Around my junior high school years, my parents left the house before the sun emerged on Election Day. They returned “by seven, after working the polls,” the note, written in Dad’s hieroglyphics, said. When the fire alarm wailed at 6 p.m, as it did every night, I had an hour to get home.
Election Day was special for my mother and father. Both were raised by Italian immigrants. Three of their four parents became U.S. citizens. My parents were proud of their origins and their endpoints. They volunteered for elections as a means to give back.
Inspired by them, I learned to work political campaigns, host fundraisers and hand out candidate flyers in the sheering November rain. But I never applied to work the polls – until now.
Amidst this year’s chaos, many prefer to leapfrog the rest of 2020. Yet first, we must hurtle ourselves over the handling of the pandemic, absentee voting, and post office shenanigans, obstacles designed to confound and misdirect the ordinary voter – people like my parents, if they were alive, older generations, or those disenfranchised for whom English is a barrier.
In some states, like Virginia, voters require someone to witness their signature on an absentee ballot. No one observed while I signed my name to an absentee ballot. To borrow a phrase, I am who I say I am. In other states, like Ohio, one needs to apply to receive a ballot. Ohio’s Hamilton County GOP mailed flyers (they still believe I’m Republican) that contained a request for absentee ballot application – without postage paid for return.
This is a political moment, like the derecho that tore through Iowa, where pervasive and fast-moving misinformation and disenfranchisement moves over a great swath of land and leaves tremendous damage in its wake.
Voters who live alone, are disabled, or are visually-impaired, often require in-person help by election officials. Some voters distrust technology (technology can only be as perfect as the person who programs it). Others are distrustful of it all.
Then there’s me.
Belonging to a cohort not obliged to homeschool children or care for aging parents, I also work from home and will continue to do so. Standing in this Venn diagram of demographics, I have a chance to make things right.
I don’t just mean for Election Day, but to make amends for the past.
Though I was raised in what any white, middle-class 12-year-old kid thinks of as peacetime, it wasn’t for so many. The Tulsa Massacre was deadly, yet there were thousands of other small cuts to humanity along the way.
For instance, in my hometown of Amherst, Ohio, known for its sandstone, sandstone was its own metaphor for people who were acceptable or not. By the time I attended high school, the number of Black kids there I could name on one finger. In the 1980 census, 0 Black residents were counted out of a population of around 10,000.
James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” claims, in many states, most towns were sundown towns, named because Black people were expected to return to their homes before a certain time.
Back in Amherst, a fire alarm keening at 6 p.m. indicated dinnertime. At that same hour, Black people were escorted from municipalities across the U.S. There is anecdotal evidence supporting Amherst as a sundown town, even if those actions were not codified. Every white community had echoes of racism in it. The sirens only added to those reverberations.
When my husband and I moved to Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, friends asked us if I owned a gun. The insinuations were evident.
What I do own, however, is the ability to vote. And wherever I’m stationed on Election Day, I’ll ensure voters who show up maintain ownership of their voice.
Yes, this election is about ownership. Our country was founded in part on the principles of ownership of people. White folks owned slaves. Males owned their women. To thrive beyond this damaged state we’re in, we need ownership by all people to reshape what’s happening inside our borders. We need to own this country right back.
But, according to Pew Research, “We will have to grapple with this year’s dire shortage of poll workers. Almost six out of 10 poll workers in the U.S. are older than 61 which makes them vulnerable to COVID-19.” Currently, there even is a non-partisan coalition of sports teams, the Election Super Centers Project, formed to address our country’s election insufficiencies.
My husband is an anesthesiologist, trained in the pathways of air. While our government denied, stalled, and punted at every turn of decision-making in the health crisis, he and his dedicated colleagues were outfitted with astronaut-like helmets for protection. They pivoted night and day, often in circles, until given a clearer set of directions upon which to act.
Due to the cancellation of writing workshops, presentations and book tours, the only pivot I made was to turn around and go home. Until now.
I’m young enough to not be considered at risk, and old enough to know the alarm is sounding. Dinner will wait. But, as my parents understood, the polls won’t.
Annette Januzzi Wick lives in Over-the-Rhine.