How One Senior Helped Mail-In Ballot Efforts From Her Virginia Retirement Home : NPR

Margaret Sullivan poses with the homemade mask that she uses at the Goodwin House.

Tyrone Turner/DCist/WAMU


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Tyrone Turner/DCist/WAMU

Many people who usually spend election day volunteering at polling places will instead be spending the day at home this year, because of the pandemic. One such poll worker is 86-year-old Margaret Sullivan, who lives in a retirement home in Falls Church.

“It’s November 1st, and I’ve just finished setting all the clocks back. I’m not sure I wanted another hour of this particular year or month, but we’ve got it,” Margaret said in a voice recording from Sunday, the first day after daylight savings time ended.

Her 2020 has been defined by the pandemic. Goodwin House, the senior home where she lives, was on “lockdown” for five months, as Margaret calls it. Residents couldn’t leave, and no visitors were allowed in.

But 2020 has also been defined by the election. Margaret says she’s been fascinated by elections — and involved in them — since she was a kid.

“I remember very clearly, I was in the fifth grade and it was Franklin Roosevelt’s last election — it would be ’44 — being lined up as a class and marched downstairs,” she says.

Her school was a polling place and Margaret remembers watching as all the grown ups came in to vote.

Margaret lived overseas much of her life — first moving around with her parents, later with her husband Dan, who was in the foreign service. She witnessed elections that were not free or fair.

“We were in countries that were beginning to vote for the first time,” she says.

She was a teenager in Burma — now known as Myanmar — during the country’s first elections after independence in 1951 and 1952.

“They had boxes with the party names on them, so it wasn’t really a secret ballot,” Margaret recalls.

In 1971, she and Dan witnessed elections in Indonesia — the first held by strongman president Suharto. In 1986, Margaret was in the Philippines for the elections that helped force dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power — there was outright fraud, and an attempt to steal the election.

Compared to all this, Margaret says the 2020 presidential election so far is “just confusing.”

Confusing, in part, because so many people are voting by mail.

Margaret Sullivan and other residents of Goodwin House in Falls Church helping with voting-related questions. Margaret explains she lowered her mask to be heard more clearly while explaining the process.

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‘We Need To Sort Ourselves Out’

Margaret has been a poll worker in Fairfax County in just about every election since she moved back to the U.S. in the 1980s. This year, she’s been helping people with mail-in ballots.

“My phone has rung three times today with somebody who says, ‘Can you check where my ballot is?'”

She and a handful of others have been at it for two months — they set up tables in the lobby where they live. Margaret has a pair of earrings she wears, with big red and blue acrylic letters: V-O-T-E.

“This year, I think it’s more important than ever,” she says. “I think we need to sort ourselves out.”

Margaret says helping people vote this year has been satisfying — something stabilizing, in an otherwise destabilized world.

Outside the election work, life has been slowing going back to normal for Margaret. After months of not even starting her car — she’s again allowed to go out and go grocery shopping at the Giant down the street or go to the doctor’s office. Her building has started holding socially distant happy hours a few times a week:

“We sit there and we chat and it feels human.”

Even better: Her daughter who lives in Alexandria can finally come visit again — though it’s a lot more complicated than normal.

“She has to have a test and be negative any time she comes in. Up until now, we’ve had to sit outside; I don’t know quite what they’re going to do as the weather gets cooler.”

Margaret is still keeping in touch with family elsewhere in the country, on long calls over Zoom. And they recently held a virtual funeral service for her brother Ted — he was one of the first victims of COVID-19 in the U.S., back in March.

“It was lovely, but it’s not like hugging and being together.”

But having the service online did mean Margaret’s sister could join from Australia, and so could nieces and nephews in Europe — who otherwise might not have made it.

“We wound up dancing because he and his wife loved to dance. And here they were, these pictures of all of us all over the world, dancing for Ted. It was nice.”

Margaret says even though she’s not able to get up and dance anymore, she was still moving to the music.

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