Helping Create Peace at the Polls

I love getting my “I Voted” sticker on Election Day, after chatting with other voters in line and carefully following poll workers’ instructions for marking my choices. Having worked in many places where voting is a relatively new right, I cherish all of this.

Yet this tense year, things in some places may be rather different. A security guard is now visible at the early voting site in the public library near me. I’m reading articles that detail threats against election officials and poll workers, as well as intimidation at ballot drop boxes.

Despite all this, if we’re prepared, we can ensure our Election Day is still a fun civic event. We all can play a role in preventing or de-escalating tensions at our polling places.

We can start by understanding the sources of stress at the polls. In addition to our increasingly angry polarization, there is the stress of new voting procedures and even equipment that voters and poll workers must navigate. Another stress is time pressure as people fit voting into busy schedules. For poll workers, there may be an effort to assist people from different backgrounds, for whom English is a second language – and for whom voting in the U.S. may be a new experience.

As we’ve all experienced, a lot of stress causes us to behave emotionally rather rationally. Naming these stressors is a start. What else can we do when we head to the polls?

“Remember to be patient,” says Kabrina Bass, talking about the waits voters might experience. She knows – she’s a precinct clerk in South Carolina who is also the Executive Director of Midlands Mediation Center and Chair of the National Association for Community Mediation. “No one is trying to keep you from voting. Election workers are following the process, and it may have changed because of new voting laws. They’re trying, and they’re probably nervous about getting the new procedure right.”

So being patient and understanding is key. But there are other things we can do as well. As voters, we help create the tone at our polling places.

We can smile and greet the people around us. Humans are social creatures and tend to reciprocate behavior. If we are friendly with others in the polling station, that makes others feel welcomed, relaxed, and connected.

We can also follow polling station rules about where to stand, and not be offended if a poll worker asks us to move. These rules are all designed to protect voter privacy and safety.

We can also keep our eyes open for people displaying unusual behavior, such as being aggressive or intrusive, including taking pictures of people or equipment or vehicles. The precinct chair will have instructions on how to de-escalate the situation, including speaking to the person in a calm voice and listening empathetically to learn more about the situation.

Perhaps most important, we can say thank you to the poll workers. They have long days, starting before dawn and going until after dark. Most of them are doing this as service to their community. Our service in return can be ensuring that Election Day is the civic celebration it deserves to be.

Melinda Burrell, PhD is a humanitarian aid worker who studies polarization and trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is on the board of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources on cross-divide engagement.