Phyllis Jones got into the elections business two decades ago by chance. Today, she’s manager of the largest polling place in Augusta-Richmond County.
“I started out doing it just for a little extra change,” said the retired state employee. “It was just by the grace of God that one of my best friends, my child’s godparent, worked ... for the city and said they needed poll workers.”
Jones, then a single mother of two young children, started off as a poll worker at Belle Terrace community center. After a few elections, she was hooked – on the camaraderie and sense of community and purpose that come from helping people vote.
Georgia laws require that every polling place be staffed with a manager and two assistant managers on election days, said Lynn Bailey, the executive director of Richmond County Board of Elections.
Poll workers, who are paid, work long days, guiding voters in, checking their IDs against registration lists, distributing ballots and collecting them back. At the end of the day, they tally votes from the touch-screen voting machines and transfer them to the main elections office.
Voting seems to be easier and faster since Augusta adopted touch-screen voting machines in 2002, Jones said, with fewer voter questions about the process.
The machines can easily be adjusted to show large print, but a common voter question has been whether a voter’s access card is inserted properly into the machine, she said.
“They didn’t know whether they were pushing it too far, or not pushing it far enough,” Jones said.
Having experienced the process from start to finish, Jones said she is confident in the security of the votes.
“To know that your vote is secure, it’s just uplifting. I know the process, I know it’s secure,” she said.
Later, Jones was transferred to the polling place at Sue Reynolds Elementary School, where she spent most of her elections career and was promoted to assistant polling place manager.
The polling place was relocated to Crossroads Fellowship Church on Wrightsboro Road a few years ago, and today, with 4,509 registered voters, is Augusta-Richmond’s largest.
It takes a blend of social and technical skills and endurance to work a polling place. Workers spend entire election days together as the public passes through and casts their ballots.
“When you’ve got to be there that long, you’ve got to have some really good people,” Jones said. “You want the people that come through the doors to see some smiling faces.”
For Jones, “the fellowship is wonderful. The people you work with make your job worth going to,” she said.
In Crossroads’ case, the popular polling place seems to keep voters coming back time and time again.
The advent of extensive early voting opportunities doesn’t seem to have reduced turnout.
“My precinct, let me tell you, they come out,” Jones said. “When some precincts don’t have 100, I get 400. They’ll come out.”
At a precinct where voters are nearly like family, reuniting with longtime staff each election day, problems are rare, Jones said.
Augusta-Richmond County has a pool of about 550 elections workers, deploying nearly all of them during a big election. “It takes a lot of manpower to run those 44 polling place locations,” Bailey said.
Still, the county is always looking for talent – good customer service skills, and computer skills are a plus. Also, “we are always interested in trying to involve young people in the process,” she added.
The requirements are few. A poll worker must be at least 16 years old and be able to read, write and speak English, and can’t be serving a felony conviction. A final requirement is that poll workers cannot have an immediate relative on the ballot. In those cases, the office reassigns the worker to another polling place for the election, said Bailey.
Jones is not alone in developing a lifelong love of working polling places. It’s a family tradition for some and workers tend to stay, Bailey said.
“I think working at the polls is something for a lot of people that gets in their blood, knowing they are doing a public service, and that the public is grateful to know they are there and can help them navigate through the process,” Bailey said. “It’s a commitment that will last decades.”