I was a poll volunteer — we are failing citizens.

John Bordeaux
2 min readNov 24, 2020

Every time I vote in my Northern Virginia precinct, I walk by the weird people standing under a portable tent structure trying to hand me a sample ballet. Why on earth do I need to be told how to vote? I got this.

This year, I was one of those weird people under that tent. I get it now.

But worth the work.

On my local ballot in 2020, there were bond issues and a proposed Amendment to the Virginia Constitution. Yes, it included a highly advertised and consequential Presidential race; but these issues arguably affect citizen lives more than the top of the ticket. And yet: I found myself explaining bond issues and Constitutional Amendments for hours.

One young man was aware of the Amendment, agreed to vote against it (a well-intentioned effort that Democrats believed was poorly worded), but wanted to engage us on alternative solutions. Certainly outside our scope as poll volunteers, but an important message: If you’re going to volunteer to tell voters how their Party wants them to vote, be ready to discuss your rationale. This isn’t a cult.

A regal woman refused my offer of a sample ballot. “No, I’m voting for Trump.” “Ok, have a great day.” Then, oddly:

“I love my PRESIDENT!”

“Ok, thank you for voting.” She wheeled and walked back to us to listen to our position and rationale for our position regarding the Constitutional Amendment.

These were the exceptions. Many more people would walk up, take the ballot and ask: “So this is how I should fill out the vote?” “No, ma’am. This represents the positions of the Democratic Party, but it’s your vote and your choice.” I had that exchange more times than I care to recall.

Late in the shift, two young Black women approached me tentatively. “We’ve never voted before, how does this work?” They hadn’t the first idea how to cast a ballot. How is this possible in 2020? Who failed these young voters? Where were their civics class or parents? I should not have been the last resort for information, but they left our tent knowing they understand what a bond issue is.

If we accept voter illiteracy as a standard assumption, we abdicate civic education and leave it instead to a partisan under a pop-up tent, dispersing last-minute advice. I will continue to volunteer for this next time, but I look forward to being bored and ignored.