Michigan election-based workers are holding things down in 2020 to ensure accuracy at the polls. Photos provided by Adriana Escamilla, Rich Steenland, and Leah Bectel.
Michigan election-based workers are holding things down in 2020 to ensure accuracy at the polls.

The letter writer. The ballot counter. The poll worker. These are the local unsung heroes helping Michigan through an election while in the midst of a pandemic.

MICHIGAN—At her light-colored wooden dining room table Adriana Escamilla, 37, sits down and does her part. Every day Escamilla helps ensure that voters get a shot at the democratic process.

Escamilla, from the Kalamazoo area with roots in southwest Michigan, hand-writes letters to her hometown community, encouraging them to get out and vote. Once written, she neatly stacks her letters in multiple piles with dozens of stamps nearby, awaiting their turn on the envelope.

In an age when voter registration drives have gone by the wayside to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19, Escamilla is one of many doing her small part to get Michiganders to use their voices this election. 

A Letter Writer

Escamilla took it upon herself to mobilize a group of volunteers in and around Kalamazoo to make weekly calls and write countless Vote Forward letters. The nonprofit organization’s mission is to empower grassroots volunteers to help register voters from under-represented demographics and encourage them to vote, according to their website. 

READ MORE: ‘I Honestly Can’t Imagine Not Voting’: This Michigan Councilwoman Heads to the Polls 

“I kept hearing people saying, ‘I hope Biden wins.’ We need to stop hoping and start voting,” Escamilla said, adding that a recent visit to her hometown inspired her, too, to start writing the letters. “I grew up in [the] southwest [region] with five siblings. I go home every summer. When I went home I thought of what I could do.”

Her trip unveiled “messages of hate” scattered about in graffiti throughout her hometown on local businesses from people who wrote derogatory things about the Black Lives Matter movement and more.

“It was hurtful and sad,” Escamilla said of what was supposed to be a fun trip back home. “I thought there would be more of the community speaking out about this—I didn’t hear much. It really wrenches my heart.”

Her family and friends also help with writing letters and have Zoom writing letter parties and more. On Oct. 17, her group will send the letters out to thousands of recipients. In the letters are non-partisan information about why the letter writer is voting.

“So far I have about 600 letters done between my family, friends, and me,” Escamilla said. “The reason I got involved is because I love Michigan, I care about Michigan.” 

SEE ALSO: Here’s a Breakdown of All the Michigan Ballot Proposals 

A Clerk And Ballot Counter 

It’s their job to make sure ballots get properly counted. They took oaths to do so. 

Roseville City Clerk Rich Steenland and ballot counter Katherine Gunvalson, chairperson of the absentee voter counting board in Roseville, have many stories to tell about the challenges and triumphs of ensuring everyone’s ballot is processed at their local clerk’s office. 

“One thing I do is to make sure we collect all and any ballots that may be sitting in the post office,” Steenland said.

A machine tabulator tabulates the votes and the ballot counters make certain that the numbers match up with how many ballots they have in person, Steenland explained about a process he feels is secure and accurate. 

“Whatever numbers are in that tabulator, they are automatically sent to the Macomb County Clerk’s Office,” Steenland said. “Citizens will be able to see the numbers before I can; they are real time. This has been a very, very busy election year.”

Gunvalson said that for almost four years she’s been in her current position. She oversees the sequestered team who opens the ballot envelope and pulls the ballots out so that “everything is accounted for.”

Gunvalson added that when those ballots are open, they are stacked and given to her and her co-chair to count.

“We run them through machines,” she said, adding that the process is confidential. “We don’t see any vote counts; We match the number of ballots we’ve run through with the ballots we’ve put in to make sure it matches.”

Gunvalson said this current election—their third one this year— is a big one. 

“We’ve sent out over 10,000 ballots and received 4,000 back already,” she said three weeks before the election. “We put them all in precinct order and ballot order and keep them coordinated and accounted for.”

The Grand Rapids resident, a self-described municipal “engineer by day,” devotes other time towards democratic causes like elections. The Generation Z’er also functions as the statewide League of Women Voters secretary.

The past seven or so years, she has worked between 15 and 20 polls—including two elections in Houghton, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She initially worked at one election precinct run by a family friend, and the rest was history, she said. 

READ MORE: Meet the Gen Z Michigander Who Is Already a Seasoned Poll Worker at 23 

A Poll Worker

Working the polls this election was a no-brainer for Grand Rapids resident Leah Bectel, 23. 

She’s been doing so since he was in her teens and this year became an even more important year to get involved. 

Bectel (who has voted every year since she turned 18) said that she doesn’t mind risking her safety to let others let their voice be heard on Election Day. And as a young poll worker, she is stepping into this position typically held by older individuals who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“I think it means stepping up for your country no matter what your political views are,” Bectel said. “It is important to contribute to the overall success of the elections—it is our right to vote and we have to do that for citizens.”

Bectel’s responsibility this year is to be an oncall runner. She will go to different precincts in Georgetown Township (about 50 miles south of Kalamazoo) to ensure things run smoothly there. 

“I will answer questions about people who have moved, have spoiled ballots and all the weird questions you get throughout the day,” Bectel said of helping voters with possibly defective ballots.

When asked about how she feels about seeing younger poll workers stepping up in this election, her answer was optimistic.

“I feel hopeful that the next generation is stepping up to help out,” Bectel said. “I think this year is probably the most important election I’ve worked with because a lot of the disinformation flying around about the election not being safe and mail-in voting being fraudulent.”

Bectel said on Election Day she will do her part to make sure the elections are fair.

“It is the most important part of our democracy, I believe,” she said.

SEE ALSO: Know Your Rights: Your Most Frequent Questions About Voter Intimidation, Answered