Amherst poll workers experience presidential election polls unlike ever before

Poll workers notice fewer voters than expected as they ensure voting laws and COVID-19 guidelines are followed 

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(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

By Ella Adams and Saliha Bayrak

The stark contrast between the emptiness of the polls and the mass availability of poll workers did not go unnoticed in Amherst on Tuesday as voters trickled into various polling stations. It was the observation of those working the polls, new and experienced, that the generally smooth in-person voting process was partially a result of many registered voters deciding to cast their ballots prior to Election Day.

Eight polling locations represented Amherst’s 10 precincts and five districts in this election in hopes of maximum voter accessibility. Interest in working the polls was noticeable to veteran volunteers, though the polling stations did not see a steady stream of in-person voters to match their heavy staffing.

Tim Neale, an election warden of more than five years, was quick to point out that his expectation that Amherst would be lacking volunteers was unfounded on Election Day. “We’ve had some new people who’ve never done it before, you would think that we would get fewer people who were interested because of COVID, but we’ve been able to staff it, which is really a nice testament to the people,” he said.

Neale’s station for Precinct 9 at Wildwood Elementary School noticed a somewhat consistent turnout of voters, and was completely prepared for it. Staff worked one of two available shifts, 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., and paid careful attention to COVID-19 protocols.

Wiping down stations and pens and being prepared with masks and hand sanitizer for voters who needed them required extra action, though Neale was adamant that it caused no fuss. He said that although masks were on hand in case a voter walked in without one, they had yet to face conflict.

Neale also highlighted that the large space at his particular precinct allowed voters to feel safe, as opposed to other smaller polling locations.

Chris Hoffman, a warden of 10 years, noted that aside from COVID-19 protocols, the largest difference between working the 2020 election compared to those in his past was the sheer emptiness of the polls. The calm atmosphere and trickle-in of individual voters was something he expected, though not to this extent.

“Because of all the early voting, this has been the calmest election, it’s been more like a town election in an off-year,” he said. “We are largely sitting around waiting for voters to come in.”

Hoffmann said the success of early and mail-in voting was likely the reason for such empty polls. He also acknowledged the possibility that the lack of University of Massachusetts students on-campus had much to do with the sparsity of in-person voters.

The UMass campus itself is divided into three districts. In the past, when students have been living on campus, certain stations like Hoffman’s at Immanuel Lutheran Church, precinct three, have been designated almost specifically for increased student accessibility.

Hoffman noted that this also might have been a reason why there was little confusion this year, leading to very smooth poll operations.

“I know there aren’t an awful lot of UMass people on campus compared to usual, but one of the biggest problems we have is the students who don’t know what dorm they’re in or who changes dorms or this or that,” Hoffman said of past years with traditional circumstances.

“Whatever it is, this early voting has really made it smoother for everybody.”

Volunteer and UMass graduate student Reilly Noonan Grant was assigned to work at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School, where residents from Precincts 2, 4 and 10 voted. The combination of multiple precincts into one location led more voters at this particular polling station, from off-campus students to long-time residents.

Grant described the voter traffic as “more than it has been in the primary,” with “peaks and valleys throughout the day.”

The ease of working the polls this year in Amherst was noticeable to seasoned veterans and new volunteers alike, though some individuals new to the job were moved to take part in this election for a specific reason.

Delaney Sullivan, a senior public health sciences major at UMass, was a younger face among the more experienced volunteers at the Immanuel Lutheran Church polling station. She was inspired to become a poll worker after seeing calls to action on social media due to the expected shortage of poll workers across the United States.

“I figured if I could join and make a difference then that was good and I was actually really interested in this year’s election,” said Sullivan. “So, it made me want to get involved even more.”

Dan Muscat, a paid volunteer at Precinct 9, had a similar motivation.

“The people who do this are retired people and I realized they probably, a lot of people probably, were going to bow out of it,” he explained. “Someone had to do it.”

In addition to making sure the in-person voting process ran fluidly in light of COVID-19 concerns, workers had to ensure that voting rights were protected. Precinct 9 specifically saw a conflict regarding laws pertaining to campaigning within 150 feet of the station’s entrance.

Early Tuesday afternoon, an Amherst resident noticed a vehicle parked outside of the station marked with various statements including “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” They were concerned whether such statements could be on display in proximity to the entrance.

This vehicle belonged to a poll worker. When questioned about the situation, Neale said that since they were not statements that expressed direct support or disapproval for a specific candidate, its close proximity to the entrance did not violate any laws.

“That’s a judgement call as to whether it’s a political statement,” said Neale.

“The answer is, that’s a broad political statement, it is not a statement pertinent to one particular candidate.”

As in-person polling in Amherst otherwise smoothly concluded, poll workers waited the night out for the few voters that remained at stations upon the closing of the polls at 8 p.m.

Ella Adams can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @ella_adam15.

Saliha Bayrak can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @salihabayrak.