Confessions of a first-time poll worker
What it was like working Election Day this week, plus a new cinnamon roll company, a Hot Sauce Hootenanny and what former Austinite Toni Tipton-Martin is doing with her Julia Child Award.
I worked the polls for the first time on Tuesday.
It was a relatively small election in terms of what was on the ballot, but all elections feel important when you’re the one setting up the voting stations.
On Austin’s ballot this week was a proposition to beef up Austin’s police force, which failed, and a land swap that will add parkland for public use, which passed. Plus eight amendments to the state constitution that were confusing even to the college-educated poll workers.
When my alarm went off at 5 a.m., I didn’t know what those results would be, of course, but I did know that an hour later, I had to be downtown so I could set up a polling station and participate in democracy in a very new way.
To me, at least. Millions of Americans work the polls anytime there’s a vote, but this was the first time I was on the other side of the check-in machine, handing out stickers and scanning drivers licenses.
From propositions and presidents, elections cover a lot of ground, more than I thought they did when I was a kid and thought that we only voted for people running for elected office. I didn’t realize that voters were asked to weigh in on questions, such as, should people be allowed to visit nursing homes, even in the middle of a pandemic?
I had a pretty good idea about what was on this year’s ballot when my friend Becky Bullard asked if I wanted to work the polls on Nov. 2.
As a member of the media, I was always working on Election Day during the past 16 years I’ve been in Austin, but this year, I worked and saw the election from a totally different perspective.
So, I showed up at the Dougherty Arts Center on Barton Springs Road at 6 a.m. to unpack the machines and set up the booths so that my fellow citizens could participate in democracy how most of us do: by exercising their right to vote.
I was there with a handful of fellow poll workers, each of us with varying experience, from Becky, who compares Election Day to Christmas, to Sarah, a mom from Midland who recently moved to Austin and whose only election experience was as a poll watcher at a school board election.
The fourth member of our merry band was Gary, a longtime Austinite whose wife brought him lunch from the Soup Peddler midday.
It turns out that Gary was a “soupie” when David Ansel first started his soup-by-bike operation.
That was one of many stories we all traded over the course of the surprisingly pleasant and laid-back day.
The hardest part was setting up the room and making sure everything was where it needed to be before the polls opened.
After we got the room set up, we could finally settle into what we were all there for: welcoming voters and helping them have a successful and enjoyable voting experience.
Voters came in a slow but steady stream until lunchtime, when the pace noticeably picked up.
When we had downtime, we’d talk about the lives that led us to this moment sitting in the same room together for anywhere from seven to 14 hours together.
Kids, where we grew up. Gary had read my stuff in the Statesman, and Becky and I have become friends this year, so we had lots of starting points for conversation, but I think the person who brought it all together was Sarah, whose perspective as a new and curious Austinite led to lots of different mini-conversations within this epic scene that we were filming in one long take.
After so many hours together, we commented on what a nice poll experience this had been. All the voters were easy to process, AND we were set up next to a new art exhibit from Austin artist B Shawn Cox. (More on that below.)
Getting along so well with your new poll worker friends was such an unexpected perk of the day. It topped finding out that I’d actually get paid to be there. (I thought it was a volunteer gig when I signed up, but it pays minimum wage.)
It was nice to be able to talk with folks in a neutral, civic and civil space, where none of us were explicit about our political leanings but we shared stories that revealed our values and even our vulnerabilities.
It was almost like we were sharing stories around a campfire with mixed company. Nobody wants to start a debate, but everybody wants to keep an interesting and perhaps even meaningful conversation going.
I had to leave at lunchtime so I could get some work done and pick up Avery from school, but as I was leaving, I felt exactly the opposite of how I thought I’d feel, which was a little bummed to be done.
I thought I’d be so ready to get out of there after that much time doing the same half a dozen tasks required to scan an ID, ask for a signature, print a ballot, hand it over. Try not to reference the finger cot in an inappropriate way. (Plenty of voters made that joke for me.)
It was repetitive, but each interaction with a voter was its own little treasure of an experience.
Voters who were on their way to or from a workout, lots of couples, at least one TV actor, a first-time voter (we clapped).
A couple of folks asked me how I was doing after the Statesman, which felt nice, but what felt really nice was being out and about, engaging in my community in a new way.
I’m already looking forward to the next election.
Maybe we can get the band back together.
Politics has, of course, changed significantly in the past 40 years, and I now live in a state and an era with a completely different political climate.
It’s a place where Becky, my friend who introduced me to working the polls, can host a Texorcism, a witchy activist gathering that featured a panel with Afiya Center founder Marsha Jones, Dyana Limon-Mercado of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes and Wendy Davis, who is working on a project called Deeds Not Words. (This was such a cool event right before Halloween. It was action-focused and full of courage. Gina Chavez performed. Sister Temperance gave us a tarot reading. Would recommend for next year.)
Austin’s a place where you can cast your vote in a city-run arts venue that has a new exhibit up for the upcoming Austin Studio Tour.
This is the epic arts event that combines the East Austin and West Austin studio tours. Through Nov. 21, you can check out art for free at hundreds of galleries around Austin, including the Dougherty Arts Center, where the Lubbock-born B Shawn Cox is showing pieces from his “Westward Faux!" series. (This exhibit is up through Nov. 17.)
Cox just so happened to be in the gallery on Tuesday for a photo shoot, so I got to chat with him about his blending of cowboys and burlesque dancers.
It was a happenstance thing that happens all the time when I get out of the house and away from my computer.
In that vein, here are some upcoming things I’m either hosting or hoping to check out:
Simple Promise Farms, the recovery-based farm in Elgin, is hosting a Hot Sauce Hootenanny from 4 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 13. with a hot sauce contest, hayrides, petting zoo, farm-themed photo booth, live music and a silent auction. Admission is $10, with proceeds funding addiction recovery scholarships. (Anyone can join the hot sauce competition! I know some seriously good hot sauce makers out there…)
I just found out about Cranky Grannys Sweet Rolls, a cinnamon roll company that Sianni Dean started in New Jersey when she was fresh out of high school. Now 22, she moved the company to Austin, where she ships cinnamon rolls around the country and has a recently opened storefront at the Domain.
I wanted to take a moment to celebrate Toni Tipton-Martin, author of “The Jemima Code” and the editor in chief of Cook’s Country, who was given the seventh Julia Child Award on Thursday, a prestigious honor for this former Austinite, who started her Jemima Code blog while working here.
A story in the New York Times this week revealed that she is transforming her SANDE Youth Project into the Toni Tipton-Martin Foundation to support future generations of women in food.
One of her first events is a virtual conversation called “Recovering Food Histories with Toni Tipton-Martin and Friends” that’s taking place at 11 a.m. CT on Friday, Nov. 12, where she’ll talk with A’Lelia Bundles, who is the great-great-granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker, the noted Black entrepreneur. Also joining are Padma Lakshmi and Sandra Gutierrez.
That’s all the food news I’ve got for you this week!
Thanks for your Substack support, and I’ll see you next week with more from The Feminist Kitchen.
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