In 2020, Circles USA chapters from coast-to-coast led a non-partisan push to grow civic engagement by getting people to the polls. Our Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) Challenge invited participants to help register friends, educate others about early and mail-in voting options, dedicate weekly virtual meetings to reviewing a sample ballot, and more. The GOTV campaign inspired chapters to get involved in the election to build momentum for systemic change. We organized numerous instructional webinars on topics including civic engagement 101, how to host a virtual forum with candidates for public office, how to facilitate voter education about local elections, the importance of the census, and how to promote voter turnout. A record number of chapters participated in CUSA’s 2020 GOTV challenge.
This primary election year, we caught up with Circles Coach Bonita Thomas of Circles West Orange, FL, with her Ally, Sandi Wallace. The women discussed the “organized chaos” many of us encounter at local polling locations—and how the civic education they gained working as Poll Clerk and Deputy with Orange County’s Adopt-a-Precinct (AAP) program helps them assert their voting rights.
Adopt-a-Precinct 101: What Do They Do For Communities?
Founded in 1998 with a mission to “ensure the integrity of the electoral process, enhance public confidence, and encourage citizen participation,” the AAP program is “a community partnership [which] allows organizations to serve their community [and] fundraise.”
Participating organizations “adopt” a precinct, or several precincts, during an election by providing the people to staff the polling place for that precinct. The Supervisor of Elections then writes a check to the organization, rather than paying the individual workers. …The AAP program funnels tax dollars through their office to AAP groups and back into the community in the form of scholarships, school programs, church, civic, and community outreach programs, and more…On average, an organization can earn up to $2,125 per adopted precinct, per election…. In 2022, over $336,735 was paid out to Adopt-A-Precinct groups over the three countywide elections.” [Source: Orange County Board of Elections]
Knowledge Is Power for Voters
Bonita, a Circle Leader graduate, now staff of Circles West Orange, and mother of five, served as the Adopt-a-Precinct Poll Deputy and described the polling experience at Orange County locations as tough to navigate in more than one way.
“[Orange County] has been doing a lot of rezoning districts,” she said, “so for whatever election, we have to play ‘is it this one, or is it this one that we go to?’” Bonita described the run around she and her mother experienced even from the poll worker who questioned her as follows.
The poll worker asked, “You don’t know where you vote at?” Bonita replied, ’No ma’am, I’m trying to figure out if it’s here. Or do we need to go downtown?”
“First she asked for my I.D. I said, ‘I have it here.’ She said, ‘Where’s your voter registration card?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I left that at home.’ She said, ‘Well, why didn’t you bring your voter registration card? You need to always bring your voter registration card when you come to vote!’
“Actually, I don’t need my voter registration card or my ID. When I went through election training, I served as Poll Deputy. So I know that I don’t need either one to vote!’ And she was like, ‘Well, you still should have bought it with you. Okay?’“
The barrier to participation was an immediate red flag to Bonita. “When I went back, the other poll deputy, he says, ‘Everything all right?’”
“That lady,” Bonita informed him, “is in there giving people the wrong information that could deter people from voting.”
“The poll deputy had literally put her hands on the hips,” she recalled. “It was a ‘scolding me’ type of thing. And had that been somebody else who didn’t know [their rights], they would have left and not come back.”
Bonita reflected on her family’s generational preparedness for experiencing resistance at the polls: “I kind of knew before, because my grandmother always let us know what we needed to vote. And, if we didn’t have it, ask to vote so you can cast that provisional ballot. They’ll match your signatures, all of that.
“The difference for me [now] was, I knew what I was talking about. I was confident in what I was saying. I always knew what my grandmother would tell us, but this time I was 100% certain that I was right. That was an empowering moment for me to be able to say, ‘No…and I can still cast my vote.’”
And so she did.
Has meeting resistance at the polls changed Bonita’s feelings about returning to her precinct in 2024?
Her reply was firm. “I’m ready to go. At first, I was a little nervous about being the poll deputy, but then I was like, ‘I have the power. I’m standing outside to let folks in.’ It was such a great experience to say hello to the people, to welcome them in, and know that I was the first face that they saw on their journey to cast their ballot.” Clearly, Bonita is ready to support voters to have a positive and encouraging experience.
The Big View: Election Access, Adopt-a-Precinct and Circles
Bonita’s Ally, Sandi Wallace, a longtime advocate for voter education, has been instrumental in expanding access in Orange County. Sandi pointed out that voter misinformation is bigger than an incident at just one precinct.
“I was talking to the [Orange County] Supervisor of Elections [Bill Cowles] one time,” Sandi shared. “This exact issue about a driver’s license makes him nuts, and he hammers it home all the time: You do not need a driver’s license to vote, you need a photo and signature I.D.! A local radio station will be saying on the radio, ‘Don’t forget to take your driver’s license.’ And he’ll have to call them up—‘Stop telling people they need a driver’s license!’ But people call in [saying], ‘Well, they moved to Florida from Tennessee; and where they lived in Tennessee, they had to use a driver’s license because that was the law there….’ That’s the other thing about elections. Election law is different all over the place.”
Sandi discovered Adopt-a-Precinct in 2020, when Lynette Fields (who heads Circles West Orange’s parent organization Poverty Solutions Group) sought volunteers for their Big View team’s local Get Out the Vote effort.
“I’m incredibly passionate about voting,” Sandi told us. “But I was like, ‘What is Get Out the Vote in the middle of a pandemic? Are we going to knock on doors? What does this look like?’ And Lynette said, ‘We’re going to have to be creative. What do you think we can do?’
“I got to thinking about how I feel as a voter and what would be helpful to me. Every time I go to vote, it’s very hard to find information about all the races. Everybody knows who they’re going to vote for, for president and vice president and governor and those sorts of things. But all the other stuff—it’s really hard to find information. So it started as this journey of, ‘How do we help aggregate information, so that our Circles community all [feel] empowered to cast their vote?’ Their voice was just as important as everyone else’s. With a friend of mine, we created a website; and we would just literally just comb the web, local news stations, newspapers. We found all sorts of online panel discussions.
“Part of it,” she reflected, “was about feeling empowered. And part of it— particularly in the 2020 time frame—was about understanding the process of how voting works logistically. To feel confident in the process that your vote gets counted, that it’s sealed, that it makes it from point A to point B without there being any nefarious shenanigans happening.
Having laid a foundation with GOTV, Sandi finally connected with Bill Cowles at a work function and asked if he’d speak at Circles. And he said, ‘I’d be happy to, if I can ask something of you: I’d like you to adopt a precinct.’ And I said, ‘What is Adopt-a-Precinct?’ He goes: ‘It’s my legacy.’
“We thought, how cool would it be if we could get our Circles community out there? It’s one thing for the Supervisor of Elections to come tell you how our election process works; but what if you could actually be a part of the process…to be able to say to the people in your circle of influence, ‘Don’t tell me that there’s fraud in the election system. I’m part of the election system. I’ve done it right.’”
Sandi and her Big View team were clear that Circles members should be compensated for their work. “We asked the question, ‘If somebody is there as a Circle Leader, or had been a Leader previously, could we pay them?’ And the Supervisor of Elections said, ‘We give you the money. You can do whatever you want!’ And so our model of Adopt-a-Precinct looks a little bit different than other people’s; [our Circle Leaders train] with Allies and the Poverty Solutions Group staff. If you’re an Ally or member of the staff, the money goes in as a fundraiser. But if you’re a Leader coming in, they actually earn pay for that day.
“We are building a group of people that really understand the ins and outs [ov voting],” Sandi finished, smiling. “All of us have to go through [roughly four to eight hours of] training like any normal paid poll worker does every single election because it’s required by law.”
Voting Freedom: a Legacy of Integrity
When asked why election integrity matters right now, Bonita and Sandi both cited beloved elders and community members who have impressed upon them the importance of voting.
“The hair is standing up on my arm!” Bonita said. “Every time that I go and cast my ballot and take my children along, it’s about honoring the folks that sacrifice so much more than just their time to go to training, to hold the door open. It’s about all of those folks that were not able to; and to be able to say, ‘Yes, I can run because you walked.’ That’s what it’s about. For me and one of our Circle Leaders, Ms. Charlie May—who is 92-come-on-Lord-I-believe-it years old!—to hear her tell the story of the [Ku Klux] Klan coming down the road and taking folks away. And knowing that she lived through that. And even when she wasn’t able to vote…she was still there. I’d be doing a disservice not to honor that.”
Bonita thought for a moment, then added: “As our Supervisor of Elections says, there is no voter fraud in Orange County. That matters. I have a couple of friends that actually do not vote, have never registered because they don’t believe in the system.
“And I say, ‘You can’t be a part of the change if you’re not willing to change your point of view!’ We may not always get who we want or what we want in the election. But to know that I took the time to see if I could be that one person that made the change…I’ll do it every time. Every single time.”