Dekova Batey woke up on Tuesday more than two hours before the sun came up. 4:30 was early. Even for him. But it was the day that all of America had been anticipating. Election Day.
Batey knew the drill. After all, he’d been an election volunteer since April 1995, a few days after he turned 18. But this time was different, and he could feel the weight bear down on him. The country was polarized now more than ever and struggling to claw its way out of a pandemic that showed no signs of slowing.
Batey trudged out of bed, washed his face and dressed himself in a blue button-down shirt and burgundy pants. At 43, his beard had turned salt-and-pepper. Today, it poked out from behind a pale blue mask as he drove himself to Springhill Baptist Church.
He had a precinct to run.
Precinct 19 is where 1,837 Alachua County voters cast their ballots. No doubt they had heard the cries of voter suppression and the potential for chaos across America — especially so in critical electoral battlegrounds like Florida. No doubt they had fears for their health; people at other precincts in the county reported seeing unmasked voters. The state would report 4,367 new cases of COVID-19 on Election Day.
The voters at Precinct 19 were counting on Batey to keep it all in line. On this momentous Tuesday, American democracy rested in the hands of volunteers. Batey was one of them.
At 5:45 a.m., he rumbled into the vacant parking lot in his seafoam green Chrysler. Even the birds seemed to wait for Batey’s arrival that morning. They started singing as he stepped out of his car.
He opened the church door and walked in. Six poll workers awaited his instruction.
“Tell us what we need to do.”
Batey became Mr. Batey to them, not out of formality but out of respect. He was the one leading them through a grueling 12-hour shift for the first presidential election held during a global pandemic in over 100 years.
They had no choice but to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
In the 25 years that Batey has worked on elections, he had learned not to get nervous. Even when everyone else around him was. Even when the tension was tangible.
Supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden stood 150 feet from the polls with Democratic voting guides at the ready. They braved the taunts of President Trump’s supporters whizzing by in their pickup trucks. “Trump will win!” they yelled.
The first election Batey remembers was the 1984 race when Ronald Reagan battled Walter Mondale for a second term. Batey was a second grader then at Lake Forest Elementary School. He flipped open his weekly reader to see images of Reagan and the American flag. Batey didn’t know much about elections then, but he knew that one was heated. Still, the fire of electoral politics didn’t scare him. He walked right in.
It felt similar to what he saw this election cycle. America today seemed more divided than ever. Many believed the nation’s fate rested in the ballot box.
But on Election Day, Batey shut his mind off to the noise. He appeared relaxed. Every instruction came out clear and energized.
First, open the sealed bag containing keys and codes for ballot boxes and machines. Batey did this extra carefully — he had to show they were not tampered with. “We call it the money bag,” he said. “It’s just as valuable.” Next, unlock the towering blue crate cradling the election materials. Power the ballot tabulators and voter identification tablets. Stake the voting signs into the ground. Check every checklist — twice.
At 6:16 a.m., Batey led his staff in an oath; each vowed to ensure a fair election process. His tone was like a homeroom teacher eager to see his students succeed. It was early still, but after a seemingly incessant campaign season, the hour was finally upon him.
After so many elections, Batey’s routine felt like clockwork, but hardly. In the age of COVID, things were different.
George Zinger and Heather Kates, first-time ballot distributors, put up plexiglass shields. There was a green cup for sanitized pens and a red cup for used at each table. Cleaning solutions and PPE were at the ready. The volunteers checked each other’s temperatures; all measured at around the normal 98.6 degrees.
“We oughta check for a pulse!” Ray Brady joked when someone’s temperature was 92 degrees. His task of the day was to verify voter registrations. He was one of two familiar faces on Batey’s team. They had worked together at the same precinct in the last local election.
Brady felt at ease with Batey. He had faith in Batey’s knowledge and experience. Besides, Batey was a nice guy to be around.
Batey didn’t see himself with the same wonder. He felt he was just another member of the community. Anyone could do this, he thought. Anyone should do this.
But few do. Alachua County recorded only 725 other active election workers, with five on standby.
Usually, a good chunk of the volunteers are older people, and Batey had grown accustomed to being the youngest in the room. But not today. For the first time in years, he led a staff in their 20s and 30s. Election work doesn’t usually seem to draw in a younger crowd.
But Batey wasn’t the usual teenager, according to his mom.
From an early age, he was fascinated with politics and civic duty. Some people have to be pushed into participation. Batey fell in naturally. It was in his blood.
He grew up in Gainesville, the son of a community servant and the middle child of two sisters. He spent most of his time with his immediate family, with few friends his own age. Batey remembers his mother Gale visiting Arredondo, the neighborhood she grew up in, to feed senior citizens and take in homeless families.
“I may get a little bit from her, maybe I’ll give her credit,” he mused.
She must have rubbed off on him.
He joined student organizations in high school and ended up in leadership roles. Students from his alma mater, Eastside High School, are familiar with a framed picture of 18-year-old Batey smiling in the auditorium. In his senior year, Kim Barton, Alachua County’s supervisor of elections, made a routine visit to encourage student civic participation. Batey was then barely voting age but not only did he register, he volunteered his services as an election worker. While his classmates attended parties, Batey sat through city commission meetings.
He centered his entire life around service to his community. That’s just who he is, said his mother, Gale Batey, 70, with whom he shares a one-story house she’s owned since 1994. The two have always lived together. She often wonders why her son, after 25 years of political work, has never considered a run for commissioner or even mayor.
But Batey wasn’t interested. He would rather devote his time to building a platform for others. On any other Tuesday, he’s a bicycle and pedestrian program coordinator for the City of Gainesville. He’s used to being the one trying to keep everyone safe.
By 7 a.m. on Tuesday, when the polls were about to open, a line had formed outdoors, though the action would be slow at Precinct 19. Batey suspected COVID played a role. And many had voted early or by mail. At Precinct 19, more than half of the voters had done so.
Batey had expected a rush around 5 in the evening when many people got off work. But on this day, there was none. He walked outside to make sure there wasn’t a line of people waiting at the wrong door.
Voters were arriving now in short, small bursts. About 30 ballots were submitted every two hours on average for the precinct. The slow pace caught Batey off guard. He had expected it to be busier in a presidential election, but the pace did not pick up much throughout the day.
The final hour of voting began at 6 and the work was far from done. An evening chill descended on Gainesville and the parking lot filled up one last time before it emptied again.
With 6 minutes remaining before the polls closed, one last voter parked his car and ran inside the precinct. Batey met him cheerfully, thankful to have squeezed in another voice in the final moments.
And then, at 7, the doors closed. Batey and his team fell into friendly conversation, relieved the day went smoothly. They packed up their election materials, cleaned the tables and filed the forms – final quests at the end of a long journey.
Batey found great comfort in the stellar performance of his team. He felt like a proud dad.
Most had been strangers in the morning but by evening, they’d forged friendships. This was Batey’s favorite part of the day: connecting with people the way he never had the chance to in his youth.
Nellie Watts, an assistant clerk who has worked with Batey for about a year, said Batey tries to ensure poll workers leave with a smile on their faces. Tuesday night, they all did.
Later, nearly two-and-a-half hours after the polls closed, Batey climbed back into his Chrysler and headed home. On the drive, his mind raced as he processed the significance of the day. He could finally exhale.
He stopped at Publix to pick up a few groceries and debated buying a pint of Blue Bell ice cream as a treat for a job well done. Cherry was his favorite flavor. But he decided against it that night; he already had a stash of Rum Raisin in his freezer. That would do just fine. His mother was waiting for him when he arrived home.
He went to sleep Tuesday not knowing the outcome of this election. No one did. But he had done everything he could to make sure the process was fair. And he knew he would do it again the next time.