Being a Poll Worker during COVID-19

By: Rachel Burckhardt
November 16, 2020
Posted in:
Est. Reading Time: 2 minutes
A California poll worker sanitizes a voting booth following its use at a Voter Assistance Center in Davis, CA during the 2020 General Election.
Our "Postcards" series shares the experiences of engineers and scientists who are taking early steps toward local engagement.
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Tell us about yourself. I am a microbiologist and science communicator with a Ph.D. in microbiology who lives in Bethesda, Maryland. I work for the American Society for Microbiology to help connect scientists to the latest information on COVID-19 and the virus SARS-CoV-2. I am also a volunteer on ESAL’s social media team.

What did you do? I volunteered as a poll worker for the first time for the 2020 general election. Many typical poll workers are older individuals. Through my work on the COVID-19 Research Registry, I knew this group would be at high-risk for the disease and may not work on Election Day. Since voting is integral to our democracy, I wanted to make sure there were enough poll workers on Election Day to ensure everyone could vote. 

Rachel Burckhardt

What happened? I never worked an election—or even voted in Maryland at that point—so the training really helped me learn about the local process. Because of COVID-19, there were fewer polling locations but residents could go anywhere in the county to vote. That meant our polling location could serve voters from any of the 251 precincts in the county, with each precinct having its own ballot.

On Election Day, I checked that each voter had the correct paper ballot and explained how to fill out the ballot correctly. COVID-19 precautions meant everyone had to wear a mask and there were Plexiglas dividers between the voter and myself. Yet, even with everyone wearing a mask, I could still see the joy in each voter’s face as they went off to cast their ballot. It was great to see all the people come out and vote in spite of a pandemic. 

What did you learn? Before this election, I never thought about how much work it takes to prepare for and hold an election. But after hours of pre-election training online and in-person, as well as time devoted to set-up and tear-down, I now have a greater appreciation for anyone who volunteers to help make elections happen. Our chief judges (the experienced volunteers who ‘run’ the polling location) ensured that everything went smoothly and kept our spirits up and made the long day fun. Plus, this was a great opportunity to meet other volunteers from the community and learn more about local events. I am already looking forward to volunteering in 2022!

I think my favorite part was witnessing the results of science in action. I read about COVID-19 and the virus that causes the disease every day, but I do not see the impact of the science in people’s lives daily. Seeing the information about masks and transmission put into action to ensure voter safety was really inspiring. As scientists, we want to make sure what we learn helps others. By wearing a mask and practicing good hand hygiene, we can put into practice the knowledge of science and protect each other and our community.

Interested in sharing your story? Tell us about a local engagement you participated in here. You can find guidance on how to craft your postcard here.

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 11/16/20
Updated: 02/7/22
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