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An Arizona journalist spent primary election day as a poll worker. Here's what he saw

By Hank Stephenson/Arizona Agenda
Published: Thursday, September 15, 2022 - 1:10pm
Updated: Saturday, September 17, 2022 - 1:26pm

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As a longtime local political journalist, Hank Stephenson is used to hanging around polling places on election day. But this year, the co-founder of the Arizona Agenda decided to see what it’s like on the other side.

Last month he took a gig as a poll worker — and let’s just say that primary election day was a memorable one. Here is Hank’s story:

Voting booths
Jimmy Jenkins/KJZZ
Maricopa County voting booths.

I decided to become a poll worker for probably the same reason that most people do: some sense of civic duty or curiosity or the $13 an hour that they pay you.

As a political reporter, I usually spend election day getting shooed away from polling places while trying to explain to poll workers that I’m allowed to be there. At the end of the night, I write up the scores and head to the parties to watch the winners celebrate and the losers sulk.

I’m guessing it’s similar to how a sports reporter spends Super Bowl Sunday.

But this year, I spent Aug. 2 covering the primary election from the other side of the line 75 feet from the polling station that divides the press and the poll workers.

After three hours of training, I got a call from the county telling me I was now qualified to actually work inside a polling place.

Instead of a stinking high school gym, I was stationed at the Phoenix Art Museum. So far, so good.

Our marshal never showed up, so I jumped at the chance to play cop for a day and patrol the grounds for reporters and politicians, or anyone else who wasn’t there to vote, lollygagging on the wrong side of the 75-foot line.

As marshal, I also had the all-important job of shouting: “Hear ye, hear ye: The polls are now open” when the polls opened. At the end of the day, I would also warn the people of the town square that the polls were closing.

There was never really a line on Election Day because most people just dropped off mail-in ballots. But hundreds of people streamed through in the first few hours.

Hank Stephenson
Katie Campbell/KJZZ
Hank Stephenson

Poll workers aren’t supposed to talk about politics. But of course we did. Not in front of the voters — but as we stood around in the slower hours, the election did come up.

I initially figured all my fellow poll workers were liberal do-gooders, or at least that none believed the conspiracies about the 2020 election.

That wasn’t the case.

One woman, probably in her 60s, explained that she liked Trump because America was falling apart especially because of the invasion of illegal immigrants, and that we needed a strong man to fix it.

She believed that the 2020 election was rigged. But it was clear she didn't really understand elections — and she saw potential conspiracies everywhere she looked.

She was confused by the concept of a primary election, and I had to explain that Republican voters could only vote among a field of Republican candidates and Democrats could only vote for Democrat candidates because the primary was each party’s way of whittling down their fields to one nominee to represent them on the November ballot.

She asked if in November, voters who are registered Democrats can vote for a Republican candidate or vice versa. That’s how we started talking about how she supports Trump.

Besides believing the election was rigged, she also told me she believed the county IT worker who had joined us Monday was an undercover cop, and she told a long story about how a Russian construction crew was tunneling under her apartment complex parking lot. And when she called the police, everything got swept under the rug. That’s how she knows the government is corrupt and our elections can be stolen.

When the polls closed at 7 p.m., I shouted my last “hear ye.” It took another hour or two to break down the polling station and pack up all the voting booths and the computers and printers, then — in a complicated process — delivered the ballots.

All that was left was to wait for results.

Working the polls is one of the harder jobs I’ve ever done. There are no shifts — everyone works from sunrise to after sunset. You’re not allowed to leave, even for lunch. I was exhausted, and I was the youngest poll worker in my group — most were retirees.

Nearly 1.5 million Arizonans voted in the August primary, about a third of the electorate. In November, that number will more than double.

And me? I’ll be back at the polls in November — on one side of that 75-foot line or the other.

Maricopa County is still recruiting people for the November election. If you want to become a poll worker, head to getinvolved.maricopa.vote.

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