“Poll workers are the frontline workers of democracy,” says a strong voice, as red and blue hued images of young Americans flash across the screen in a Power the Polls video. “They keep the polls open so that everyone in their community has a place to vote and a place to have their voices heard,” the narrator continues.
Prior to the 2020 election, the U.S. faced not only a pandemic, but a shortage of poll workers, threatening people’s access to a safe and fair election. Power the Polls worked with nonprofits and businesses to encourage people to be poll workers. Over 700,000 people stepped up to meet that challenge, according to the nonpartisan organization.
One of those thousands—and the persuasive voice of that call-to-action video—was Whitman alum and actor Kaliswa Brewster ’05. Her experience as a poll worker would prove just how essential and powerful poll workers are on election day.
Coming from a family of Liberian immigrants, Brewster wanted to show that democracy is by and for everyone. “We’re part of this story. We can be facilitators of democracy too. It’s really important to put so many different types of faces to that,” she said. Her grandfather is one of the most important figures in her life. He fled the Liberian Civil War to live with Brewster and her family in Washington state when she was very young.
“He had so much respect and reverence for the American democratic system because they didn’t have that in Liberia. It was not set up as well and was not as fair. For me, upholding that was really upholding why my family is here,” Brewster said.
An Election Day Drama Unfolds
On the big day, Brewster woke up at 3:30 a.m. to make sure she’d be on time for her poll station shift in Brooklyn, New York. Sporting her Whitman College facemask, she was surprised at what she found when she arrived.
“I got there at 5:01 a.m., panicking that I was late,” Brewster said. “But when I showed up, there were a bunch of people sitting around. No one knew what was going on.”
The polling site’s coordinator was nowhere to be found. Without guidance and authority, the polling location could not open. What Brewster and her fellow poll workers didn’t know at that early hour was that the designated coordinator for their site had been in a car accident and wouldn’t make it to open the building that day.
As the line outside the polling station grew with no signs of opening, frustrated and cold voters began to leave. Brewster decided to make an urgent plea for help on social media.
“I tweeted. I put it on my Instagram. I posted on Facebook. I made calls … But the fact is, we didn’t know what we were doing or how to open the polls,” she said. By that time, Brewster estimated over 200 people were waiting outside in near freezing temperatures.
Others shared Brewster’s plea online, and it wasn’t long before area churches and organizations showed up with hot food and encouragement for the voters waiting outside the polling station. Middle Collegiate Church, where Brewster is a member, made three trips worth of hot coffee and donuts for those standing in line. Pastor Jacqui Lewis, a friend and mentor of Brewster, was on the phone all morning using her connections to send help to the polling site.
Brewster, assigned to be a “line management clerk,” got to work doing everything she could to encourage people to continue to wait and to not miss their opportunity to vote.
Taking care of people is one of Brewster’s strong suits. While a student a Whitman, she was a tour guide. “I love making people feel welcome. It felt good to be like, ‘Hello, American! Come and vote!’”
As the minutes ticked by, a representative from the Board of Elections finally answered their calls. They were instructed to elect a new coordinator among themselves.
“We are the government. It's for the people, by the people,” Brewster said. “We were literally reading a manual, figuring out how to make sure this election happened,” Brewster said.
Eventually, the group was able to open the site. It was 7:40 a.m. when the first voter entered the building.
“All I cared about was making sure that the poll site stayed open,” Brewster said.
“How do you move forward in tough situations like these? That is something that I learned from Whitman.”
Brewster will continue to encourage others to join her at the polls. “If you have curiosity and respect for government, you are qualified to be a poll worker,” she said. “Bringing who you are, and your unique experience is exactly what is required.”
Brewster appears in "Paint," a dark comedy film about recent art school graduates trying to find their way in the New York City art world. The film was released in December 2020 and is available on many video-on-demand platforms.