It was 4:38 in the morning when I pulled in to the United Methodist Church parking lot. Outside was still dark, with no traces of incoming daylight. Many churchgoers attend Sunday services here and various other venues offered. But on November 4, the Church served another unique function as a voting precinct for the City of Williamsburg. The City splits into two voting precincts: Stryker and Matoaka (formerly known as Berkeley. This was changed last year).
I got out and walked towards the back doors. Locked. I peaked inside and saw the lights were on at the main reception room. I walked around and tried the front doors. No success. I was the first one there, strangely and thankfully. My biggest fear was sleeping past the alarm, and it is a legitimate fear, at least for the Tribe community. I even have trouble getting up sometimes for my 9AM classes.
“Okay,” I thought sheepishly, “I can go back to my car and lie down for a bit.” This proved unnecessary. By 4:50, the Chief Elections Officer and an Electoral Board representative, Tom, came and unlocked the doors. As I got out of my car, I saw a familiar figure walking ahead of me.
“Dwayne!” I yelled out. He turned and his sleepish face brightened up.
“Benny! Great to see you again my man.”
This was not the first time I volunteered as an Officer of Election. I served my freshman year, or as many would remember a presidential election day. Some would say it was Obama’s re-election victory, and their counterparts would note it was a Mitt Romney defeat. I will always remember that day as my first year eligible to vote, and what better way than to be part of the process too? It was an opportunity I was proud to skip classes for (Disclaimer: I don’t recommend anyone skipping classes, although I did it again this year too) and one that would cement my interest in getting engaged in politics.
Election Officers consist of generally the same volunteers, so there is a lot of familiarity that amounts to good chemistry. You may not expect it, but working well together is vital to ensuring a fair process for voters. We rely on each other’s experiences and knowledge to address numerous issues that may happen, such as voting machine malfunctions to voter complaints. This year, new voting laws required a valid state or federally issued photo identification. All day, a few would rumble about the new process: “It’s highly illegal,” or “I don’t like this new law. Why do we have to do this?”
This 5am to 8pm job, as grueling as the hours sound, go by fast when you have the chance to interact with voters, especially when most are your peers. As the day passed, I was excited to see the student turnout. My political action committee, The StudentImpact, had a “Rock the Vote” event joined along with Common Sense Action, Young Democrats, and the College Republicans. I would drift and think about how the event was going throughout the day.
Otherwise, among ourselves, we generally kept good company and learned more about each other. One served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Forces and Operations many years ago, playing a principle role in restructuring our nation’s special force operations. Now retired, he told me he liked to keep busy, going lengths as a substitute teacher to volunteering in his community. Tom, an Electoral Board representative, would come to me from time to time and joke with me, quoting Bill Cosby’s “Noah” segment. In addition, I saw my neighbors, friends, other William & Mary students, professors, and Councilmen.
The best part is the very end, when polls close and our team huddles to report the results. There is a specific process we go through when submitting our results to the Clerk of the Circuit Court, such as filling out the ‘Statement of Results’ form. Overall, we had about 1800 votes casted out of the 5400 possible in the Matoaka precinct. This roughly translated to a 33% voter turnout – something we were all pleased with. At the end of the day, I was glad to see just as many students come as residents had. It’s a little corny to admit this, but everyone’s voice through the ballot is important. Serving as an Elections Officer has reinforced my perspective that voting is important.
It’s a single day job that I would credit for changing my life, and that day solidified the urgency to get peers from my generation to vote and to engage with our democratic process to some capacity. You can hear or read about voter turnout strategies, poll watching, opposition research, or campaign strategy, but it all ends with casting your ballot. You may complain about gerrymandering or voter identification laws, but your voices are heard when you cast the ballot, when voting on a statewide issue referendum or candidate with a platform you like. Above all, civic engagement starts with a dialogue, and voting ultimately perpetuates what impacts citizen’s everyday lives.