After spending most of the first presidential debate shouting incoherently, Donald Trump finished it off with a crystal clear message. “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” he said, stoking fears of potentially violent election day interference.
At home in Chicago, Kaleigh Glaza missed Trump’s comment at first. “There was so much yelling and other stuff happening,” she said. One of her friends mentioned it later in a debate night group chat.
Glaza, a former writer for a food magazine who was furloughed during the pandemic, felt “scared” when she read the text. She plans to be a poll worker in DuPage County, Illinois, and will be on the front lines for any potential troublemaking from Trump supporters.
“I haven’t gotten assigned for what my job will be at the polling place yet,” Glaza, 30, said. “Originally, I was very much like, ‘I’ll be the person who deals with lines. I love organizing people and making things run efficiently.’ But now I don’t know if I want to volunteer to do that anymore. Maybe just give me a machine that won’t yell at me. Let me work with the machines, instead. I’ll follow those instructions just fine.”
First-time poll workers from around the country, many of whom signed up for the job because they felt it was their civic duty to be involved this election—and protect elderly poll workers from the risk of catching COVID-19—told The Daily Beast they are disturbed by Trump’s words. But it will not stop them.
“Every poll worker who volunteers to help carry out our election should be commended for their efforts to ensure a safe and trusted democratic process, and none should feel threatened while doing their jobs,” Andrea Hailey, CEO of the nonprofit Vote.org, which helped people sign up to be poll workers online. “Voting is a fundamental right and any attempt to scare voters or poll workers while casting or counting ballots is antithetical to our democracy.”
Glaza just finished a four-hour online class to become certified; she’s familiar with the rules of the day and feels confident she can assist voters. She knows people are not supposed to electioneer less than 100 feet from a polling place. But she doesn’t know what to do, exactly, if they break that rule.
“We were never given conflict resolution or de-escalation training,” she added. “And we shouldn’t have to be trained in that! I just hope people act like adults and good citizens of this country and cast their ballots.”
One 34 year-old poll worker from Mobile, Alabama, who asked that her name not be used told The Daily Beast she did not watch the presidential debate, opting to watch Die Hard instead and checking Twitter for highlights.
“Trump will not scare me from working the polls, but I have that flash of, if something goes wrong, I am a sitting duck,” the woman said. “I grew up when the only type of shooting situation that would make you scared was Columbine. All I could think of last night, was that 17-year-old in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and I am just imagining all these people walking around with long guns—I have never imagined myself possibly being in that situation, especially intentionally.”
Emily Melendez, a 26-year-old from Allentown, Pennsylvania, also applied to be a poll worker. She lost her job as a writer and marketer for a local magazine and has the time to spare.
“The whole debate made me extremely anxious, I had heart palpitations and sweaty palms,” Melendez said. “Trump’s words about the polls scared me of course, because of how he controls people through hate rhetoric. I’m not too concerned about it, because I live in a liberal-ish city. I don’t think anything scary would happen, but you never know. I think this makes me want to do it more, honestly. I want to prove that, ‘Hey, I’m here, nothing bad is happening.’”
Katherine Goldstein, 36, lives in Durham, North Carolina. She’s a journalist, podcast host, and mother of three. “I’m leaving my twin infants at home to wear an n95 mask and be a poll worker during early voting,” she tweeted right after the debate.
“Overall, watching that was deeply depressing,” Goldstein said in an interview. “But I think there are a few areas where I know that I can potentially make a difference. It is really important for me to be involved as much as possible in protecting our democracy, and being sure people have the right to vote is important. I’m not super concerned about [incidents at the potential polling station], though people from outside the community could pose a threat. What’s more risky for me is COVID.”
Living in New York City, Naima Cochrane is not that apprehensive about people stirring up trouble at polls. “It’s scary for me, but also it redoubles my efforts,” she said. “That’s easy for me to say in New York. For my mother in South Carolina, if she was going to be a poll worker, I might be like, ‘Be careful.’ But I would not deter her from doing it.”
“This is the first election for me where I’ve ever had a conversation with friends about volunteering for the polls,” Cochrane said. (Poll workers are not exactly volunteers; they get paid for their training and labor.) “Messaging, just telling people to vote, isn’t enough anymore. You have to put some skin in the game. That’s the least I can do.”
Alicia Carlson, a 45-year-old mother of eight, is a Democrat in the overwhelmingly red Culpeper, Virginia. “I want to be an example for my children on why it’s good to participate in the small ways we can,” Carlson said. “We don’t necessarily have to have a position in Congress to say that we’re participating in government. We can be poll workers in a small town of 20,000, too.”
Carlson said she was also compelled to volunteer after her 21-year-old said that he would not bother to vote because he thought “Trump’s going to win anyway.”
“For me, as a parent, that’s going to encourage me to want to do more, even if it’s dealing with the anxiety and potential fear of what the president is insinuating others to do,” she added.
Carlson isn’t put off by Trump’s words, but admits she will be more cautious on Nov. 3.
“Being cognizant of what’s going around is important, rather than going about nonchalantly,” she said. “I think there will be a level of needing to be more aware of our surroundings, and ensure other people aren’t being mistreated, which I might not have had to do before.”