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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: First-Time Poll Worker Puts Aside Risk To Help Others Vote

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If you’re casting your ballot early and in person this year at Mallard Creek High in Charlotte, one of the smiling— albeit masked — poll workers you might encounter is 68-year-old Peter Hohenstein.

"I’m a voting machine assistant, which means I’m the person that takes you to the machine, punches in your precinct number, explains to you how the new machines work compared to the old machines," Hohenstein said.

He also cleans the machine before the next voter steps up.

"The machines get cleaned after every voter before the next voter can go to the machine," Hohenstein said.

It takes less than a minute to wipe down one of the machines, he says, but depending on how long the line of voters is on a given day, it can be a lot of cleaning. On the first day of early voting, over 1,100 people voted in person at Mallard Creek High.

But it’s work Hohenstein doesn’t mind doing.

"I absolutely enjoy it," he said. "I like being part of the process. I like to help make the process work better. When you see the stories about the lines in Georgia that are eight hours, I’m like, 'No I will work as many hours to keep the lines working so everyone has a good experience.'"

Hohenstein is proud of his voting record, which he says dates back to 1970 when he was first eligible to vote. But this is his first time working as an election poll worker. When he saw reports of a possible shortage of poll workers this election year, he decided he wanted to help the process run smoothly and hopefully cut down on the long wait times.

He also says the stakes are high this election year. It's important to him to ensure anyone who wants to vote gets that chance in a safe and organized setting.

"I think this is probably the most important election in my lifetime," he said. "There is a lot I see in the political discourse and political tone over the last three years coming out of Washington that I really don’t like. I think we need change not only at the top but up and down at multiple levels."

It’s important to point out he says that personal feelings and political views are all checked at the door — part of the training he received stressed that. It’s not his job to tell people how to vote; it’s his job to walk people through the voting process however they lean politically.

Hohenstein and his wife, Jackie, have signed up for multiple shifts in the weeks leading up to election day.

On the first day of early voting, he said, he worked from start to finish. The long hours don’t bother him one bit. In fact, it’s kind of nice to get out of the house.

"I told them with my schedule I'll just take the whole block," he said. "So I walked in in the dark and I walked out in the dark."

Early voting workers in Mecklenburg County earn anywhere from $15 to $22 an hour depending on the assigned job. But Hohenstein is quick to point out that he’s not in it for the money.

Hohenstein is a retired banker but works four days a week from home for a banking trade association.

He’s even using some of his vacation days to take extra shifts leading up to election day.

"We couldn’t go on our big Viking River Cruise thing back in May, so I’ve got vacation to burn," he said. "What important thing do I want to do? I’ll do this."

At 68, Hohenstein is very aware he’s part of two groups that sort of contradict each other. First, he fits the profile of the typical poll worker — he has the time and flexibility in his schedule to do the job.

But then, there’s the other group he’s a member of —the age group health experts say is at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Experts say people 65 and older need to be cautious when it comes to large gatherings. Hohenstein admits working at an election site has popped the socially distant bubble his family had been living in since the pandemic began, but he’s OK with that.

Both Hohenstein and his wife are healthy with no underlying health risks, he said, describing their pandemic mindset as "careful and cautious but not obsessive."

And so far, he's been impressed with the social distancing and mask-wearing taking place when people come out to vote.

"Nobody crowded, nobody pushed. Everyone was more calm and more patient than I ever expected people to be," he said.

That's quite the opposite, he says, compared to the early days of the pandemic when people were a little less polite trying to buy up all the toilet paper.

He’s enjoying the work and the interactions he’s having with the public. He was reminded recently that the days of early voting leading up to the election should be treated like a marathon, not a sprint. But he’s not worried about burning out. His experience helping voters has been meaningful, especially with first-time voters. In some cases, he says, first-time voters come with their parents and he gets to help them both.

"They came through the line together and then I would walk one to a machine and explain it very carefully and walk another to a machine," he said. "And then there were a number of cases where there were students who weren’t old enough to vote who came with their parent and they were very interested in watching the process."

Whether it’s a first-time or seasoned voter he’s walking through the process, Hohenstein just hopes as many people as possible come out and vote early. For one, he clearly believes in the importance of voting. And two, he’ll have a long day ahead of him on Election Day because he'll be working.

But he won’t complain as he helps voters no matter what time it is. He does hope if more people vote early, he’ll be able to head home at a reasonable hour. The sooner his job is done, the sooner he’ll be able to do what so many of us will be doing that night — turning on the radio or TV as the returns come in, waiting to see what the country decided will happen next.

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