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Future Doctors for Democracy: Med Students’ Reflections on Working the 2020 Polls

Earlier this fall, we read concerning news about projected poll worker staffing shortages for the 2020 U.S. Election Day due to COVID-19 concerns. Poll workers play a critical role in ensuring smooth elections by helping process ballots, guiding people through the voting process, and opening and closing polling locations. Seeing the need for young people to step up to meet this gap, we along with David Greco, an M4, decided to recruit fellow classmates to serve as Election Day poll workers in Michigan.

After several recruitment emails, 60 medical and public health students across nearly every medical school in Michigan (with approximately 40 from University of Michigan alone) signed up to serve as poll workers. Many students volunteered to work in sites ranging from Detroit to Washtenaw County to Kent County.

Below are personal reflections from students who worked the polls, many of whom did so at an incredibly busy time in their lives. Knowing we have classmates who care deeply about public health and a thriving democracy is exactly why we’re proud to be at Michigan!

Alex Reardon, Class of 2022:
“You all should have been here when Obama was on the ballot,” Mac, our Department of Elections Site Coordinator, crowed. “Lines were out the door and around the corner!” It’s true that, compared to the scene he described, Tuesday, November 3, 2020 was a relatively slow presidential Election Day at Northwest Unity Church, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t some powerful, lowercase ‘d’, democracy afoot.

No-excuse mail-in voting in the state of Michigan helped keep Election Day lines short, thus protecting voters from COVID-19 while they exercised their civic duties on their own schedule. Without a photo identification requirement, we did not have to disenfranchise our neighbors who arrived with just their work badges, expired licenses, or who had no photo ID at all. Same-day registration meant we could remedy wrongful voter roll purges and assist first-time voters who acutely felt that their voices were meaningful this year.

The electoral system needs healing. Voter suppression and the downstream effects it has on the body politic are pervasive and insidious, but one 16-hour day at Detroit’s 389th precinct gave this future physician hope for a cure.

Sangini Tolia, Class of 2022:
My brother Sahil and I live together in Ann Arbor and do nearly everything together, so it was only natural that we’d work together as poll workers this year. I had first worked the polls in Ferndale, Michigan as an undergraduate student, and I felt that it was so important to share the beauty of this process with my brother.

We were stationed at Community High School in Ann Arbor, and it was so exciting to see members of the community streaming in throughout the day. I certainly won’t forget the elderly woman who couldn’t find the elevator and climbed two flights of stairs with her cane, absolutely determined to cast her ballot. She was exhausted, so we got her a wheeled desk chair to push her to each station in the room. When she fed her ballot into the tabulator, cheers and applause erupted from all of us. It was humbling to directly witness how much meaning and power is held in the act of voting.

For the rest of the week, as I followed the tallies on the news, I thought about how each number represented a person making their voice heard. Our work as physicians extends out into the community, and that includes making sure everyone has equitable opportunities to participate in democracy. I know that we’ll both be back for the next election!

Jennie DeBlanc, Class of 2022:
When I heard that the Detroit Department of Elections was looking for more workers to help count the massive number of absentee ballots expected in the 2020 election, I have to admit that I hesitated. I could think of a number of reasons not to commit to two very full, very long days spent counting ballots — the first and foremost being the USMLE Step 1 exam looming ahead. When I eventually signed up, I wondered if I would regret the commitment, and wondered how much “oh my god why am I not studying right now” anxiety was coming my way.

It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. Being in a place where hundreds of people had come together to work tirelessly to promote democracy and to allow all voices to be heard was inspiring. Even when there were tense moments with protestors in the building, and questions were being raised all over the country as to the legitimacy of our process, I saw all those around me put their heads down and continue to work tirelessly for democracy. And for the first time in quite awhile, I had hope. Hope that the energy I saw in the building that day will continue — not just through this election process, but for future elections, both big and small. Hope that we would continue to work on examining the flaws in our electoral system, and to keep demanding change. Hope that one day, we will make voting accessible, safe, and easy for ALL people in America. And that sort of hope is definitely worth missing a day or two of studying.