Meet Undergraduate Poll Worker Essay Contest Winner, William Sussman

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.

William Sussman, Yale University

My parents are New York medical doctors, so it is perhaps unsurprising that we contracted COVID-19 last April, when the state was the epicenter of the virus in the United States. It was frightening. While my mom and I recovered just fine, my dad was hospitalized. He was not at high risk for severe illness, yet was ravaged by the disease. Thankfully he pulled through.

The same cannot be said for more than a quarter million Americans, many of whom were elderly and therefore at high risk. Aware that poll workers are often retirees, I became concerned about administration of the November election. Indeed, my county Board of Elections reported that 25% of poll workers did not show up for the June primary. When I tested positive for antibodies, I signed up to help out.

One of the first questions that was asked of me during the training process was with which party I am registered. “Does that matter?” Iasked, taken aback. “Yes,” she explained, poll workers work in pairs, one Democrat with one Republican, to ensure that neither party can rig the election.

I suppose this makes some sense, though it institutionalizes a two-party system which may not accurately reflect the political diversity of this country.

On Election Day, I witnessed another protection against election rigging: scrupulous accounting by design. Everything was labeled and counted, and nothing was thrown out, not even the pieces of a ballot torn in a paper jam. In the event of a dispute, a simple paper audit would resolve the contention. This has the additional benefit of discouraging foreign adversaries from attempting to hack ballot machines; election interference can be detected, corrected, and sanctioned.

The only real threat to democracy was a combination of voter misbehavior and bad policy. Eligible voters who do not follow the rules cannot be denied their right to vote, so the Board of Elections decided that voters who refuse to wear a mask would have to wait for the polling place to be cleared and then vote while the rest of  the line waits

outside, creating substantial delay and potentially disenfranchising those who cannot wait so long. Fortunately we only had one such case, but I think the voter should have been sent to vote elsewhere.

I hope more young people sign up to work the polls. We are needed, now more than ever.

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.