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Why I Volunteered to Work at the Polls During a Pandemic

On Election Day, I witnessed laughter, compassion, and an abundance of patience

Alyssa Van Duyse |

A polling place in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, on April 7, 2020. (Photo by Alyssa Van Duyse)
A polling place in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, on April 7, 2020. (Photo by Alyssa Van Duyse)

If you’re looking for a column about the political shenanigans that accompany the State of Wisconsin moving forward with an election during a worldwide pandemic, you’ve come to the wrong place.

This is a column about people coming together for a common good.

One week ago, on March 31, I sat at my kitchen table on my imposed vacation day scrolling mindlessly through Facebook. That’s when I saw a post urging Chippewa Falls residents to become election officials for the spring election a short week away.

The details were lacking. Requirements were fuzzy. All I really knew was the date. From the comfort of my worn T-shirt and fluffy slippers it seemed like a good idea, mainly because I had another imposed vacation day scheduled for Election Day. I emailed the city clerk and promptly forgot about it until the next day when I read two bits of information back to back. The first was the city clerk’s short reply stating I was in and she’d reply at a later date with more details. I imagine this is how the Mafia works: We need you, you’re in.

The second was an article that infiltrated my brain. It was the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin — 1,550 — accompanied by the number of deaths due to the disease — 29.

Suddenly, six days ago, I felt a flood of irresponsibility wash over me. Wasn’t I the one telling my parents their food runs to the grocery store were frivolous? Hadn’t I just explained to my 5-year-old daughter that she could wave to her neighbor friend but that game of kickball would have to wait?

Why, then, did I feel it was OK to put myself and others in harm’s way for this cause?

To be honest, I wanted out of it all together.

That night I told my husband I wasn’t going to work at the polls. But even as the words came out of my mouth, I knew I wouldn’t back out. Quitting is not in my nature. As long as I was the right age for the job and could reasonably make it work in my schedule, it was a go for me.

My answer is not profound. It has nothing to do with suffrage or democracy.

Why, then, did I feel it was OK to put myself and others in harm’s way for this cause?

That doesn’t mean I didn’t hope for a reprieve — one that came and quickly faded hours before the polls opened.

Monday night, after the state Supreme Court ruled against Gov. Tony Evers’ order to push the election back, I put my big girl pants on. I resigned to the fact that during a worldwide pandemic, I would be face-to-face and feet away from hundreds of voters, and I was going to hold true to my obligation no matter how ridiculous it was.

For a week, people asked me why. Why wouldn’t I just say I couldn’t do it? No one would fault me.

Ultimately, I did it because in life it’s easy to have blinders on and only do what benefits us. It can be difficult to take those blinders off and do what’s right or helpful for others even if it means risking our own safety.

Did I make the right choice? Today I can tell you that I did. My morals are intact. I also did everything I could to keep myself and others healthy.

Here are my takeaways:

  • Seasoned election officials are unsung heroes. I can’t stress this enough. The job is extremely detailed and stressful. Those workers don’t have the benefit of doing that job every day or even once a month. Try being really good at your job and remembering every detail when you only get to do it three or four times a year.
  • After wearing a well-vented N95 mask (that I already had from a fireplace remodel) and the Cadillac of all face shields for literally 15 hours, I have an insane amount of respect for all health care/emergency medical workers who are enduring this personal hell. That doesn’t even touch on the stress of trying to save lives.
  • People are amazing. At some point recently it became hip to dislike “people.” Memes goad us into sharing our disdain for “people” — that fictitious blob at which to spew our hatred. But in real life, in the trenches of a disaster, people are inherently good. On Election Day, I witnessed laughter, compassion, an abundance of patience and admiration.

As voters thanked election officials for showing up to work, we thanked them for coming as well. All of the politicking might have stopped thousands of people from rightfully casting their votes amid a pandemic, but it couldn’t stop people from coming together in Chippewa Falls and throughout Wisconsin, for the common good.

Alyssa Van Duyse, a writer and former newspaper reporter, lives in Chippewa Falls.