During the midterm elections, millions of polling stations operated across the United States, helping citizens register to vote and submit their ballots. The state of Ohio alone held hundreds of stations, with dozens often located in a single county. For the average person, a polling station is the most accessible representation of democracy, and these locations couldn’t function without the teams of overworked and underappreciated poll workers staffing them.
Linda Williams has been a poll worker in Ohio for 42 years, usually working out of a senior center in the suburban neighborhood of Forest Park. She thinks her profession’s role is to transcend politics. “When you’re in the polling location,” said Williams, “kind of make it a neutral zone.” Even so, Williams enjoys being part of the process. “When issues come about, I’m able to help solve the issue.” One hour away, Pat Brown, a first-time poll worker, tabulated votes inside Langsam Library, which serves as the polling station for the University of Cincinnati and its surrounding neighborhood, Clifton. Brown sees poll workers as a reassuring presence for prospective voters. Far from being unknown government officials, polling station staff are often ordinary people—neighbors, friends, and colleagues. “It’s beautiful,” said one poll worker exiting the polling station in St. Mark AME Zion Church. “These people have known each other for years.”
But since 2016, Donald Trump and his allies have spawned a culture of paranoia, fear, and resentment against the electoral process, resulting in threats toward poll workers like Williams and Brown. Election officials now face unprecedented levels of harassment, hate mail, and death threats. Allegations of fraud have created a cottage industry of far-right influencers spreading election denialism, centering their platform on Trump’s being the legitimate president. J.D Vance, the Trump-endorsed Republican who will become Ohio’s new senator in January, claimed that there was insurmountable fraud leading to Joe Biden’s presidential victory, accusing Mark Zuckerberg of “buying up local boards of elections in battleground states of mostly Democratic areas.”
According to the Brennan Center, over 400 voter restriction bills were proposed in 35 state legislatures under the guise of “election integrity.” Right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation have begun intervening in the lawmaking process, drafting voter suppression bills in Georgia, Florida, and Iowa, according to Mother Jones. This has made poll workers the latest Republican boogeyman. There have been “a lot of conspiracies,” surrounding his profession, said Miles Hensley, a poll worker in Langsam. Hensley emphasized that such theories are “not the case,” and asked that any concerned parties simply “observe how election counting is being upheld by poll workers.” In October, the Columbus City Council voted to criminalize these threats, with a three-day jail sentence for anyone caught harassing a poll worker. “The execution of free and fair elections is an obligation for elected officials, but that will become increasingly challenging if residents fear that they will face harassment for their service.” Similar measures have passed in other cities in Ohio, including Akron and Cleveland.
On November 7, the Justice Department announced that it would monitor polls in 24 states, including Cuyahoga County in Ohio, for complaints of “disruption” as well as “violence, threats of violence or intimidation.” But after Election Day, many within the Republican Party continued to amplify disinformation around the midterms, hoping to sow doubt in the results of races they might lose. After a voting machine irregularity in Arizona, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Donald Trump, and an assortment of other far-right figures claimed that the statewide elections were being stolen. In Maricopa County alone, there were 18 instances of voter intimidation reported to law enforcement by Election Day. In Louisiana, a bomb threat to one polling station forced its relocation.
Although living in a red state, Sheryl Charleston voted “mostly Democrat.” Despite losing more races than expected nationally, Republicans still did well in Ohio on Election Day, holding the governorship, state legislature, and state Supreme Court. But even with national Democratic success and a widespread rejection of many “stop the steal” candidates, antidemocratic conspiracy theories remain, and will likely become more prominent as far-right candidates attempt to contest results in battleground races. “We’re now on the verge of losing our democracy,” Charleston said. “We’re on that threshold right now.”