Meet Undergraduate Poll Worker Essay Contest Honorable Mention, Jean Thoensen

This article was featured in the May 2021 issue of Political Science Today, a new member magazine of the American Political Science Association. To read the full article in Political Science Today, click here.

Jean Thoensen, George Mason University

On November 3, 2020, I served as the chief election officer of my polling place in Fairfax County, Virginia, a position I have held for six years. Most of my job is handling voters who have problems, and a presidential election is guaranteed to deliver more than a few of those.

A woman was sitting before me with her young child. The check-in poll workers couldn’t locate her in the electronic poll book. I found her with an advanced search, but in a different precinct about fifteen miles and a half hour’s drive away. Then I started what I call “peeling the onion.” Why was she in the wrong place? Did she move? When did she move? Was her voter registration updated correctly? I have to understand the voter’s story before I can apply the law correctly. Virginia requires that you cast your ballot in the precinct where you are registered, so being in the right place is important.

She used to live in my precinct. When she moved, she updated her address with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Thanks to a new state law that took effect July 1st, her new address was forwarded to the Office of Elections, which assigned her to the new precinct. She still lives at the new address, so the solution was simple: send her to the precinct where she is registered to vote.

I strive to say yes to voters—to find some way for every eligible voter to cast a ballot.

I politely explained that she just needed to go home and vote at her new precinct. But she wouldn’t do it. She refused to wait in line again even though lines were short by that time in the day. I was baffled. She had to drive home anyway, so going to the right precinct wouldn’t be an inconvenience.

It was clear that I had lost this voter to something. She exceeded her personal reserve of patience, perhaps? I made my last-ditch effort to give her a voting experience by offering a provisional ballot, gently hinting that it would take about the same amount of time as waiting in line again. To my dismay, she chose to cast the provisional ballot, which I knew wouldn’t count. She disenfranchised herself by refusing to wait a few minutes at her own precinct.

I strive to say yes to voters—to find some way for every eligible voter to cast a ballot. It broke my heart to watch this voter throw away her vote.

The American Political Science Association’s (APSA) Electoral Assistance Task Force hosted an essay contest asking undergraduate students who served as election workers in polling places to submit brief essays reflecting on their experience.