of the portal and see what we can and cannot do.
While I waited for the official answer to my “incident” question, I approached Bob and said that maybe there was another way he could inform “his” voters about Trump’s position regarding local candidates on the ballot.
I suggested he consider not using the megaphone and perhaps stepping a bit closer to anyone who was interested in hearing Trump’s message. He thought about it and said that my idea might also work.
By the time I got the call back from the “boiler room,” the situation had been defused and the open conflict averted. Phew, I thought to myself, basic common sense goes a long way.
About an hour later, a woman who had been standing in line when I was speaking with Bob about the megaphone came up to me. She was wearing a facemask depicting the late Supreme Court liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a lace collar over her baggy winter coat, reminiscent of the late Justice’s classy legal attire.
She sized me up from head to toe, then squinted her piercing green eyes and with a big belly laugh said to me, “Blue wave girl. Blue wave!” I sincerely hope she is right, though I highly doubt this particular county will turn blue any time soon.