The 10 Things I Learned From Being a Poll Worker

Brian Larson
4 min readNov 9, 2020

I was a poll worker in this recent 2020 Presidential Election cycle. Below are some of the take-aways I had from my experience (all are apolitical). Importantly, poll workers are commonly in short supply- if you are interested in becoming a poll worker in future elections go to the US Election Assistance Commission to learn more (some roles are paid!).

  1. First and most importantly, every single vote counts. It may sound like an adage, but it’s entirely true. For example, at the end of Election Day, our Dominion machine (one of the most common machines used by city and state officials to tally votes) tallied and printed out a total count receipt and showed that at least 2 local elections were within +/- 10 votes of one another. That’s, on average, two households of eligible voters determining which local candidate wins that particular precinct!

2. Mail-in ballots get counted in the same way in-person ballots do. (Shout out to the Boards of Registrars & Early Voting teams across the state that worked behind the scenes to mail out and receive thousands of ballots). In between local voters casting their ballots I stood at the ballot machine feeding +1,000 verified mail-in ballots. Can you tell the difference between a mail-in ballot and one cast in-person on election day? No.

3. Local police have complete control over the access of ballot machines. For example, in the event of a ballot jam, a local officer would need to be waived down and asked for that particular machine’s key set (there are 4 keys on each set- 3 for different insert slots on the machine, and 1 security card key). The officer stands by the machine he/she is accountable for until the issue is resolved.

4. Write-in candidates like “Elvis” and “Santa” and “Mickey Mouse” do not as a vote. At least in the state of Massachusetts, even write-in candidates need to declare their intention to run as “write-in only” candidates (famously, this past presidential election cycle, Kanye West secured write-in only status). That means only a select list (usually of 4–6 candidates) can be counted as “write-ins.”

5. Almost all poll workers I befriended referred to the start of their poll-working days according to which president was on the ballot when they first started. Helen, my compatriot election deputy, commonly referred to the start of her poll working days as “the Clinton days.”

6. It’s important to know which ward and precinct you are eligible to cast your vote in. This also entails knowing which city or town you are registered to vote in. There were at least 20 people I encountered who were registered to vote outside of the wards/precincts area they showed up to. Does this mean they couldn’t cast a ballot? No. Usually, this meant one of two options for the voter: 1. Find out where he/she registered to vote and go to that polling location or 2. Cast a provisional ballot and have the two towns/cities determine post-close of elections where to properly account for the ballot.

7. There were at least 10 different handbooks that poll-workers were expected to read through or have knowledge of. Some of the handbooks outlined how to set-up and break-down polling machines, while others walked-through how to cast provisionally. One handbook even outlined what kinds of clothing/politically charged articles were allowed in the voting location. Another enumerated the procedure on where to store “spoiled ballots” (ballots that were either accidentally damaged by the voter (a few too many Purell squirts) or had mistaken votes (for example, shading the wrong bubble or too many bubbles)).

8. Local police have sole discretion on how best to interpret the “150 feet rule.” This rule prohibits candidates and supporters/detractors from talking to or engaging with voters within a 150-foot parameter of the election building. On my lunch break, I noticed lines across a walkway that demarcated the beginning of the 150-feet rule. (While my particular voting building did not have any “watchers” or “voting viewers” these folks are allowed to be within a few feet of the actual ballot machine to ensure voting integrity.)

9. Bubbling in two-candidates on a single-candidate selection box is deemed an “over-vote.” This means that neither vote counts. I saw these countless times- I don’t think voters were trying to game the system; rather, they just failed to read the instructions.

10. Every single first-time voter (from the age of 23 to 65) made working as a poll worker on Election Day entirely worth the effort. I admired the children of recent immigrants who escorted their mother or father through the polls and were able to see the “ballot successfully cast” image for the first time. I was humbled to cast a slew of military ballots from soldiers stationed across the globe. Finally, all of the moms and dads who brought their children- you are raising the next generation of American voters, thank you.

As I reflect on my time as a poll worker, I am astonished by the huge amount of security and integrity that goes into making our democracy work. From the handbook compilers, to the election officials, to the local policewomen and men, and all my fellow poll workers- thank you!



Brian Larson

Brian is a graduate of The Fletcher School at Tufts University & lives and works in New York City .