Back when she was teaching Art at Lower Merion High School and her husband Carl was teaching Physics, they always voted. But busy careers didn’t leave time for more electoral activity, and Susan admits she didn’t really pay attention to the inside workers at the polls. That changed on election day in 2005, the year of her retirement, when Susan went to the 8-4 polling site and found only the JOE, Jennifer Kuhns, working there without any assistants. Susan promised Jennifer that she would never again have to sit alone at the polls.
Susan has more than kept her promise. Within two years, Jennifer Kuhns had happily moved to the post of “Majority Inspector” at the polls and Susan had been elected Judge of Elections. Jennifer, says Susan, is the precinct’s institutional memory for the myriad details that make Election Day run, while Susan is the organizer of both the day and the “team” she has built, including Rebecca Abrahams as Minority Inspector, Fran Epstein as Minority Clerk, and Peggy Walsh as Machine Inspector. In addition, they have recruited a couple of substitutes to pinch hit when “life happens” and a team member cannot work the polls.
“We enjoy working together,” says Susan, and the party differences between 8-4’s “majority” Democrats and “minority” Republicans is irrelevant to both team continuity and smooth operations on election day. Managing the team like the teacher she was, Susan makes sure every member (including every substitute) is fully trained by the county, and then she trusts them to do whichever part of the job needs doing. Each member does have particular strengths, however. Susan is ready to go at 6:00 a.m., setting up the room before the others arrive, but she is “toast” by 8:00 p.m., when Rebecca has “hit her stride” and is ready to double check everything, including the absentee ballots. Meanwhile, Peggy and Fran provide “rock-steady consistency throughout the day.” Once the team has dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, they end the day with a “group hug,” and Susan drives off with her tallies to join democracy’s throng at the Media Courthouse.
Susan’s husband Carl was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014. In the subsequent years, as caring for him at home became more difficult, Susan doubted she could continue her duties as the 8-4 JOE. When faced with the prospect of not doing the job, however, Susan realized that “my role as JOE was an anchor for me; it made me feel good and useful in a different way, and it gave me one day completely away.” As exhausting as election day was, it still gave Susan some respite and refreshment from caring for her beloved husband, who is now living in an institution that can provide the round-the-clock care he needs.
Early in 2019, Chris Shelton, 8-1 Committee, realized that the Brookline School closure meant 8-1 was without a polling site. When he reached out to Susan for help, she offered to speak with the leadership at Trinity Christian Church of Greater Philadelphia (TCCGP) on Mill Rd., the 8-4 polling site.
Fortunately for every voter in 8-1, Susan had always respected the TCCGP’s generosity in opening their church twice a year to a steady stream of voters. Susan says that she and the church leaders have worked cooperatively; TCCGP sought to be “a part of the community” and Susan has made sure that the church was not burdened with pre-election receipt of the voting machines, furniture moving, or post-election clean-up. Thanks to Susan’s good partnership, the TCCGP quickly agreed to bring a homeless 8-1 precinct into its “manger,” opening a second room for yet more machines, voter traffic, and donut crumbs.
Not every precinct in our township, and certainly not every precinct in our county, is adequately staffed every election day. So it is worth repeating here that voters cannot vote without a polling site, polling sites cannot open without a JOE, and no JOE can do an adequate job on election day without trained assistants working inside at the polls.
Contact your ward leader if you think that, like Susan Jewett, you might find that your best role as a citizen is working inside the polls every election day. Susan’s story is a good reminder that however at sea we may be, politically or personally, poll work can serve as a valuable anchor.