Democracy is not just an idea. It is an action. It is also a stiff neck, a sore bottom and a parched throat.
As a first-time election judge in a Baltimore City precinct on Election Day, I was actively “democracizing” — as in, practicing democracy while exercising. For roughly 13 hours straight, I welcomed and checked in nearly 1,000 voters, alongside two strangers who fast became my friends.
If that sounds easy, I assure you, it was not.
My first job of the morning, more than an hour before the polls opened at 7 a.m., was to tape up a big, white sign with black lettering to the glass front door of the apartment complex that proclaimed our location a voting precinct. As I affixed blue tape to the sign on that dark, chilly morning, I could not help but feel that I was quite literally “making” democracy. That simple sign transformed a plain city apartment building into a place where an intricate and tremendously important set of choreographed moves soon would bring together people of varying ages, backgrounds and races to realize an idea first conceived in ancient Athens in the fifth century B.C.
Lugging folding chairs, setting up tables, hauling heavy boxes loaded with ballots and other equipment — and then doing it all over in reverse after the polls closed — this too was democracizing. I was literally sweating for votes, straining muscles in service of the American right to choose politicians and policies (such as imposing term limits on city officials and legalizing recreational marijuana) to represent our interests.
My team’s job was to manage a poll book: an electronic device that resembles a fat computer tablet and holds enormous amounts of voter registration data, including information about all the voters registered in the three consolidated precincts we served on site.
At check-in, we three greeted elderly voters in wheelchairs, fresh-faced voters who were likely casting their first ballots, parents who brought their toddlers to witness their own act of democratizing. Minutes before the polls closed, a slew of doctors and nurses (the scrubs gave them away), rushed in to vote.
I estimate that I personally spoke with roughly 300 voters, searching for their names and addresses in the poll book, explaining over and over that they had the option to cast a paper ballot or an electronic ballot, or why they could only cast a provisional ballot. I printed and initialed hundreds of voter cards, reaching over my poll book to indicate where voters needed to sign. I collated provisional voting folders, which entailed separate paperwork, more initialing, more signing.
“Next!” We’d shout after each individual: “Next!”
The voters streamed in, almost nonstop. My neck ached, the metal chair punished my backside. We had little time to eat, and it was all I could do to drink enough water in a room literally heated up from all that democracizing.
Please understand: I am not complaining. As someone who has taken too many deep dives into political news, my work as an election judge was a welcome reminder that this isn’t only stuff we talk about — or, mostly, moan about.
My experience made clear that democracy is only as real as the people who work it, especially (though not exclusively) on Election Day. One of the most experienced people at our precinct has been managing Election Day activities for 16 years. Despite advancing years and a bum hip, he out-bustled nearly all of us on Tuesday. That’s how — and why — this works. As a first-time election judge, I learned firsthand that democracy requires sweat, grit and pushing through exhaustion to function as intended.
Democracizing requires commitment — activating our bodies as much as our minds. The next time we rail about the political divide in the United States, or political decisions we disagree with, let’s remember all the folks who rise at 4:30 a.m. on Election Day and don’t get to bed before midnight, so that we may have the privilege to gripe.
Amy L. Bernstein is a writer in Baltimore. (Twitter and Instagram: @amylbernstein; https://amywrites.live).