I Worked the Polls During the 2021 "Off-Year" Election: Here's Why It Matters
For as long as I can remember, I’ve gone with my mom to vote in every election. We would squeeze into the voting booth and press the button simultaneously as we made our selections. But this year was different. Instead of going with my mom to vote, I woke up to a 4:30 a.m. alarm and dragged myself to my local recreational center, where I spent the next fifteen hours. This long day of poll working consisted of Starbucks coffee, granola bars, and lots of standing around doing nothing. For most of the day, I walked back and forth between the entrance and voting booths, directing voters and repeating the same shpil: “Make sure when you’re done you hit the print button and take your ballot to the ballot boxes at the exit.” On my lunch break, I raced home to maximize my down time, just to turn around again forty five minutes later to get back for the eight long hours to go in my shift. I chose to work at the polls this year because I wanted to contribute to the election in some way, and I’m unable to vote. I knew that my county always struggles to get enough poll workers for elections, and COVID-19 only exacerbated the lack of volunteers. Although in the back of my mind I knew I was supporting the democratic process, I still couldn't shake the feeling that my working the polls meant very little in the long run. Looking back now and after reflecting on the many Jewish activists before me, I realize that I couldn't have been more wrong.
During my time at my poll working location, I learned that pretty much no one shows up to vote during non-presidential or midterm election years. In my county of Columbus, Ohio, less than 25% of registered voters cast a ballot in this election. I’ll be honest: I was a part of the 75% who saw this year’s election as pointless at first. I didn’t know any of the names on the ballots and I didn’t see the importance of these small elections. Nevertheless, I thought that poll working might make me feel like I was making a difference. Instead, working the polls felt like only a drop in the bucket. Last year, I wrestled with my personal activism, wondering if anything I did even mattered, and that day felt no different. As last year's election came and went and my disillusionment peaked, however, I recalled all of the Jewish women who fought to get the right to vote. At some point during their battles, they must have also felt lost or worried that their work didn’t matter.
When I first think of famous suffragettes, figures like Jane Addams and Susan B. Anthony immediately came to mind. But there were also so many incredible Jewish women who fought for women’s voting rights that aren’t as well known. For example, Belle Winestine helped start the women’s suffrage movement in Montana. Winestine and other suffragists went up and down streets in Montana handing out brochures and waving banners. Although passing out literature could be seen as a minor action, Winestine’s work centered and spread the demands from women in political debates in Montana.
Ida Ginsburg, another Jewish activist, was the founder and president of the Jewish Women’s club at her synagogue, which later became the Detroit chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. Ginsburg died before the suffrage movement peaked in the 1900s, but her early advocacy and her work to establish a women’s group helped grow a community dedicated to women's suffrage in Detroit.
As I have struggled with feeling like I am not doing enough with my activism, learning about Winestein and Ginsburg helped me see that small steps have the potential to change lives. Both of these women spent years fighting for the right to vote, and faced backlash and setbacks because they were women standing up for what they believed was right. I think that the 75% of voters who didn’t vote in my county may have also felt lost; but I now urge everyone to reevaluate their views on voting and get out and vote like their lives depend on it—because they do.
In the wake of my own discouragement, I couldn’t help but wonder how those women maintained their motivation and persevered. Even more inspiring is the fact that there were thousands of other women, both Jewish and non-Jewish, across the country fighting in their own communities for the right to vote. They didn’t view their actions as too small, or give up when it got hard. Instead, they fought as ferociously as they could to secure their end goal. Learning about these women reminded me to push away my disillusionment about the election and to no longer view my activism as pointless—instead, I realize it’s necessary for the betterment of my community.
As I reflect on my experience working at the polls, I now understand that I contributed in a meaningful way to my community by helping to make voting easy and accessible. While it was undeniably dreadful to spend the whole day gnawing on granola bars and standing on my feet, I’ve realized that small actions like working the polls have extraordinary, long-term impacts. Likewise, spending ten minutes casting a ballot may seem like a minor action, but making your voice heard through your vote is the most crucial component of our democracy. Going with my mom every year to vote has not only been a fun family tradition for me, it has also shown me the importance of women helping women take part in democracy. The suffrage activism of our Jewish foremothers should be honored, and there’s no better way to thank them than by voting in the next election. Whether you’re old enough to cast a ballot, spend time phone banking, or even just tell a friend about a candidate you’re excited about, both large-scale and small-scale activism makes a difference. So, until the next election when I’m finally eighteen and can cast my own vote, I’m going to do everything in my power to address the 75% and encourage everyone to recognize that small-scale activism can be valuable and inspiring.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Fried, Georgia. "I Worked the Polls During the 2021 "Off-Year" Election: Here's Why It Matters." 10 January 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 30, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/i-worked-polls-during-2021-year-election-heres-why-it-matters>.