Hundreds of Iraq, Afghanistan veterans volunteer as poll workers to protect the vote

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Tara Copp
·4 min read
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Hundreds of military veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are volunteering as poll workers to help voters this election and to take the place of older poll workers who are at greater risk from COVID-19.

“I’ve never volunteered as a poll worker until now,” said retired Army Capt. Dan Berschinski, 36, who lost both legs when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2009. “It was the pandemic more than anything, with the realization that poll workers are an instrumental part of our voting infrastructure. I thought, now would be a good time for me to fill in.”

Berschinski has volunteered to serve as a poll worker in Fulton County, Georgia, where he said the combination of the coronavirus and anxiety about the reliability of mail-in ballots has created “a perfect storm” of pressure on their voting system.

“I think we’re going to have a higher in-person turnout than ever before, probably just due to the overwhelming interest in this election, but also some people are going to be reluctant to vote by mail,” Berschinski said.

Georgia’s voting challenges during the spring primary elections inspired former Army National Guard Sgt. Christopher Purdy to send out a call to fellow veterans to work at the polls, through the nonpartisan organization Veterans for American Ideals.

Veterans for American Ideals is focusing on getting veterans to also assist in Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. So far, more than 700 veterans have signed up, with 500 of those registered in the four target states, Purdy said. He estimates about 60 percent of the veterans who have signed up served in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Veterans for American Ideals launched in 2015 and focused on efforts like securing U.S. visas for Iraqi and Afghan translators whose lives were threatened due to their work for American forces; this is the first election the group has organized volunteers for, Purdy said.

The threat of COVID, potential election-related violence and questions about whether mail-in ballots will be properly counted inspired the volunteers, said Purdy, who deployed to Iraq in 2011.

“We just want to make sure that people have trust in the process,” Purdy said. “Vets are people who know how to serve, know how to operate in challenging environments.”

Marine Corps veteran Joseph Jenkins deployed to Al Anbar province in Iraq during some of the bloodiest fighting there in two deployments from 2006 to 2008.

He now teaches physics and robotics at a high school in Dallas. The questions raised by President Donald Trump about the legitimacy of the mail-in vote, and potential threats of violence on Election Day inspired him to serve as a poll worker.

In Iraq, “you look around in towns like Hit or Ramadi, and you see these people, and you know the ultimate goal is to get them a better life, and what that is is a representative form of government, a free and fair election that serves the people,” said Jenkins, 35.

In the 2020 election in the United States, “people are so afraid. They are afraid of getting COVID. They are afraid of violence at the polls,” he said.

Last week, Michigan banned firearms at polling sites in response to concerns that armed militias would show up at voting sites to intimidate voters.

Jenkins said suggestions from extremist groups that the polls may not be safe, “that there might be a time where ideas aren’t decided by Democratic vote, but by violence, and ‘might equals right’ — that doesn’t sit well with me.”

“I think that veterans can sort of stand up and lend some legitimacy, some cover to that process,” Jenkins said. “That’s just one trusted institution, one sacred institution protecting another one.”

“When you become a poll worker you go and take an oath,” Jenkins said. “That oath is essentially to support and defend this process that has been around since 1789, it’s very similar to what you do when you become a Marine.”

Marine Corps and Army National Guard veteran Gerry Werhan, 67, served in the military for 23 years and deployed overseas during Operation Desert Storm. He knows he is in a higher risk bracket than others for COVID-19. But he signed up to be a poll worker for the first time anyway, and has already begun helping people through the early voting process in North Carolina.

“I am simply proud to serve any citizen who cares enough to vote in our country’s elections and it doesn’t matter what their persuasion is,” Werhan said.

“The mood in the country is kind of distrustful of most things they hear or read in the news, so if they know there’s a problem, they probably have a lingering bad feeling about how efficient the postal service would be in getting absentee ballots processed and delivered on time,” Werhan said. “So that was going to be driving more people to the polls as a result.”

Werhan said on his first day assisting with early voting, a few voters expressed concerns to him.

“A couple of voters have expressed a little bit of anxiety. One came up to me yesterday and asked if I’d seen anybody with guns in plain sight around the polling site and I said no, and there hasn’t been anything like that.”