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Democracy in Action: Election Workers Play a Vital Role

A poll workers assists a voter as she signs in during a past election.

By Lori Samuels

When does a paid job feel like a volunteer opportunity to give back?

Putnam County residents Ruth Greenfield and George Lakestream indicate that being an election (or poll) worker combines the satisfaction of volunteering with earning income. Each has served as an election worker for more than 10 years (Greenfield has been at it for 16!) and both say there are many rewards – beyond the money – for working at a poll site on Election Day.

I had the opportunity recently to speak with these two dedicated poll workers who were eager to share their experiences and perspectives about actively supporting local elections. Here’s what they had to say:

Why did you become an election worker? {bold}

“It’s a community service – somebody’s got to do it,” said Greenfield. “I was in a position to be there, while raising kids from home. When my youngest started middle school, I was freer to be available for Election Day. I am not overtly political, but elections are necessary, and there is only a limited number of people who sign up. A lot of election workers are older or retired because they have some time. It feels like a volunteer job, but I am getting paid.”

“I came to this during a lull in my career, and I wanted to be part of the community,” added Lakestream. “I have always had an interest in community projects. As Ruth said, it feels like a volunteer opportunity – I get to be involved in politics, but in a non-partisan way. It’s satisfying. I make elections count.”

Lakestream is now working full-time, but that has not affected his commitment to making time for election work. He takes a vacation day from his full-time gig for Election Day, even though he can no longer work during early voting, which spans several days.

Election Day activities are carefully organized and structured so each poll worker knows what’s expected. Each Democrat or Republican worker is paired with someone from the other party to work at each post, whether at the sign-in table, as coordinators, or at the ballot machines. If the Republican worker needs a break, another Republican worker fills in for that person, and vice versa.

“Your partisanship melts away,” said Lakestream. “You need to communicate, understand others’ points of view, and cooperate. Working on elections, you look at the process in a holistic way to see how you can provide an opportunity for everyone to vote.”

What do you like about being an election worker? {bold}

“For one thing, when I am stationed at a polling place in my district, I see neighbors, parents of my kids’ friends…” said Greenfield. “It is very interesting and active; not boring. And when there’s downtime with fewer voters arriving, I can talk to coworkers. We have lunch and dinner breaks.”

“It is a good way to get to know who is in your community, to see the people you do not know, to get a sense of the personality of the area,” added Lakestream.

How are workers trained and what happens on Election Day? {bold}

Prior to election season, workers attend a one- or two-hour paid training, and leave with clear, detailed instructions. Greenfield indicated she has “the utmost praise for the Putnam County Board of Elections. The training is done step-by-step,” she said.

Once at the polling location, there is plenty of support from more seasoned workers as they assist voters and answer questions.

Sometimes voters make errors on ballots. Both a Democrat and a Republican worker must be present to assist. If a ballot gets stuck in a machine, a member of each party must be present to fix the problem.

What are some challenges you have experienced as an election worker? {bold}

Lakestream said, for one thing, change. In the past, voters used to pull a lever for privacy behind a curtain. Once finished, the voter pulled the lever back, which opened the curtain. “There was something satisfying in pulling that lever,” he said.

Now, voting has been replaced with scanners, and some voters complain it is more work while others say it is a lot easier.

Election Day can be a long one, with hours that run from early morning to late in the evening. “It’s like running a marathon,” said Lakestream. “However, it’s only one day.” And Primary Election days may last fewer hours.

Greenfield and Lakestream say the time actually goes by quickly, because they are not only busy, but are enjoying the camaraderie with other workers. And recently, New York State revised Election Day policy to allow friends who sign up together to split their shift for a shorter work period.

What advice would you give someone who is considering becoming an election worker? {bold}

“It is a way of helping our community with the election process,” said Greenfield. “If you can schedule a day off from work, it is a day of service. For a few days a year, the Board of Elections needs bodies – but bodies who are responsible, reliable, trusted to show up…”

Plus, for those closer to home, it is “a day out, a day to see people,” she said. And even if you work in another district, “most people are very pleasant. And my involvement has led to working on library budget and school district special voting,” said Greenfield.

“Election work is fulfilling – providing a sense of civic pride and accomplishment and getting in touch with your community,” added Lakestream. “When I see a voter who might be a senior or a World War II vet, or someone physically-impaired coming to the polls, despite the rain or the cold, I realize how important it is. That people vote for a reason. They are living one of our democratic principles. When I shared some ‘war stories’ with my 93-year-old father, my enthusiasm made him want to get involved. He wanted some of the glory and was considering signing up.”

With Nov. 7 fast approaching, the general election is on the horizon. New York State – and Putnam County, in particular – are currently hiring poll workers, looking for people who are willing and able to assist with the administration of in-person voting, to make voting accessible to as many people as possible.

Election workers support a variety of tasks, including preparing the polling place for voting, setting up voting equipment, signing voters in, demonstrating voting procedures, closing the polling location and reporting results.

All registered New York State voters are eligible and welcome to apply to be an election worker for Election Day or for other, future elections. People affiliated with various parties are encouraged to become election workers.

As the Putnam County Board of Elections indicates on its website, “You can get involved and become a proud participant in a process that is the foundation of democracy in our country.” For more information, call 845-808-1300, email or visit


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