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Some thoughts after finishing CA poll worker training

Just finished my poll worker training for the November 3 election. I’ve been impressed with how SF has rolled their remote training out. The one disappointment was that I couldn’t pause it and then resume it another day. I had assumed I could (shouldn’t have assumed!) and ended up having to redo an hour of it.

We’re to arrive at 5:45am on election day and will likely be there until 9:30pm or later. Polls open at 7am sharp and stay open until 8pm, with anyone in line at 8pm being permitted to vote. The whole process is a bit more complex than I anticipated, but I guess it makes sense given the scale of the operation.

Most of it is about common sense, common courtesy, and following instructions, but some points surprised me a bit. When someone comes in to the polling place to vote, we’re to offer them PPE and share the health and safety protocols they need to follow, perfectly sensible. But if they refuse to wear a mask or stand six feet from other people, we’re not allowed to turn them away. The right to vote supersedes health and safety guidelines. Ultimately this makes sense, it is the way it has to be. I cannot imagine the chaos that would ensue if an anti-masker were turned away at the polls… But it felt counter-intuitive at first, and it makes me hope that elderly folks that might normally volunteer are reconsidering for this particular election.

Electioneering is another interesting topic. It was only mentioned once in the introduction when talking about protecting voters’ rights, but it’s likely to be a problem in this election I think. In the San Francisco-based training that I did, electioneering was described as visible or audible advocacy for anything on the ballot, gathering signatures for a political petition, displaying campaign literature, and wearing campaign buttons or t-shirts within a 100 foot radius of the voting place. Electioneering rules on election day are different in each state, but most are somewhat similar to this. I think a lot of people might not realize it’s not ok to wear their Biden/Harris or Trump/Pence t-shirt to go vote!

The point that probably surprised me the most relates to poll watchers. The legalities vary a lot state-to-state but in California, there aren’t any statues about it to my knowledge. The training stated that in California, poll watchers must be welcomed so long as they’re not intimidating voters, don’t interfere with or slow down the voting process, don’t interfere with voters’ rights, and aren’t compromising the safety of the voters or workers (as in, they’re not causing the polling place to exceed pandemic-related capacity restrictions).

The qualifications in other states can be very particular. You can see a decent rundown on this ncsl.org page but check with your local election official to be sure. Based on what I’ve read, the most common qualifications and requirements often include restrictions on the number of watchers allowed per polling place, being a registered voter in the precinct, wearing an identifying badge, being officially appointed by your party (with sometimes byzantine sub-requirements), and being registered in advance as a watcher with your county. The most restrictive states are probably Minnesota (watchers not allowed, only challengers, and they can only be appointed after gathering 25 signatures regarding a specific issue) and West Virginia (doesn’t permit them at all). Ohio was the only state I found that doesn’t allow poll watchers to carry firearms or deadly weapons.

The problem is that these restrictions will likely be overlooked by much of the “army” (our president’s militant wording, not mine) being urged to “watch very carefully” by President Trump during the first debate and on Twitter throughout this election cycle.

People are fearful that they can’t trust anything they read in the mainstream media, and the flames of those fears are being fanned by deliberate acts of disinformation by the Trump/Pence campaign such as spending thousands on Facebook ads promoting unfounded rumors about Biden. Based on that fear, it’s understandable that they would want to witness the veracity of an election for themselves, particularly since one of the only leaders they trust is urging them to do so.

So we have a situation where likely tens of thousands of people are ready and willing to be poll watchers. All well and good I guess, as long as they all stick to the rules. The Trump/Pence campaign is making some small effort to keep their official poll watchers on the right side of the law using training videos.

But what about the unofficial poll watchers? The people that don’t know better and take it upon themselves to make sure everything is going according to Trump’s plan? They put themselves at risk of heavy fines and even jailtime, let alone putting others at risk and debasing our electoral process depending upon their actions and intentions. Considering the aggressive vigilantism we’re currently seeing among the far right — the Michigan governor kidnapping plot and the FBI’s recently published Homeland Threat Assessment are cases in point — I would be sad but absolutely not surprised to see some explosive behavior among unofficial poll watchers in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and elsewhere.

I think it’s unlikely that I’ll see many problems at my precinct in San Francisco. And even if something arises, the SF poll worker training made it clear that it’s not our responsibility to de-escalate, that we’re to call the Election Center who will provide guidance and get the right people involved if necessary. I’m more worried about the swing states. You’d hope that cooler heads would prevail, but there hasn’t been a whole lot of that these past four years.

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Applied to be poll worker

Just applied to be a poll worker in the upcoming US election. It involves setting up your assigned polling place, opening for voters by 7am on voting day, checking in voters using precinct rosters and issuing ballots, closing the polls, and transferring custody of voting materials. The day usually lasts from 6am to 10pm and involves training in advance.

I figured they may have fewer poll workers than normal with the pandemic. My schedule is plenty flexible and I’m not considered at high risk for COVID, so I ought to help out. If you’re interested in assisting in your city, search “become a poll worker in <your city>” online to find the relevant information.


Update 19 August 2020: It took took a bit longer than I’d expected for me to be contacted after submitting my application. I received a followup email today, a little over two weeks after submission. Just mentioning here in case anyone has done the same and is a little confused about when they’re supposed to hear back.

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“I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously”

America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Many passages in Between the World and Me are worth quoting, but this one really hit home. Coates also brands this “patriotism à la carte” in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” (see below).

This blind national pride has been particularly painful to many people recently with the wildly inadequate pandemic response, the killing of George Floyd, unmarked federal officers’ violence in Portland, and so many more recent events.

I’d forgotten about how very pervasive it is until I got back to the US in early June. It’s insidious, sad and borderline delusional. And it’s not just a right / conservative thing.

It’s all well and good to be proud of your accomplishments, but if you can’t identify and work to rectify your failings then what the hell is the point?


I’ve been speaking with some friends about this book, they mentioned a few resources I’d like to follow up on.

And I’m still working through my previous list.


I just finished “The Case for Reparations” and learned so much.

Coates weaves together individual and collective experiences, history, and data to connect the dots between the Jim Crow South, the Great Migration, redlining by the Federal Housing Association following the New Deal, the efforts of the Contract Buyers League, Belinda Royall’s early and successful petition for reparations in 1783, John Conyers’s HR 40 bill, the early history of slavery in the US, the failure of Reconstruction, the levelling of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” and its subsequent suppression in law and the media, the myth of fatherhood as the antidote to Black poverty, the fuzziness of affirmative action, the “gulag of the Mississippi” Parchman Farm, the impact of Germany’s post-WWII reparations on Israel and the evolution of contemporary Germany, the prevalence of subprime lenders preying on Black home buyers in the run up to the 2008 crisis, and so much more.

He argues for the cooperation of every aspect of society in a real discussion and debate about reparations to “reject the intoxication of hubris” and bring about “a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history”.

HR 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans “to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies”, has progressed since Coates wrote “The Case for Reparations” in 2014. Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee is now first sponsor of HR 40 having taken over from John Conyers in 2018. There has been some progress with the bill, but a vote has not been set.

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On saguaros and an old dirt road

Another plant-related fact I learned from Techentin’s essay in “Edges of the Experiment” (see previous): saguaros are frequently chipped by park rangers to deter plant poaching.

Saguaros only grow in the Sonoran desert, the bulk of which lies in the southwest corner of Arizona and in Mexico. Arizona State Route 88 is near the northeastern edge of the Sonoran desert, so saguaros feature in much of the landscape alongside the road. The AZ SR88 runs from Roosevelt Dam along the Salt River to Apache Junction. It is mainly unpaved between the dam and Tortilla Flat. I had the pleasure of driving this road with my grandparents on my mom’s side a little while back.

Satellite view of Arizona State Route 88, imagery and map data copyright Google 2016

Satellite view of Arizona SR 88. Imagery and map data © 2016 Google.

Satellite view of saguaros along Arizona State Route 88, imagery copyright Google 2016

Satellite view of a particularly saguaro-laden hill just east of Fish Creek grade along Arizona SR 88. Imagery © 2016 Google.

One notably narrow section of the road is about halfway through the unpaved portion of AZ SR88. A steep grade culminates in a sharp blind turn that wraps around Fish Creek Hill, with a sandy wall on one side and a steep dropoff on the other.

For the most part, the narrowness of the road isn’t a problem. Drivers don’t use it to get anywhere quickly, so it’s a lonely route.

Most of the traffic flows east with good reason. If you drive west on this route late in the day, you end up driving straight in to the sun. You also end up driving on the outer edge of the sharp turn mentioned above, and it’s a little nerve wracking looking down the long drop just beyond the low barrier.

That said, the westbound trip on AZ SR88 has a pretty spectacular finale. If you time it properly you’re rewarded with a desert sunset over the Superstition Mountains near Canyon Lake before descending in to Apache Junction.

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On palm trees, one in particular

Photo of RAT beach taken by Piper Haywood in 2009

RAT Beach in 2009. RAT = Right After Torrance

When I was very young, I developed a sustained, irrational fear of the palm tree that stood near the southwest corner of Deelane Street and Anza Avenue in Torrance, CA.

This fear is one of my earliest memories. The palm was cartoonish and stereotypical. It was spindly and swayed even on very still days. I lost my four-year-old mind every time we passed it on foot, convinced that it would fall over and pile drive me in to the ground.

The palm tree no longer exists. It was probably removed just after we moved away in 1993.

Satellite view of Deelane Street and Anza Avenue (Torrance, CA) in 1980 and 1994

Satellite view of the corner of Deelane Street and Anza Avenue in Torrance, CA. Left image was captured in 1980, right image was captured in 1994. Source for both images is USGS via historicalaerials.com

I picked up “Edges of the Experiment – The Making of the American Landscape” from the Fw:Books table at Offprint a couple of weekends ago. It is a two-volume publication designed and edited by Hans Gremmen focusing on the landscape of the American West. The first volume features photographs by Marie-José Jongerius and is punctuated with essays. The second is more text-based and includes a curated selection of media; historical photographs, anecdotes, facsimiles, essays, etc. The photos by Jongerius are what originally drew me to the publication. They are incredibly true to the place.

Last weekend I started reading volume two, including an essay titled “The infrastructure of trees in Los Angeles” by architect Warren Techentin. I learned that the palm tree is a disappearing southern Californian icon:

Considering that the average lifespan of a palm tree is 70 to 100 years, and that most of the palms visible now were planted to beautify the city for the 1932 Olympics, the bulk of Los Angeles’s palm trees will disappear within a decade or two.

Warren Techentin, “The Infrastructure of Trees in Los Angeles”, Edges of the Experiment: The Making of the American Landscape, Vol. 2, Netherlands: FW:Books [2015], p74.

The city isn’t replacing most palms that are removed. Apparently they were never a great ecological or economical choice.

So my childhood nemesis was likely removed due to old age. It’s kind of sad. I haven’t found any photos of that particular palm tree.

I can’t emphasise enough how much I have enjoyed “Edges of the Experiment”. One particularly lovely spread includes the first page of Techentin’s essay alongside one of Hans Gremmen’s graphics illustrating water usage in California. Water is touched upon in many if not most of the texts in “Edges of the Experiment”, and its presence (or lack thereof) is notable in many of Jongerius’s photos.

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The Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion at the Colby College Museum of Art

Photo of the entrance to the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion at the Colby College Museum of Art

Lobby of the Colby College Museum of Art and the entrance to the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion.

Visited the Colby College Museum of Art recently for the fist time in years, the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion is a great addition. Wish I brought a proper camera.

Photo of the Colby Museum façade

Entrance to the museum, including Richard Serra’s “4-5-6” in the courtyard.

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Joan Jonas

Black and white photo of artist Joan Jonas with a mirror

Photo of multimedia artist Joan Jonas by Sebastian Kim for Interview Magazine (image source)