“This is Kathy from the L.A. county election worker program,” the voice on the phone said when I answered.
Until that moment I had totally forgotten that I had checked the box, the one on my California voter’s registration that reads, “Willing to do local poll work on election day.”
It was October 2018, a month before the national mid-term elections. During past elections, I worked hours at our local phone bank in Los Angeles getting out the vote, but this was different. I had never worked as an official election worker, but the woman who introduced herself as Kathy said she needed my help. I told her I would be there.
Once in a while I get a deep wave of patriotic emotion. It’s usually most acute around election days. I take voting seriously. I’m the kind of person who gets tears in her eyes every time she votes. I’ve brought my daughter with me since she was a baby, just like my mom did with me; voting with one hand, holding a future voter in the other. I would whisper to her, “This is how we do it my little girl. I didn’t name you Liberty for nothing.”
A Sacred Obligation
In my house growing up in the 60’s, voting was treated like a sacred obligation. My parents were dead serious about voting. We discussed politics nightly and passionately at the dinner table. My mom had a degree in journalism and she loved to have heated discussions with my Dad. Just like a reporter, she dug in. I was too young to understand the issues, but what stuck with me, and shaped me, was watching my elegant suburban housewife/mother debating like the sharp, informed bad-ass she was.
My family discussed politics nightly and passionately at the dinner table.
Mom and Dad watched every Democratic National Convention on our black and white TV the way some people watch the Grammys or the Super Bowl. Instead of Beyonce and Tom Brady, my mother cheered for Adlai Stevenson, JFK, and Bobby Kennedy. We would watch the spectacle of the convention as each state proudly announced its delegates. Straw Boater hats, red-white-and-blue pompoms and confetti filled the air, as each state proudly announced their choice for president. I understood at a young age that our elections and the right to vote were never to be taken lightly. It was a turbulent time, America was in the throes of the wild 1960s. But amidst the tumult we were enjoying prosperity, and the memory of the Second World War was still fresh. It was my parents’ generation who had fought the Nazis; they understood freedom in a deep and earned way.
Then came the darkness. JFK was shot down in his motorcade in Dallas, the image playing over and over on that same black and white television. I spent my 12th birthday grudgingly, I admit, watching JFK’s funeral on TV at my parents’ side. Then it was Martin’s assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, and Bobby at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. They were somber and frightening days for all of us. Soon I went off to college in the heat of the Vietnam war. We protested that war on campuses across the country as the turbulent years rolled on. Through them all, I voted.
So when Kathy reached out, I said a firm, “yes!” I felt determined and patriotic, and a little vague on the details of what I had gotten myself into. The 2018 midterm was a referendum on Trump. We needed to elect more Democrats in both the House and Senate, restraining this sick maniac and taking back some political power.
Kathy called me a few days later to confirm a few details and sent me to a three-hour training session in an old Santa Monica church. The training was complex and fascinating; we were instructed on the state rules and regulations, handling ballots, voter rolls, and the big black box for ballots. We learned how to set up a polling place and how it would all transpire on Election Day.
As we worked I could see her sizing me up.
The weekend prior to election day Kathy texted, asking that I meet her and the other poll workers at The Bel Air Bay Club (our polling place) here in the Pacific Palisades on Monday the 5th for a run-through.
When I arrived, I met the three other women volunteers for the first time. There we stood; four women, looking very blonde, very Pacific Palisades and very confused. Kathy ran down all the logistics to us like a drill sergeant; she was all business. She had been an official election worker for many years and her experience showed. She was earnest and did her job with skill and pride. As we worked I could see her sizing me up. I look like every other privileged woman in the Pacific Palisades and while I had no idea where Kathy lived I knew it wasn’t around here.
As we finished the run-through, Kathy told us she would arrive the next morning at 5:30 am to unload the signs, booths, lights, voter logs and, of course, the sealed black box for the official ballots. She asked us to come at 6:30 am, ready to work. As she said it, she looked at us a little doubtfully, but we were all she had.
As we all walked to our cars I watched Kathy, a short and wide Black woman with a slight limp and struggle in her walk. I wondered to myself, “How is she going to pack that beat up car at the crack of dawn downtown with all the booths, signs, and black ballot box then get out here at 5:30am to unload?” I decided right then she was going to need my help. Even if she hadn’t asked for it.
It’s Show Time
Election Day morning I was up and dressed by 4:30 am, making coffee in the pitch black, hours before sunrise. I arrived at 5:30am sharp at the Bay Club. It would be hours before anyone would arrive and the parking lot was empty, so I sat and waited. A moment later, I looked up and I saw headlights ahead, and knew it was Kathy. I got out and walked over to her sitting in her car.
She took pride in her role as a dedicated cog in the wheel of democracy.
She looked up at me. It was just the two of us here alone on election day in the dark. She smiled. It was the first smile I had seen on her face and together we unloaded the car, dragging all the official polling stuff into the club. We didn’t say much but her smile said, I may have misjudged you.
The other Palisades ladies arrived at 6:30 am as instructed and soon Kathy was ordering everyone around: put this here, it goes like this, never do this, always do that. The woman was a pro and a true leader. She took pride in her role as a dedicated cog in the wheel of democracy. We hung the official polling signs. We assembled all the booths. We set up the tables and placed the voter logs alongside the ballots. The doors opened and people flooded in ready to cast their votes.
Exhaustion, Elation and Fear
It was the most exhausting day I can remember. But a rewarding one. I met neighbors I never knew and watched with pride as my community came out in force. Seeing so many people show up was exciting. When the polls closed, all I wanted to do was go home. I was dead tired and cranky. But the job was not over. We had to break down the booths, pack up and, above all else, protect the black ballot box. Kathy and I stayed and loaded up her car. After 18 long hours, this woman still had to go downtown to deliver the official ballots, unload the booths and signs and would probably work until the wee hours of dawn to finish her job. Her dedication was something to behold.
It was one of the best days of my life. I cried all the way home.
When I thanked her and said good-bye, she threw her arms around me and we hugged. A long heart-to-heart hug. I told her it was one of the best days of my life. She said “You can work these polls with me anytime.” I responded, “It would be my honor.”
I cried all the way home.
A little less than four years later, I watched January 6th Committee Chairman Benny Thompson swear in Georgia election worker Shaye Moss to testify. Moss entered the grand room with her mother Lady Ruby (Freeman), clearly stunned by the glare of bright lights and cameras pointed at her, and took a seat. She looked terrified. Chairman Thompson then took the time to remind us that election workers are the unsung heroes who do the hard work to keep democracy alive.
My heart twinged with pain for her.
The committee rolled a video of Moss, her mother and grandmother that falsely claimed the three were guilty of election fraud in Fulton County, Georgia. As a result, these women had been relentlessly harassed by supporters of Donald Trump following the 2020 Election. Trump’s lies led Shaye Moss and her family to fear for their safety. .
Moss took a seat and fighting back tears, she answered questions and bravely told her story. My eyes welled up in tears as well because all I could see sitting there in that room was my friend Kathy.