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One man reflects on almost 30 years as an election worker in Virginia

Jimmy Whitney has served as poll worker for almost thirty years in Virginia.
Mallory Noe-Payne
Radio IQ
Jimmy Whitney has served as poll worker for almost thirty years in Virginia.

There are more than 2,000 voting locations across Virginia. And each one is staffed by a handful of dedicated poll workers. These folks don’t work in elections year round, but choose each year to spend a day helping make democracy run. Here’s the story of one man in Roanoke who’s been doing it for almost 30 years.

Most every day of the year, Jimmy Whitney works as an accountant. But one or two times a year he does another job he’s immensely proud of: chief officer of elections at the Crystal Spring precinct in Roanoke City.

He can still remember his first year as a poll worker. He had been convinced to help out by a neighbor. It was 1994 and the big race was a Virginia Senate seat: Chuck Robb vs. Oliver North.

In those days the voting machines had a big knob and lever you pulled.

“We called it the ca-chunk machine because you had to do that to record your vote,” Whitney recalls.

In the years since, his precinct has moved to fully electronic voting machines and now full circle back to paper ballots.

1996 was Whitney’s first presidential election. Bill Clinton was running for a second term against Bob Dole. It was Whitney’s first experience with the constant and heavy turnout of a presidential race.

“We’ve had between 20 and 50 people already in line at 6am during presidential years,” says Whitney. “So they’re patiently waiting for the polls to open. And then when they come in, it’s sort of an adrenaline rush.”

But even in the off years Whitney has experienced special moments. Seeing the same faces year after year. Like the group of four elderly women who always carpool together, or the woman who brings her dog and tells him to sit and wait for her.

One year his precinct, which is a church fellowship hall, even had a special voter – the director of the Roanoke symphony orchestra.

“And one day when things were particularly slow he came in and serenaded us. The maestro sat at the piano and played and it was very enjoyable,” Whitney says.

By this point Whitney has an Election Day routine. It begins at 4 am with a packed cooler of food and drink for the long day ahead. His team gets in early to prep and have the lights on and doors open by 6 am.

He’s always excited, but also nervous.

“You think of the worst case scenarios about either equipment or personnel not showing up,” he says.

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Luckily he’s never had anything worse than some hiccups with machinery. And once the day is rolling he spends his time troubleshooting and talking to voters. They make it to the after work rush and straight to 7 pm polls close.

“We always have a little competition in our precinct as to 6:45 you go out to announce the polls are closing in 15 minutes. And ok, who wants to go out and yell,” Whitney says. “We’ve had people running to the door at 7 o’clock and sometimes they make it in and sometimes they don’t because we shut the door and that’s it.”

But that’s not it for Whitney’s day. He calls in the vote totals ahead to the main office, before hand delivering the same information on flash drives. The ballots themselves get locked up. It’s usually 8:30 or 9 pm before he’s done.

“And then get home and try to eat something and cool down from the day,” he says with a laugh.

It is a paid position, although Whitney jokes a bit that if you work it out by the hour, including all the pre and post meetings, it’s not the greatest of pay. But, he says, he keeps coming back anyway.

“Just to know that you’re taking part in the democratic process and there’s people all over the country that are opening their polls at 6am,” he says. “It’s just neat to be a part of.”

So when does he vote? He and his wife have already voted early and in-person.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.