In Praise of Unsung Heroes


Even in this extraordinary year, this has been an extraordinary week.  Last Tuesday we had what many believe to have been the most important Presidential election in recent times, maybe ever.  The week also found the coronavirus pandemic reaching new heights.  That was the week that was.

What struck me, though, is how both our election systems and our healthcare system rely on “ordinary” people to keep them going.  They’ve never been more extraordinary than this year.

The pandemic first impacted voting earlier in the year, during primary season.  Going to the polls suddenly seemed like potentially a life-threatening choice, and working at them practically suicidal.  Dates of primaries were moved, many polling stations were closed, new voting procedures were put into place, and absentee ballots found a new popularity.  And yet people turned out in droves to vote, often standing in line for hours.

President Trump upped the ante by constantly railing against absentee ballots and warning about voter fraud.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, record numbers of people voted early, in person or by mail.  Several states had surpassed 2016 numbers of voters before Election Day.   Tens of millions more showed up on Election Day.  And, amazingly, Election Day passed with relatively few incidents.

Then the counting started. 

We’re a week in and races in several states have yet to be called, and have lack of agreement from most Republicans about some of the ones that have been called.  We have an apparent President-elect but no concession from the current President or other Republican “leaders.”  Instead, they utter the bromide that we should count the legal votes, not count the illegal votes, and let the judicial process play out.

As is always true, but especially during the pandemic, the election would not have been possible without poll workers.  With older people both being more at risk for COVID-19 and being the majority of the election workforce, it wasn’t initially clear there would be enough workers. 

Calls went out for young people to become poll workers – and they responded.  Organizations like Power the Polls and Poll Hero Project recruited over 650,000 new workers, most of them under 65 and many of them students.

“I just felt that I had to do something,” one student worker told The New York Times.   Another told The Christian Science Monitor:

There are a lot of stereotypes about my generation: We’re lazier, not connecting to the real world. We’re zombies to social media and our phones and stuff.  But this has truly shown me that is just not at all true. There are so many people my age who are just looking for any opportunity to get involved.”

Election Assistance Commission chairman Ben Hovland told Time: “Poll workers are really the unsung heroes of our democracy.” He’s right.

But, of course, once all those votes are cast they have to get counted, and that leads to a second group of unsung heroes of democracy.  Those are the people sitting in those drab offices and warehouse deciding which ballots are valid and ensuring they get properly counted.  They’re set up as bipartisan teams, usually with election observers watching the process. 

In 2020, unfortunately, they’re the ones also risking catching CIVID-19 in the close quarters and getting threats of physical violence, even death threats.  The President and his allies are constantly questioning their motives, challenging their tallies and gathering outside counting spots to protest. They’re demeaning the hard work and long hours the workers have been putting in. 

One nonpartisan poll watcher saw partisan observers harassing election workers, telling WaPo:

That was the most heartbreaking part.  I felt for those workers. I could only imagine what it would feel like, trying to do your job, having these people hover and sneer at you and yell at you and make something so simple, something that’s supposed to be so patriotic, so hard.

Despite all that, the Registrar in Clark County (NV) spoke for all his compatriots, insisting to WaPo: “We’re going to be okay.  We’re going to continue to count. We will not allow anyone to stop us from doing what our duty is.”

“It’s a risky thing to do, but it’s essential work,” one such worker proudly told NYT

Meanwhile, the U.S. is nearing 10 million COVID-19 cases and a quarter of a million deaths, setting new daily records for cases and hospitalizations, both nationally and in a majority of states.  ICU beds are in short supply, as is PPE.  As bad as the spring was in the northeast, the fall is proving to be just as frightening, and the winter threatens to be even worse.

Speaking of unsung heroes, the last count – well over a month ago — for health care worker deaths from COVID-19 topped 1,700 in the U.S. alone. 

Health systems are again resorting to recruiting contract health care workers, often from other states USA Today reports: “Hospitals in nearly every state are recruiting contract nurses to fill shifts,” often paying “crisis rates.”  One emergency room physician added: “Pretty much every nurse who wants a job right now in the United States has a job.”

These are the workers whom President Trump accused of falsely inflating COVID-19 counts in order to get paid more.  It’s not clear if he was including the Walter Reed staff who saved his life when he contracted COVID-19.   

“Trump has insulted our integrity and allowed for more than seven months of chaos and excessive deaths (due) to COVID,” one ER physician told CNBC.  Another lamented that so many still voted for President Trump: “I really thought that our experiences in the trenches would impact people’s voting decisions.” 

The poll workers showed up to work.  The ballot counters showed up to work.  The nurses, medical technicians, aides, doctors, pharmacists, and other healthcare workers showed up for work.  It isn’t always, or even usually, glamorous, and, for most of them, it’s not even particularly well paid. But they do it anyway, despite the risk of COVID, despite the criticisms, despite even the threats,

The least we could do is to be grateful, and not make their jobs even harder.  Let’s make them unsung no more. 

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

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