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'I Figured It Was My Time To Step Up': First Time Poll Workers Prepare For Election Day

City Clerk addesses poll workers on bleachers
Nina Keck
Rutland City Clerk Henry Heck explains the dos and don'ts for election day at a recent training for poll workers.

Many of the people who check you in and take your ballots on election day are retirees. This year, with the pandemic putting older Vermonters at higher risk, many veteran poll workers have opted to stay home this election. In Rutland City, 14 local residents have stepped up to work what will be one of the most unusual and contentious elections in recent memory.

More from VPR: A Guide To Voting In Vermont For The 2020 General Election

Rutland resident Erin Fernandez is 48 and said she signed up because she was worried about her older neighbors working at the polls this year.

“Instead of just wandering around, yelling at the TV for the evening, I thought I’d rather keep myself busy that day and help in some capacity,” Fernandez said.

So she called City Hall.

“This will be my very first election that I'm volunteering,” Hernandez said, with a smile. 

Poll workers in Rutland City get paid $11 an hour, so Hernandez isn't a true volunteer - but she is meeting a need for the city.

Poll worker Erin Fernandez in the Rutland Civic Center gym
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Erin Fernandez said she decided to help out on Election Day because she was concerned about her older neighbors, who traditionally staff the Rutland Citys polling places, doing so during the pandemic.

Last Thursday evening, Hernandez joined 13 other new poll workers to sit with several long-time veterans in bleachers at a local gymnasium, going over the 'dos and don’ts' for Election Day.

Hernandez said she's excited, but admitted that when she signed up, she had a lot of questions - especially since so many Vermonters were voting with absentee ballots.

It’s why Rutland City Clerk Henry Heck held several training sessions like this one, to help newcomers get to know the city’s long-time poll workers and better understand their role on Tuesday.

If you see or experience obstacles to voting on Election Day in Vermont, you can let VPR know, here.

"What is it that you're exactly… for the new people… what is it that you will do?” asked Heck standing behind a long table inside the gymnasium at the city's rec center.

“You'll act as an ambassador,” Heck answered. “We need a lot of people that are basically going to be able to answer questions.”

A few of the newcomers raised their eyebrows at that, but Heck plowed on and ran through a number of what-if scenarios.

"You'll act as an ambassador... We need a lot of people that are basically going to be able to answer questions." - Henry Heck, Rutland City Clerk

Like: "What if someone doesn’t know if they voted already?"

Not a problem, Heck explained, poll workers can find that out.

“It is mandated by law that every individual wears a mask,” Heck told the group. “But when we get involved in politics and the federal government and the state government, what does that mean?” Heck went on. “That means that this stuff gets thrown out the window because everyone has rights.”

So if someone says they can’t wear a mask for one reason or another, Heck told the poll workers not to argue with them about it. “We can't barbecue them. We can't ask them to show us, you know, examples of medical cards or doctor's notes or any of that stuff," he said.

More from VPR: A Cartoon Guide To Voting In Vermont's General Election

Instead, the city clerk recommended pollworkers create a slightly separate voting area for people without masks. “I want you to have a place that we can remove them safely and quite respectfully and say, ‘I understand you're not able to wear a mask. We have a place that I would like you to go to keep everyone who is wearing a mask safe.'"

Another big point Heck made was the importance of keeping the polling place neutral. “If it is a political thing, it is not allowed,” Heck said. If someone comes in wearing a political T-shirt or button, he said poll workers need to politely request that the voter cover it up or take it off.

However, "If the fortunate or unfortunate MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat shows up, it's allowed to be in the polling place," Heck explained. "These are specific guidelines established by the secretary of state and we will have that information for you so you can answer those questions."

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Devon Neary and Marisa Kiefaber said they are looking forward to helping out at the polls for the first time in Rutland City.

The important thing, Heck stressed, is for poll workers to help people vote and accurately record their ballot. “This is different from any other election we've ever done. We have almost 11,000 active voters in the city of Rutland. That means almost 11,000 ballots have been mailed out by the secretary of state to our folks within our community. It's a lot of ballots.”

With nearly 5,000 ballots already collected, Heck told the group on Thursday, he’s projecting an 80% voter  turnout for the city - a record. 

"I've got a bet with the mayor," he laughed.

But with so many ballots sent out ahead of time, Heck said he expects people to show up Tuesday saying they've lost theirs, or arguing that they never got one: “I left it at home or the dog ate it; the kids spilled coffee on it; I used it to start a fire with because I was cold,” Heck told the poll workers, to laughter. 

“Whatever they want to say, that’s perfectly fine,” Heck said, confirming that those people can still vote before running through a list of protocols to handle similar scenarios.

Heck reminded the first-time poll workers that he and members of his staff, along with long-time poll workers, would be at every ward and that procedures were clearly spelled out. “I want this to be enjoyable,” added Heck, “and I want you all to learn something about this process.”

However, he warned: "I also want you all to be ready for a very long day."

More from Brave Little State: Ask Bob: Your Last-Minute Pre-Election Questions

First time poll worker Devon Neary said he finished the training excited for Tuesday.

“I've just always been interested in the process," the 32-year-old said. "And I think it will be a really cool kind of inside experience [of] how elections work. And knowing everything that's going on between the pandemic and a really contested election, I figured the city really needed extra help, so I figured it was my time to kind of step up and do my duty."

"I think it will be a really cool kind of inside experience [of] how elections work. And knowing everything that's going on between the pandemic and a really contested election, I figured the city really needed extra help..." - Devon Neary, first-time poll worker

Marisa Kiefaber, who came to the training with Neary, nodded in agreement. The 28-year-old teaches fifth grade in Rutland Town and in past years said she’s taken her students to visit polling places.

But this year, that wasn’t possible. “So I decided to take the day as a personal day and work the polls instead, so I can get an inside perspective on what that experience is like, so that I can turn around and teach the next generation of voters about the election process.”

Kiefaber, Neary and about 40 others will staff the polls at four wards in Rutland beginning at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Nina Keck @NinaPKeck.

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