Poll position: How being a poll worker teaches true strategic communications.
July 8, 2021
After two stints as a local poll worker, Huge’s communications manager Molly Levine reveals professional lessons from the calm and chaos of election days.
The 2021 New York Mayoral Primary Election took place on Tuesday, June 21st, and I volunteered as a poll worker. This was my second time volunteering, after participating in the Presidential Election in 2020.
The first time I made the decision to volunteer was during the summer of 2020—the early months of the pandemic. There was a call for low-risk community members to step up and spare what is typically an older volunteer base from working and being exposed to the virus. On the surface, it seemed like an accessible way for me to help during what was a difficult time. As a communications professional with almost a decade of industry experience, I believed my skill set was well suited to the task:
I’m used to representing an institution in an official capacity.
I’m used to distilling large amounts of technical information and explaining it in an uncomplicated way.
I’m used to multi-tasking, being a team player and working with people.
As it turned out, being a poll worker was one of the more professionally challenging experiences of my entire year.
Not only is it a long day that starts around 4 a.m. and ends around 10 p.m., but it also brought me out of my comfort zone from behind a laptop and put me right in the field during a fast-paced and emotional time. Yet, at the same time, it was exactly what I needed to recenter my career goals as a professional communicator. The experience of working at my local polling station during the 2020 Presidential Election was so valuable, I did it again for the New York City Mayoral Primary.
Here’s what I have learned (so far!) from working as a poll worker, and why it is important for professional communicators to keep it in mind:
The world is made up of lots of different people.
While great team work can often be built by collaborating with people who hold similar values, it is equally as important to keep a firm grasp on how people with alternative points of view think and feel about current events—especially people with whom you don’t think you will ever agree. Real change can only be made when disparate groups come together on a shared goal. So, it is important to put yourself in situations where you’re meeting new people. To know is to understand, to understand is to empathize, and empathy is the most crucial ingredient of all communications-led efforts. This may sound obvious, but oftentimes in the advertising industry, it can be forgotten and lead to work that at best is effective in a bubble, and at worst, offends and isolates people.
You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone to make other people comfortable.
Polling stations can be very stimulating, and a prime challenge is connecting with people at a time when they are distracted, frustrated, or waiting. It’s therefore important to find a way to share our humanity, even in less ideal moments. To do this, you may need to approach situations that require different ways of communicating.
Typically, it seems people are either the type of communicator who talks, or the type of communicator who listens. In order to bridge the gap, I challenge you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes: leave space for silence if you feel an urge to talk over someone, or push yourself to ask questions if your impulse is to just nod and smile.
No matter what type of communicator you are, it is important to see that a successful conversation is an equal one.
Not everyone is going to like you.
The sooner you make peace with this, the better. There’s no other way to wrap your head around this than experiencing 100 rapid-fire interactions at a polling station in succession, and having 75% of them go great and 25% of them be uncomfortable or awkward.
Rather than stress the bad interactions, take comfort in the fact that statistically, it’s factually probable that there’s always just going to be some people in your life who won’t like you no matter what, and there’s nothing you can do except accept it.
Humans are imperfect by design.
We’re not machines, and even machines aren’t perfect. Trust me, in the field we learned exactly what to do in case the ballot scanners got jammed.
Prior to my experience working as a poll worker, most of my day-to-day work at the office was done asynchronously from behind a screen, which makes it much easier to “talk” to people. For example, I’m able to re-read my emails before I send them and even edit my Slack messages after they’ve been sent, all to ensure that my communications are properly positioned to the best of my abilities.
But in the field, things move quickly and it’s impossible to anticipate or to handle every social interaction perfectly. Rather than laying awake at night thinking about how when a voter said to you, “Thanks for volunteering as a poll worker”, you said, “you too!” take pleasure in the fact that life is not scripted or edited, and that there’s beauty (and good stories) in the imperfections.
The best interactions are those done in person.
This specific lesson came to me in two parts.
The first part of this lesson relates to how much easier it is to solve a problem when you connect with someone in person. While poll working in the New York Primary, I encountered more than a handful of voters who wanted to vote, made time out of their day to come to the poll site, did their due diligence in researching the candidates to make an informed decision, yet, were not registered appropriately in order to participate in this specific contest. (For those of you who don’t know, in order to vote in a New York primary, you must be registered as a Democrat or a Republican. If you don’t know your registration status, you can go to https://www.usa.gov/confirm-voter-registration ahead of an election to confirm). When this situation came up, I was grateful for the opportunity to explain what was happening in person, answer any questions the prospective voter may have had, and provide solutions including a paper document that the voter could fill out on the spot to change their status - if that was the appropriate decision for the individual in order to be registered appropriately for the next election. Most importantly, I also had the chance to thank the person for their effort and interest in coming, while doubling down on encouragement for them to continue exercising their civil right to vote.
The second part of this lesson came to me from within. I realized that in order to reach new levels of success, people must seek alternative professional experiences to grow. If, like me, you’re used to writing press releases or building media strategies, I urge you to not get complacent behind your computer. Instead, put yourself back into the real world to authentically interact with your community, and do it often. In person, lessons can meet you immediately instead of being built over time. I gained so much knowledge in two days as a poll worker, it was the kind of irreplaceable life lesson you can only get from going outside of your comfort zone and your daily routine.