The man instinctively took a seat behind the plastic divider as I discussed his voter record over the phone with someone working the Board of Elections help desk. His tired eyes met my dry, itchy ones each time I explained the man’s predicament.
It had been a busy opening for our small polling location, based in a public school’s library. Those who had worked the previous presidential elections insisted many voters wouldn’t show up due to absentee ballot mail-ins, yet frequent lines snuck up on our staff’s conversations, jokes and coffee breaks.
Late morning, I was on duty, seated with the VAT (Voter Access Table) ePoll book, when my co-worker referred the man to my station. The VAT ebook was the main access portal for administrative tasks that involved filing provisional ballots or address changes. Yes, he possessed a voter registration record, meaning he had registered for previous elections, I confirmed. But his address was no longer current. He had moved, following a series of events due to a medical diagnosis. Now alone, he resided in an old historic apartment, owned by a social service agency.
Between the use of masks and plastic screens, and the din of echoes in the normally quiet library, his words came out garbled, as he tried to catch his breath. The house number and street he provided did not match up with any in the BOE database. Essentially, that address didn’t exist.
My eyes wandered over to the bookshelves. The educational environment did not go unnoticed – at least by me. Not coincidentally, someone had stacked a set of books, with titles ranging from "This Baffling World" to "Witnesses to War" and laid them out in plain sight.
How fitting we should also witness the successes and failures of our country during an election in a place designed to learn, a place that boosted a chosen few toward the stars and tethered others to the ground.
Earlier in the morning, a woman possibly in her late 50s entered the location. Two poll workers, a Democrat and a Republican, accompanied her to a private table. She needed assistance, not due to any physical disability. But because she couldn’t read. They read her ballot aloud and guided her as she colored in the box of her choice.
We kid ourselves by claiming we lived in a first-world country. In that moment, we could’ve easily been South Sudan with the world’s lowest literacy rate.
The scene was repeated throughout the day. People entitled to vote, finding it difficult to cast their ballot, due to life alterations. Who hadn’t experienced a life altered because of economic, racial, or other systems designed by politicians who owned multiple homes or a golf resort and refused to take into account the transition of others? The fact is, in any city, young service workers or those who recently moved into business professions changed addresses as often as anyone else, if not more. And the pandemic flipped the fluorescent light on many other shifts: people experiencing homelessness for the first time, those whose mortgages wouldn’t be met, patients suffering from COVID-19-related symptoms, and not just voters who habitually moved.
I sighed loudly while on the phone with the help desk, rolling my eyes and insisting we –the voter and myself – had the proper address. My workmates busily charged themselves with finding other solutions.
The beauty in the delicate dance of absentee voting was not that the process enabled more people to vote by the convenience of mail. But workers on the ground were freed to cue up the soundtrack of democracy for voters who preferred to dance in person, like the man seated in front of me. Someone who wasn’t going to ride a bus to election headquarters five miles outside of the city.
We were the faces they knew. They trusted us and followed our lead.
The voter enunciated his address for me, one last time. On the phone, we confirmed his information with the social service agency and arrived at an answer.
Relief swept over his face like the sun shining through the fog of plastic screens. My shoulders eased, as did my scrunched up nose. I handed him his provisional ballot, to be counted later with the other .05% of Ohio’s provisional and absentee votes.
Those 20 minutes of my aggravation and the reserves of patience he summoned were worth the 16 and a half hours our team spent cleaning screens after every pen swipe, wiping down ePoll books, instructing voters to insert their paper into the ballot eating machine, and thanking everyone who came to vote in the midst of a global health crisis.
Days later, I hit upon an idea for public service, similar to the draft. Every citizen of voting age would be required to work the polls in a precinct separate from their own. To witness the divide that existed between Black and white, wealthy and poor, literate and unable to read. Those who feasted on what capitalism served them on a platter and those who simply wanted to dine on a more equitable future.
The polls closed at 7:30 p.m. We shut the doors. In line at the VAT table was a mother and son. The BOE had assured her the son was approved to vote at our locale. Devoted bipartisan poll workers ascertained what types of legal documentation were required as proof, while the mother rooted through her purse and grasped at every piece of mail received. The son voted.
He voted. She voted. They voted.
There will never be two more valuable words in our democracy than those.
Annette Januzzi Wick lives in Over-the-Rhine.