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Even in South Carolina, poll workers are 'on alert' for the midterms

Deputy Director of Voter Registration and Elections Christina Thompson swears in Marlboro County poll managers Charles Peterkin, left, and Derek Montrose. The men will be in charge of poll security at their respective precincts' locations on Nov. 8.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
Deputy Director of Voter Registration and Elections Christina Thompson swears in Marlboro County poll managers Charles Peterkin, left, and Derek Montrose. The men will be in charge of poll security at their respective precincts' locations on Nov. 8.

On a drippy Wednesday morning, the third day of early voting in South Carolina’s 2022 midterm elections, Christina Thompson swears in Charles Peterkin and Derek Montrose on Marlboro Street in Bennettsville.

The men will be poll managers on Election Day, the ones in charge of keeping order at their respective precincts. They take their oath, and their poll manager training, in the county’s Elections Department building – a building so small and unassuming, it would be easy to miss at any other time of year.

This office is a cluttered space, dotted with tables and booklets and signs encouraging Marlboro County to vote.

In some ways, this year, it hardly seems necessary to offer the reminder. Barely a block up the street, every parking space in and around the Marlboro County Courthouse is taken. The courthouse is where early voting is happening until the end of the day, Nov. 5.

That doesn’t stop Thompson, the county’s deputy director of voter registration and elections, from having to direct errant visitors from her office to the courthouse. They’re trying to vote, and she keeps telling them they’ll have to head up the street to do so.

During pauses in the morning training session, while Thompson answers phones and visitors’ questions, Peterkin, Montrose (and, eventually, Rebecca Foster), and I get into short conversations about what it means to be a poll manager now, in a political climate that could be charitably described as challenging.

With early voting showing signs of massive voter interest from the first day, Thompson says she’s been getting more interest than ever from poll watchers and observers. In the grand scheme, she likes that, and says that seeing citizens be so interested in the voting process is healthy.

But she also says she’s “on alert,” like every other election official in the state, for politically motivated problems that could stem from poll watchers and observers – everyday citizens who sit in at polling places and watch to make sure things run smoothly – or from others who take their politics seriously enough to act on them beyond the voting booth itself.

She hasn’t seen much in the way of trouble and doesn’t really expect to. But she’s aware of incidents like those happening out-of-state – the most high-profile being groups of self-appointed “ballot watchers” near Phoenix, Ariz., who’ve camped out near drop-off boxes and photographed voters using them.

She’s also aware of voter intimidation incidents that happened in McColl in the 2020 General Election, when some candidates approached voters and wrote down names.

Then there are the kinds of incidents state election officials, like John Michael Catalano of the South Carolina Elections Commission say happened in this past spring’s party primaries – poll observers and watchers harassing poll managers and calling the police on them.

The poll managers-to-be in this cluttered office on a rainy Wednesday in October know about these things too. Says Derek Montrose, “you never know what’s gonna come through that door.”

Voters, left and right, take their politics seriously these days. That’s how Rebecca Foster sees it, anyway. She doesn’t know what Election Day will be like either. She’s not expecting much trouble this round, but is already thinking that she might want to “suit up” for 2024, when the White House will be on the line.

Poll managers like Montrose, Foster, and Peterkin are a rare breed. Election agencies all over the United States are having trouble recruiting good people – defined, broadly, as those who feel voting is sacred enough to take their own politics and wishes out of the equation while on the job.

It’s a long day of work, about 14 hours, plus an hour’s training beforehand, and all for the princely sum of $135. Like most day-shift volunteers at various organizations, those who become poll managers are typically retirees who have a whole day to spend on their feet, ensuring the sanctity of elections.

They’re told to not engage dangerous people; to call 9-1-1 if anyone gets too out of hand. Montrose, Foster, and Peterkin all say they would; none of them want to have to.

And yet, with all the potential for craziness, genuine trouble, and stress, all of these poll managers see something fundamental that they want to be part of.

“There was a lot of bloodshed over Blacks’ rights to vote, women's rights to vote,” says Foster. “If we can get up and help, that's what I'm gonna do. That's what we can do.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.