Black Poll Workers Need Protecting to Keep America’s Democracy Working

By Ishena Robinson

Deputy Editorial Director

Black people have long served as guardians of a democracy that continues to marginalize them. This critical and increasingly risky election work mandates sustained investment and support.

I proudly cast my first ballot in an American election in the fall of 2020, after becoming a naturalized United States citizen just a year earlier. Then, and again in subsequent elections, exercising my vote in the shaping of this nation’s democracy felt like a milestone occasion and an urgent imperative. And, as a new American, the experience also provided an opportunity for continued learning about all that makes up the story of the United States of America — including the many people who are essential to the functioning of this nation’s democracy. 

When voting in these elections, I observed that most of the people working at my polling locations appeared to be older women. I also noted that these poll workers were overwhelmingly Black. In the riotous aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, during which deliberate misinformation fueled the “Big Lie” that the election results were fraudulent, poll workers became targets for harassment and violent threats seemingly overnight. In fact, in its investigation of the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — another violent consequence of the Big Lie — the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol made a point to highlight this lesser-known, but deeply disturbing consequence of intentional election misinformation campaigns. 

During a June 2022 committee hearing, Georgia poll workers Shaye Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman — both Black women — delivered harrowing testimony detailing the ramifications of the Trump presidential campaign’s targeted effort to malign them and other Fulton County election workers with false accusations that they had meddled with 2020 election ballots. The women described how these incendiary lies — including an egregious claim that a surveillance video had captured them illicitly handling a USB device to supposedly tamper with votes, when the item in question was in fact a piece of candy — led to them being inundated with racist messages and death threats, harassed at home, and forced to quit their jobs as election workers despite their years of dedicated service. Moss also told the committee that there was no permanent election worker or supervisor remaining at the Fulton County Board of Elections who was among those featured in the video that became a lightning rod for these false accusations of fraud. Meanwhile, Freeman chillingly told congressional investigators, “There is nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere.”  

The increasingly hostile environment that poll workers like Moss and Freeman are enduring has stark implications for American elections moving forward, as participating in this critical frontline role could mean that workers are put at risk of facing political violence. And the data underscores that there is reason for worry.  

A 2021 Benenson Strategy Group survey of local election officials found that one in three were concerned about feeling unsafe or being harassed because of their job, and one in six had been threatened because of their job. This sobering reality lies on top of the fact that municipalities already struggle with poll worker recruitment, a concern that prompted the formation of National Poll Worker Recruitment Day in 2020. Poll workers also tend to be older, which means that the current base of poll workers may age out of the program in the next few years. Therefore, how can we ensure that this essential election support work, and the proud tradition of Black Americans who carry it out, is respected, invested in, and protected?  

“I’ve lost my name and I’ve lost my reputation. I’ve lost my sense of security. All because a group of people ... decided to scapegoat me and my daughter Shaye to push their own lies about how the presidential election was stolen."

- Ruby Freeman

The History of Black People as Poll Workers

Black Americans have always fought to make the ideals of America’s founding democracy true, as author and activist Nikole Hannah-Jones emphasized in her renowned work, “The 1619 Project.” The successful movement to secure the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, after a sustained, multi-pronged, and often bloody effort, is perhaps the clearest example of Black people’s commitment to a democracy that continues to cruelly marginalize, if not outright exclude them. As LDF Digital Archivist Ashton Wingate explains in an interview for this piece, in the aftermath of the VRA’s passage and amid the very real threat of white backlash, “Black voters came out in force, not only to vote but to participate in all aspects of the electoral process.”  

This demonstrative participation often took the form of Black people serving as poll workers and poll monitors. These roles were especially critical as white jurisdictions in the 1960s worked to sideline Black voters in insidious ways despite, and even in reaction to, the freedoms they had won to exercise their voting rights under the law.  

Recruiting and uplifting Black poll workers and monitors in the post VRA-era was a key concern for those who had fought to make the VRA a reality, as shown in a number of reports published by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Black political participation in the years immediately following the legislation’s passage: “In areas where Negro election officials have not been appointed, or where Negroes appointed to serve as election officials identified with the white community, poll watchers are considered to be the only resource through which Negro candidates can monitor the election process to deter irregularities and to identify instances of racial discrimination and vote fraud.”  

Black poll workers and monitors surveyed by the commission between 1965 and 1975 reported witnessing registered Black and Latinx voters being harassed by election officials, removed from voting lists, erroneously told that they were not registered to vote, given inadequate and incorrect voting instructions, and denied the opportunity to cast an absentee ballot. Other problems included white election officials refusing to admit voters with low literacy to voting locations or offer them assistance, as well as failing to provide adequate and safe voting locations for Black voters — sometimes relegating them to cast ballots in areas notorious for racial intimidation.  

A group of Black people raise their hands as they take an oath during a voter registration drive on June 18, 1966. (Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images)

At the same time, racial discrimination played out in the distribution of power across election work roles. “Even when minorities do work as poll workers, they are generally not in supervisory positions … the choice of poll workers is made by election officials who are almost always white,” reads the 1975 report, “The Voting Rights Act: Ten Years Later.” 

Though an inquiry to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency that manages the poll worker program, yielded no racial demographic data about the historical makeup of election workers, it’s evident that generations of Black Americans have exhibited their commitment to American democracy by contributing to its formal functioning as election workers — and, of course, in many other ways.  

Election Defenders Today

Cece Huddleston, a Trainer for LDF’s Prepared to Vote and Voting Rights Defender projects, comes from a family of election workers — a tradition that she has continued to build upon, initially by working in her hometown of Detroit as a trainer for precinct workers and volunteers. “There’s a million and one pieces that go into making an Election Day successful,” Huddleston explains in an interview with LDF.  

As a trainer employed by the Department of Elections in Detroit, she often worked 12-hour days — starting when polls opened at 7 a.m. and continuing long after polls would close to coordinate the securing of ballot boxes and their safe delivery to receiving boards, including documenting their serial numbers in poll books.  

When asked who would typically show up to be trained as election workers in Detroit, Huddleston’s response matched my own observations. “The largest amount of people who come out are mainly elderly Black women, and these are folks who’ve been working the polls for decades,” Huddleston says.  

And the political for these workers is truly personal.  

“Yes, it’s their civic duty, that is important, and protecting democracy is important. But I think being invested in America can look different within the Black community,” Huddleston continues. “It wasn’t like ‘I have to protect democracy.’  It was like, ‘this is my ‘hood.’ It’s having that familiarity with your city, with your neighborhood. Like, ‘I know these people — I can tell you if you’re in the right precinct because I know you live on Rosemont.’”  

Cece Huddleston talks with voters in Selma, Alabama in March 2022. (Amanda Voisard for LDF)

Among those doing this community work are Huddleston’s own parents. “My father was born in 1959 — definitely before the age of computers — and he takes so much pride in being an electronic poll worker. He’s really proud that he knows how to work the computer in order to help look up voters in their address book.”  

“My mother is also a poll worker, and she typically works for the receiving board,” Huddleston adds. “She transitioned from being a poll worker in front of voters to serving in [Detroit’s] convention center counting absentee ballots, because that’s where the need was greatest. That’s also a pretty long and daunting day.”  

Daunting is an apt description of the scene at Detroit’s TCF Center on election night in 2020, where Huddleston’s parents hunkered down and kept working as a mob of people, driven by dangerous lies suggesting there was malfeasance in the vote, battered on the doors and bellowed at election workers as they were counting ballots. Those same lies about the votes cast and counted for president in 2020 would culminate in a bloody scene at the U.S. Capitol just a couple of months later.  

“You go back and look at videos from 2020 with those folks who were not Black, who were not from Detroit, and who were banging on the convention center doors and trying to fight security guards and literally rioting after the presidential race was being called in 2020. And my parents were in the convention center. It was terrifying to watch,” she says.  

“You go back and look at videos from 2020 with those folks who were not Black, who were not from Detroit, and who were banging on the convention center doors and trying to fight security guards and literally rioting after the presidential race was being called in 2020. And my parents were in the convention center. It was terrifying to watch."

- CeCe Huddleston

Jovun Perry collects ballots from drivers as voters drop off their ballots or vote in person at the city of Detroit Department of Elections office on Nov. 2, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Path Forward: Supporting Poll Workers

Even outside of potential threats of violence, other barriers to equal participation contribute to the blunting of Black political participation on both sides of the ballot box.  

“You’re going to find more accessibility issues in Black neighborhoods,” explains Huddleston, who I worked alongside as a poll monitor in Huntsville, Alabama on Election Day 2022. And, indeed, the majority of the problems we observed and reported in the region involved polling location inaccessibility. These issues included, for example, polling locations not having enough parking spaces or not supplying ramps for people with disabilities to be able to get into their precinct locations and vote. “When you have those infrastructure issues, it is always reflected in elections,” says Huddleston.  

While everyday Americans continue to show up to carry out critical election work, as well as to close the gaps in our democracy through innovative efforts of their own, there is still much more that can be done in our established systems of governance to ensure no poll worker suffers what Moss and Freeman endured. Investment — in the physical infrastructure of communities of color, as well as in all aspects of election programming, from the payment poll workers receive and resources to protect them from harassment — is key moving to forward.  

“Resources, support, and funding — when you have those, you can hire more people to do the tasks so that you have improved capacity to pay attention to detail,” echoes Huddleston.  

Policy experts point to similar pathways for bolstering the protection of election workers and election security overall. While the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an Election Threats Taskforce composed of federal law enforcement agencies to investigate election security following the 2020 election, think tanks like the Bipartisan Policy Center are encouraging the DOJ to take more concrete actions, including providing specific guidance to local law enforcement, state partners, and front line election officials on how to report and address these threats under already-available federal laws. The Brennan Center for Justice has also called on social media platforms to develop more rigorous rules to limit the spread of misinformation on their platforms, and on states to pass new laws and devote funds toward personal security for election workers.  

In its final report released in December 2022, the January 6th Committee outlined its own recommendations for protecting future election workers from experiencing the threats that dedicated public servants like Moss and Freeman have weathered in recent years. Explicitly describing the targeting of the women as “reckless [and] racist” with threats and harassment that “evoked racial violence and lynching,” the committee called on Congress to enhance federal penalties for threats against election workers — and to do more to keep workers’ personally identifiable information protected.  

The need for more federal leadership is evident, as some states are further along in establishing mechanisms to protect election workers than others. Pointing to the attempted kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Huddleston says, “Unfortunately, we have elected officials who are in the same situation [like in Michigan], so they are taking things seriously. The scary part is that in states like Georgia, I don’t know if [election workers] have folks on the state level looking out for them. Maybe in Fulton County, maybe in the city of Atlanta, specifically, maybe in Macon — but the state as a whole? Having state actors who are invested in your protection, in your future. That’s a game changer.”  

Poll workers must be recognized for the essential service to our nation that they provide. It’s up to all of us to ensure that these stewards of our democracy — and our communities — are themselves protected.  

Header Photo: People wait to check into the Detroit Department of Elections Central Counting Board Voting at TCF Center on Nov. 4, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Published: January 5, 2023