Stories from the Polls: Rural SC Edition

Yesterday, I worked as a Poll Manager for the first time (sidenote: Managers are lowest level, Clerks are in charge. Weird, no?). I decided to work at the polls for the day because: a) I have a flexible job and lifestyle that allows me to be gone for a full day, and b) my polls are usually staffed by friends of mine from church, all of whom are over age 65. I didn’t want them to work during the pandemic, so that means I needed to.

I was assigned to work in a small town in Upstate SC (I'm not including the name in an attempt to protect possible privacy issues). This town had a population of just over 800 in the 2010 census. Currently, the precinct has a total of 1,293 registered voters, who live in parts of three towns and even the edge of one city. About 220 of them voted early.

Some of my fellow poll managers worked at this same precinct in 2016, and they had processed an almost 25% voter rate. Yesterday, we saw 713 voters (55+ %). With early voting, this precinct had about 72% voter participation. It was an amazing, busy and rather exciting day. 

Our location was the home of the town's Volunteer Fire Department, a small, squat concrete building of two rooms. We set up according to requirements, but the tables and voting booths were not 6’ apart, and the place was often quite crowded. We did our best.

I have a lot of feelings about how things went. I knew I was in a very, very Republican district, so the Trump enthusiasm was not surprising. As I’m still working to form my thoughts and opinions, I wanted to write down some anecdotes, presented without judgment, just so I’ll remember them. 

Anecdotes from helping voters:

South Carolina’s first screen is a prompt to vote Straight Party, which confused many of our voters. I suspect we had to actually help more people vote than at most precincts, as many, many people were stumped by that first page, and a few needed clarification as to which party selection would get them Trump. I'm sure I saw way more voters' choices than the average poll manager (much more than we were trained to do, that's for sure), but voters were consistently asking for my help, and many did not seem concerned about voting privacy (quite the opposite). 

Many people—of all ages—were voting for the first time, or for the first time in decades. Several of them told me they had come because this was the most important election in their lifetimes.

Across the board, everyone was polite, sociable, and friendly. I was called "ma'am" more that day than the rest of my life combined. People often knew each other in line, or overheard another's address and commented on folks they know who live or have lived near there. It was an upbeat, neighborly atmosphere.
Several people came in from doing outside work, with dirt under their fingernails and in their boots. I had to sweep halfway through the day because clods of dirt gathered under one of the booths. Many people came in uniform (nurses, linemen, security guards), and we made small talk at registration about whether they were starting a shift or ending it.

I helped a woman and her dad check in. She told me her dad had Alzheimer's. He was unsteady on his cane and generally unresponsive, though she was able to get him to sign his initials on the registration screen on his own. She took him to the voting booth and voted for him, then voted for herself.

A man in his 50s walked in and announced gruffly, “I can’t read or write!” We assured him we could help. He was able to sign his name (in lovely cursive), then he asked me to read him the ballot. The first screen asks if you want to vote Straight Party. He stared at the screen a while, then told me to vote for "the Great party." I told him that wasn’t an option, and I began to read through the party options (there were lots). He then asked me which selection would get him Trump. I told him Trump was in the Republican party, but he didn’t have to select that (Straight Party choice is not required). He decided to select it anyway.  He then had me talk him through each selection, and he (seemingly randomly?) chose some to vote for, and some to skip without voting (meaning we unselected the Republican candidate and left it blank). He then cast his ballot and gave me his cotton swab, telling me, “Throw that away for me, Hon, because I’ve got to go!”

I helped a woman vote who seemed to be intoxicated. Her make-up was bright and a bit messy, including a ring of smeared lipstick around the outside of her mouth. Her eyes were glassy, and she swayed as she stood at the booth. She asked me to come help her to make sure she was voting for Trump “and that guy named Lindsey.” After she completed that, she wanted to skip the rest of the ballot.

Three people asked me to help them unselect all their votes after President. One told me, “I don’t know who any of these guys are, so I don’t want to vote for them!” But since all three voters had started by selecting Straight Party Republican, we had to go through each page and unselect the checked candidate, then press Next. It took more work for these voters to unvote, but they wanted to do so.

We had to turn away about six people who came in to vote, asking “I only need my license, right?” “Yes!” we said, “You can vote with just a photo ID.” But then we realized they had never registered to vote. Most said they didn’t know they had to do that in advance. So clearly the message got out that they should vote, and that they should bring ID…but not that you had to register in advance. They were sad to leave, and I was sad to have to turn them away. I’d say five of the six were in their late teens/early 20s.

No one ran for Soil & Water District Commissioner. But if you don’t write someone in, the system gives you a warning message at the end that you skipped a vote. This also confused a lot of our voters, to the point that we proactively had to tell people not to worry about getting that warning. 

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When we ran the vote tally, 87% of this precinct voted for Trump. Graham won easily, but by a smaller margin. It was a long, long day, with rarely a chance for breaks. My fellow poll managers and poll clerk were lovely, capable people. I'm glad I could serve. But I'm especially glad that I was placed far away from my bubble of friends and town. I may not have supported the same candidate as these folks, but I fully supported their right to vote (well, most of them...but that's something I'll keep to myself). It was fulfilling to see democracy at work.

And in case you're asking, after having witnessed the level of record-checking, the number of phone calls, and the sheer amount of work required to ensure physical security, I have no questions about fraud. Our county, at least, ran a smooth, tight election. 



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