I spent Election Day in West Philadelphia, serving as a poll observer. After many conversations with frustrated and confused voters, and working alongside longtime poll workers, it was clear that our voting system makes it incredibly hard to exercise our right to vote.
I understand Black people have long known about systemic obstacles to voting — and that, as a white woman, I have been largely sheltered from them. This is why I wanted to serve on the Pennsylvania Democrats’ Voter Protection Team.
Every campaign is entitled to a poll observer — someone charged with ensuring a fair voting process. Observers go through training, after which they are granted credentials. (The lack of appropriate credentials has been the grounds for Donald Trump’s so-called observers in Philadelphia being turned away.) All observers, regardless of party or candidate, theoretically share the same goal: ensuring that every eligible voter can cast their ballot.
Every poll worker and nearly every resident who arrived at my polling place was Black. The zeal with which many entered was palpable, but an alarming number of the nearly 500 voters I encountered experienced obstacles.
Many arrived after being pinged around different polling places because of confusion about where they were registered to vote. One woman arrived after waiting in line for over an hour at another site, only to learn she was at the wrong site. When she arrived to us — where the wait would be another hour — she was exasperated, needing to get to work. This was her only window to vote. We pushed for her to be allowed to fill out a provisional ballot before leaving.
A man arrived after going to a rec center, thinking that was his polling place; they told him to come to our site instead. But when we looked him up, his Pennsylvania voter registration did, in fact, list the rec center as his polling location. We don’t know if he was successfully able to vote when he returned there.
Another gentleman arrived to find his name was not in the poll book. This was not an infrequent issue: People who had voted in the division in past elections not listed in the book that dictates who is allowed to vote on a machine. This man was offered a provisional ballot, but he didn’t know he could ask for help reading it, and he had to leave to pick up his daughter. We caught him before he left and assured him we would get him assistance. Thankfully, he returned and completed the provisional ballot.
Even when the process ran as it should, voters were left feeling off-kilter. The first question voters were asked when they walked in the door was, “Do you know your division?” Most people did not (nor do I ever get this right when I vote in person), but they immediately became defensive of their right to be there. (“The paper said to come here!”)
The next question was, “Did you apply for a mail-in ballot?” We think this is an obvious question, but many people were so flustered — either from having already gone to a different place or from a very real worry about the possibility of violence or intimidation — that they answered “yes,” even if they did not, in fact, sign up for a mail ballot. Some thought they were being asked if they registered, or if they received mail about voting. But answering “yes” funneled them toward completing a provisional ballot, until the poll observers were able to confirm they had not, in fact, ever applied for a mail-in ballot.
Once they made it through this gauntlet, they were sent into a machine that is complex, that requires loading a paper just so, and that had four dense questions that left many befuddled.
Voter suppression can take blatant forms, but its more insidious forms can be hard to see for those of us who have always exercised out voting rights easily: a labyrinth of registration forms and deadlines; a hard-to-read ballot; too few computers to process mail-ballot applications; broken voting machines that take hours to replace or fix; mismatched registration databases and polling books.
I left the polls on election night truly inspired by what I had witnessed unfolding throughout the day — and equally angry that this system caused so much strife for so many.
For the 353,021 Philadelphia voters who cast their ballot in person on Tuesday, the system only worked because tireless public servants literally piecing together machines made it work. It worked for the same reason weeds, and sometimes flowers, grow out of concrete: despite the environment, not because of it.
Voting is a right. It is a privilege to serve — a privilege we, the voters, bestow. Until we all decide that that is the correct order of this equation, none of us can claim to live in a true democracy.
Julie Berger is a senior research coordinator at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, focusing on university outreach to and partnership with Philadelphia schools and community organizations.