S5, Ep. 20: Attending the State of the Union

Hear about attending the State of the Union address and working as an election worker on Super Tuesday.

Mar 14, 2024

Get a first-hand account of attending the State of the Union address on this episode. Amanda Tyler talks with Holly Hollman about her experience, providing a new way to think about who represents our country in the room during the president’s address. She shares about her invitation and various discussions with members of Congress about Christian nationalism. Plus, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to serve your country by working at a polling place on Election Day, hear about Amanda’s experience in Texas and how you can do the same, helping to ensure free and fair elections for our representatives in D.C.

Segment 1 (starting at 00:38): The cost of speaking out against Christian nationalism

Amanda mentioned this article by Jack Jenkins for Religion News Service: Freethought Caucus’ Huffman invites Christian nationalism critic to State of the Union

Read the report published by BJC and the Freedom From Religion Foundation on Christian nationalism and the January 6, insurrection.

Click here to watch Rep. Jared Huffman’s floor speech on the dangers of Christian nationalism, which mentions the joint report. 

Hear Amanda’s conversation with Rob Reiner and Dan Partland on their film “God & Country” in episode 12 of this season of Respecting Religion


Segment 2 (starting at 08:44): Attending the State of the Union address

Amanda and Rep. Jared Huffman filmed a video together before they went to the State of the Union address. You can watch it on Instagram

Amanda and Holly discussed the Alabama ruling impacting IVF treatments in the state on episode 18 of this season of Respecting Religion.


Segment 3 (starting at 30:23): Serving as an election worker

Holly spoke with Chris Crawford of Protect Democracy about ways people of faith can be involved in free and fair elections on episode 14 of this season of Respecting Religion.

Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC.

Transcript: Season 5, Episode 20: Attending the State of the Union (some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity)


Segment 1: The cost of speaking out against Christian nationalism (starting at 00:23)

AMANDA: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast series where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC.

HOLLY: And I’m general counsel Holly Hollman. Today we’re going to take a moment to talk about democracy and a couple specific things that are part of how our democratic process works. It’s a presidential election year, so we’re focused on our role in elections and our relationship to our elected officials and the ways that they represent and serve the people. Specifically, we’re going to look at what it’s like to serve as an election worker and what it’s like to attend the State of the Union address.

AMANDA: Well, hi, Holly. It’s great to see you on video today. We’re not in the same place, and in fact, we’ve kind of switched places.

HOLLY: A little role reversal.

AMANDA: Yeah. I’m back in D.C. for a few days, and you’re on the road.

HOLLY: I’m in the panhandle of Florida, visiting family and here for a basketball tournament and just kind of enjoying being outside the Beltway, getting a little different perspective on things.

AMANDA: Yeah. Well, I was very much inside the Beltway last night, so we’re recording today, Friday, March 8. Of course, we’ll air this as we normally do. We’ll release it on Thursday. But we are doing kind of an immediate reaction to some of my patriotic experiences this week.

It’s been quite a week. On Tuesday, I was home in Dallas, and I took a personal day from work, and I was working at a polling location for Super Tuesday, and then Thursday morning, got on a flight to D.C. so that I could attend the State of the Union address last night here in D.C.

So it’s been quite a week, and I can’t wait to — we haven’t really talked about this yet, so we are going to be talking about it for the first time today for our podcast listeners as well.

HOLLY: Well, and I’m excited to hear about it, because our work in D.C. makes us very aware of how the State of the Union sort of disrupts normal traffic flow and news flow and all around us in D.C., and so it’s kind of part of the rhythm of our work. But I’m really excited to hear your kind of insider view today.

So let’s start there, Amanda, with the State of the Union. Your invitation even made the news. Congressman Jared Huffman invited you to be his one guest. And for those of you who don’t know, each member of Congress gets to invite one guest to the State of the Union, and that person gets to be in the chamber during the entire event, alongside other invitees.

Congressman Huffman is a member of the House of Representatives from California, and perhaps surprising to some, he’s the only openly humanist member of Congress. In fact, he’s the co-founder of the Congressional Freethought Caucus and serves as the current co-chair with Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland.

AMANDA: Yes. So Congressman Huffman and Congressman Raskin have been strong allies of BJC in sounding the alarm of Christian nationalism and how it’s an urgent threat to American democracy and to the constitutional principles of religious freedom for all, and some people might have found it surprising that the only openly nonreligious member of Congress would invite me — a Baptist who doesn’t even live in his district — to be his one guest for the State of the Union.

And, in fact, Religion News Service ran a story about it last week which we will link in show notes. The title of the story explains it. The title they used was, “Freethought Caucus’ Huffman invites Christian nationalism critic to the State of the Union.”

And that’s me. I’ll claim it. I’m a critic of Christian nationalism.

HOLLY: I like that short way to describe your work as the lead organizer of Christians Against Christian Nationalism, as well as just, you know, seeing you there with a member of Congress, reminding people of the importance of fighting for religious freedom for all.

BJC began that campaign, Christians Against Christian Nationalism, back in 2019, and it’s centered around a statement of principles that has now more than 36,000 Christians who’ve signed on, of course, including you and me. It’s a place to provide definitions of Christian nationalism, to provide resources for people wanting to understand it more, to talk about it, to share their experiences with it, and to learn how to talk to others.

And it’s really a strong way for Christians just to say, No, Christianity is not the same thing as this political ideology that we often see in the news and in the public square of Christian nationalism.

AMANDA: And Congressman Huffman became aware of our work at BJC and Christians Against Christian Nationalism when we co-published the report on Christian nationalism and January 6 with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and since then had me to speak to the Congressional Freethought Caucus and then used a lot of our materials in preparing a floor speech that he gave about the dangers of Christian nationalism and how it overlapped with January 6. And in fact, to this date, he remains the only member of Congress to talk about the dangers of Christian nationalism on the floor of Congress.

We recently had the chance to work with Representative Huffman when he served as the congressional host for the first advanced screening of “God & Country,” the new documentary, and that screening was held at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in January.

HOLLY: And, Amanda, you did a really nice interview with the producer of that film, Rob Reiner, and the director, Dan Partland. That was back in episode 12. And one thing that I remember that really struck me was the reaction from Rob Reiner when you noted that the January 6 Committee didn’t mention Christian nationalism in its report.

He said he understood why, and that’s because, he said, that Christian nationalism is what he called a flash point. He said, “You run the danger of getting people to discount what you say if you go down that road.” I think he was also pointing to the danger in general for speaking out.

AMANDA: Yeah, I think that’s right. And Congressman Huffman certainly understands the political and potentially personal consequences that people who speak out against Christian nationalism might feel, and that’s why I really commend him on his courage for doing so, for being such an outspoken critic himself about Christian nationalism.

And, you know, we didn’t speak directly about his motivations for inviting me, but I think part of it was so that he could introduce me to some of his colleagues in the House of Representatives and help them understand that, hey, here’s this Christian speaking out against Christian nationalism; she represents thousands and thousands, if not millions, more like her, and to have that kind of sense of support and backing up and encouragement for his colleagues to follow his lead and do the same, to speak out against Christian nationalism more forcefully.

HOLLY: I’m really glad Congressman Huffman did that, because we know from our decades and decades of experience at BJC that faithful people from Christianity and other religions can fully be their religious selves and fight for religious freedom for all, and there need not be any kind of fear that criticizing Christian nationalism is the same thing as criticizing someone’s religion. So thanks for setting that good example and thank you, Congressman Huffman, for making those introductions.



Segment 2: Attending the State of the Union address (starting at 08:44)

HOLLY: So now that we know why you were there, Amanda, I want to know. Tell us. What was it like?

AMANDA: Yeah. So, you know, I would say a little after six o’clock, I made my way over to Congressman Huffman’s office, and I was walking over there with our producer, Cherilyn Guy, and we passed by on the sidewalk, we passed right by Marjorie Taylor Greene. So I was like —

HOLLY: [Laughing.] Wait. How did you notice her, Amanda? How did you pick her out? You know, aren’t there hundreds of members of Congress?

AMANDA: I know. I’m just such a political watcher that I just — I have them all memorized. I will say she did not have her MAGA hat on at that point.

HOLLY: Okay.

AMANDA: She just had a bright red jacket, so at this point, we didn’t know all that was going to happen at that moment. So we just passed, didn’t say anything to her, but, you know, met with the congressman. We actually went and did a media interview together for an NBC affiliate in the Bay Area, and then we walked over to the reception that Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries was hosting in his office suite.

I’ll say, Congressman Huffman said, you know, it’s important that you eat as much as you can here, because it’s going to be a long night. So I really appreciated having him as my host and kind of showing me the ropes.

And it was very crowded, because in this reception were all the members of Congress — all the Democratic members of Congress, because as we know, everything on the Hill is very partisan, and because I was the guest of a Democratic member of Congress, that was the event that we were invited into.

HOLLY: This year. Things could change one day.

AMANDA: Sure. Yeah, exactly. BJC is a nonpartisan organization, and so we will work with members of any party who are willing to stand up for the principles of religious freedom for all.

But in this suite, we got to see a lot of members of Congress, and it was wonderful, because Congressman Huffman was a great host, and as we walked around, he would introduce me as his guest and the fact that we were working together to oppose Christian nationalism, to draw attention and raise awareness of what a threat Christian nationalism is to our democracy and to, just as we hoped, pick up some more supporters for our cause.

We also got to take a photo with Leader Jeffries, and as we were standing in line, I said, you know, Congressman Huffman, Leader Jeffries is a Baptist. And so when we got up, he introduced me as a fellow Baptist, and we had a great back and forth about the dangers of Christian nationalism right before our quick photo op.

And then at that point, it was time to go upstairs and find my seat in the gallery. Every guest is given a ticket, and the ticket had an assigned seat on it, so I had to go to a particular gallery. I was located in the box that was just one removed from the First Lady’s box, so —

HOLLY: Nice.

AMANDA: — I had a great view of the whole floor. And we were in there for about an hour before the president arrived. But it went by pretty quickly, because there were a lot of things to watch and a lot of people to talk to around me.

HOLLY: I was watching on TV, and of course, everyone sees the First Lady, and they zoom in there. And I knew you were there somewhere, but I was worried that you were off in a far corner. So I’m so glad to hear that you had a special view, different from but in a way similar to what the viewers at home have. You know, I had broadcasters telling me about it, and you had that firsthand experience.

AMANDA: Yeah. You know, I was listening to the New York Times “Daily” podcast this morning and their recap of the State of the Union, and the host likened the State of the Union as the Super Bowl for political nerds, and it was — during that time, I really felt that. Like it was fun to look around and see who was there. I passed right by Pete Buttigieg in the lobby, got to see and meet a lot of other members of Congress who were there, and then, of course, when the Supreme Court justices walked in, that was quite a thrill.

And I’ll say, it was really wonderful to watch the reception that Justice Jackson received, particularly from the Black women who serve in Congress. They were rushing up to take selfies with her on the floor. And there was just a real sense of excitement and anticipation in the chamber, which just made the moment, I think — built the moment even more as we waited there.

It was also a rare place where you don’t have a cell phone. You have to check all your electronics, and so it was great to really be present there. Now, all the members of Congress have cell phones, but the people in the gallery don’t. And so there wasn’t the distraction of people being on their phones or trying to take photos or selfies themselves, and we could just watch.

HOLLY: (Laughing.) Yeah. But — I’m laughing, because when you watch at home on TV, you see how many members are so into getting selfies with each other. And so I think it’s pretty funny that they can’t trust their guests to be distracted with the cell phones, but they can trust themselves. I’m kind of questioning that a little bit.

AMANDA: Yeah. There are definitely two statuses at the State of the Union. But, yeah. I mean, and then, I think, once the president arrived and began his speech, our experience was probably very much the same. I will say the acoustics in the chamber are not as great as at home, and so I had to really concentrate to hear at certain points. But it was very thrilling.

HOLLY: You also don’t have your brother interjecting his ideas and missing it either.

AMANDA: That’s true. Fewer distractions in some way, other than the distractions that were happening in the chamber itself — right? — and some of the drama and the interruptions.

I did say, you know, here’s our religion and the law angle for the State of the Union, in addition to Christian nationalism, Holly. I noticed that — and I saw this mentioned later. I think it was Senator Warnock who likened President Biden’s speech almost to a sermon or the cadence of preaching. But it did feel in certain places almost like call and response, where the members of Congress were really responding — and the Democratic members of Congress were really responding in a way to kind of encourage the president on.

And so there is that aspect of what it’s like to give a speech, both to a live audience and to the millions of people who are watching at home. You know, I received it as a live audience member. You received it as someone watching from home. And it’s the same speech, but it kind of can feel different from those two vantage points.

HOLLY: Yeah. And President Biden’s job is to connect to all of those people watching at home, but I can see how he would definitely feed off of the response in the room. Not only that. He’s really good at responding to the negative stuff, too. He’s not afraid of engaging, and that’s where, Amanda, you can tell me anything that stood out, because there definitely were a couple of points — and I think I saw him do this in a prior speech — where he got some comment from the Republican side and was willing to take it on in the moment.

AMANDA: Oh, absolutely. I mean, and you can clearly tell when the drafted remarks get put away and he’s taking it on. And I just — you know, no political statement here. I just really marvel at that ability to transition, especially knowing how many people are watching you live do this. But to be able to pivot and to be able to respond, I think quite effectively, to what’s going on.

You also — I mean, you see this, because they keep panning the camera back and forth. But I had a real — I was kind of over the Republican section, you know. And I think I just saw the Republican side stand up on two occasions, one when the families of hostages that were taken by Hamas were recognized, and also when President Biden invoked Bloody Sunday and recognized the woman who was present with Representative John Lewis on the Pettus Bridge. And so that was striking to see just how it — it was obvious that those were the directions. Like we’re not going to applaud on anything —

HOLLY: Well, Amanda, don’t you think that dynamic, as well as the dynamic of much more back and forth in the audience, is just a reflection of our times? I look forward to hearing some of the historians who talk about State of the Union addresses, and they always, put in a historical context, will, you know, note what’s different.

But it seems in my lifetime watching this that not only is there more of that polarization where you don’t have both parties standing for very clear ideas that both parties would stand for, that most Americans care about. I think that’s notable as well as, you know, a lot more interruptions.

And I think just President Biden was kind of showing off his strength, in that he does like people and like to interact with them, and is willing to engage. You know, if someone’s going to yell something out to him, he just might say something back and try to use it to win people over to his perspective.

AMANDA: Yeah. I agree with that. I also thought what some of the most profound moments for me from the speech were when he was talking about what’s at stake for our democracy, really towards the beginning of the speech and then coming back to it at the end, bookending his remarks, just talking about —

One, I so appreciated how he called out that there is no room in our country for political violence. That is a topic that we have talked about before. I thought that emphatic statement was really effective. And I also really liked when he said, You can’t love your country only when you win.

HOLLY: Yeah. Right.

AMANDA: And we have talked about those themes of patriotism versus nationalism in the context of talking about Christian nationalism. And I just thought from, you know, an oratory perspective, that was such an effective way to get that point across.

HOLLY: I think so, too. I mean, and it’s something that I think bothers a lot of Americans anyway, this idea that you don’t accept the results of an election. I’ll speak today just as a sports mom. Look, we raise our kids to go into the games, to play by the rules, to fight as hard as you can. At the end of the day, win or lose, you shake the hands of your opponents and you move on and you be thankful that you got to play.

I love hearing your reaction, and I’m really curious. Who did you recognize? Who were some of the other guests near you, and did you have any interesting conversations?

AMANDA: I did. So from my place in the gallery, had a great view of the floor and was really, you know, looking out for any members of Congress that I might recognize. And later, I will say, I was so confused, because I was like, there’s someone who looks a lot like George Santos here, but I thought they kicked him out. But later I found out, he was there. He was standing kind of behind the seats, but he was like very close to where I was, so I had a very good view of him, so that’s someone I recognized.

And as we mentioned, every member of Congress can invite a guest, and some of them will invite someone from their home district. Some will invite their spouse, if they have one. Some will invite a member of their staff to take their ticket. And so I was seated in the galleries with all of these other guests who were there.

And on one side, I had a gentleman who worked at the auto plant in Belvidere, Illinois, that the president mentioned. And so it was interesting to see these guests. They would react to the lines in the speech that most resonated with them. So it’s not just members of Congress who are applauding and who are standing at different lines. The gallery would do that as well, which was fun to be participatory in the speech in that way.

And then I also saw a number of spouses of other members of Congress up there. There was a congressional staffer sitting to my right. I felt that she was very fortunate. I was a congressional staffer for eight years, and I never got to go to a State of the Union, so that was great that her member had invited her to participate. She had been a congressional staffer for 17 years, serving for two different members of Congress.

Across the way, like on the other side, somebody’s guest was Miss America, and Miss America was there with a crown and her sash on.

HOLLY: Oh, wow.

AMANDA: No. I would not have recognized Miss America without the crown and the sash. And the woman next to me was like, Is that Miss America. I’m like, Yes.

And then just one seat away from me was someone who was also from Dallas, so that was kind of a small world, that we were seated so close together. And she was a guest of her representative who is also my representative, Representative Colin Allred, and she was there as one of the large delegation of people who were making a statement about the importance of reproductive rights.

She is an OB/GYN doctor, and she is also a patient herself who had to flee the state of Texas in order to get an abortion, and —

HOLLY: Oh, wow.

AMANDA: — she is currently a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit against the State of Texas. So it was fascinating to talk with her. And then I met another doctor from Houston who was also a plaintiff, and she is the physician of Kate Cox, who was the woman who was sitting in the First Lady’s box. So I think I heard there were maybe about 30 people there who were from different areas of the abortion rights and reproductive rights world who were there for the speech.

HOLLY: Well, that’s significant that so many members of Congress used their one invitation to really shine a spotlight on, you know, the issue of reproductive rights that has been under threat and we’ve seen so many horrible stories about things that have spun out of the decision in the Dobbs case and then particularly the aggressive laws that state legislatures have passed, you know, Texas being one of the most aggressive. So —

AMANDA: Right.

HOLLY: And that reminds me that there was a spotlight, something that we could see, the First Lady’s guest, a woman from Alabama who was there as someone who has a child that she conceived from IVF treatments and, I think, was in the process of going through that again and is affected by this Alabama ruling that we talked about on a recent episode of this podcast.

AMANDA: And since we had our conversation about that terrible concurring opinion in that Alabama Supreme Court case, the legislature in Alabama has moved to kind of address the disarray caused by the confusion of the opinion, in an effort to restart IVF treatments for the people of Alabama. So this is obviously an ongoing conversation.

But to be present with so many people who are directly impacted and who, I believe, are very courageous in, you know, using their experience in ways to try to make a change through litigation or through example at this very high profile national event.

HOLLY: Yeah. We talked about how personal it is and how strange it is to read a state supreme court decision dealing with very personal parts of women’s health. And I was struck by how brave — I’m looking at young women whose families are in the middle of difficult situations with their personal health and their desire to have a family, and they’re willing to be there in front of the whole nation and say, yes, this affects me and my life, and to know they are there in the place of so many women, millions of women, and that they’re willing to be there, I think, is really powerful.

AMANDA: Now that I’ve seen the State of the Union from this perspective, it’s really a beautiful thing to see these representatives of the American people, not just the representatives on the floor, but the representatives in the gallery —

HOLLY: Yeah.

AMANDA: — that really express the concerns and the issues that matter most, and to have that all in the room, and for us to be able to meet each other, it really was, I think, definitely a unique but a great example of democracy at work.

HOLLY: So as the speech ended, there’s another opportunity for mingling. Tell me, what was it like for you, Amanda? How did the night end after the speech?

AMANDA: You know, of course, he, as these speeches do, built to a crescendo, and so then it was over, and then he’s walking out. It’s another chance for members of Congress to get their selfies —

HOLLY:  Oh, right, right.

AMANDA: — with President Biden again before he leaves.

Up in the galleries, they had us stay, unless the member of Congress who was your host, if he or she came up and got you from the balcony, then you could go. But most of us were just sitting there waiting, so then we could continue our conversations. We started asking each other, What did you think; how did you — which is kind of nice, because we had the benefit of giving our opinions without the pundits telling us what we needed to think about it real time.

HOLLY: True.

AMANDA: You know, there was no news there. I mean, the reporters actually were there. They were on the other side of the gallery. But we were there, just kind of talking about the speech and making connections.

HOLLY: And you’re all mixed in together. Right, Amanda? Down below, we can see our members, you know, on the two party sides. But upstairs, the plus-ones are all mingled in together. Right?

AMANDA: That’s right. That’s right. We have assigned seats, but the seats are not assigned by party. And so I had people who were guests of Republican and Democratic members all around me. So we just waited patiently, and then some people started waiting a little less patiently.

And I think that they were waiting — I think that the Capitol Police were waiting for the president to leave before they just opened the galleries, but at some point they realized we were not going to outwait President Biden last night, because he was going to close the place down. You know, finally Speaker Johnson gaveled the session out of Congress, and they started doing the closing business for the day with President Biden still in the chamber shaking people’s hands. And then they actually started to turn the lights off.

HOLLY: [Laughing.]

AMANDA: And so we started joking, like to each other. Did you bring your sleeping bag? Didn’t know this was going to be an overnight slumber party up here in the gallery. But finally we did leave.

I made my way downstairs, and I actually left the building before President Biden did, because I walked right out where his motorcade was waiting for him, which was also an interesting experience, because all of us had been so heavily vetted that once you were inside that perimeter, there really wasn’t much security. I probably could have waited and gotten my own — not selfie, but my own, you know, interaction with President Biden before he left.

But frankly, Holly, by this point, I was pretty tired. It was after 11 o’clock. I decided that I would go back to my hotel. But that was a nice moment of just walking on this beautiful night in D.C., with the Capitol all lit up, everything quiet around us because the security perimeter was still in place. There were no cars on the road around me as I walked back, and just — it was a “pinch me” moment, you know. This is — just this incredible night to have experienced democracy so up close.

HOLLY: Well, and it’s really great that you can share that, Amanda, because I think so many people in our country right now feel anxious, upset, concerned, worried. And so to have that experience of a peaceful night, a very important political night, and, you know, a lot of emotions in the room, but in the end, a safe, peaceful experience of our country that, despite all of its struggles and all its challenges, has so much to be thankful for.

Just as those representatives represent the people in their districts that elected them, I’m very happy that so many of them used their plus-one invitation to invite someone to show the American public who that person represents, whether it’s those who are struggling because women’s health has been attacked, whether those who are victims of war and terrible policies or needs in education, and of course, you, Amanda, representing all Americans who care so much about our tradition of religious freedom for all and are willing to really try to understand and fight back against Christian nationalism.

AMANDA: Thank you, Holly, and I was honored to do that. I was honored to be that representative of the millions of Americans who are concerned about Christian nationalism.



Segment 3: Serving as an election worker (starting at 30:23)

HOLLY: Well, in addition to marking the State of the Union, some people commented that it was a very important speech, too, as we look toward the presidential campaign that’s bearing down on us and that we’ll be hearing more about in the upcoming months. And, Amanda, just two days before you were in the U.S. Capitol with members of Congress, you served as an election worker in Texas during the primary on Super Tuesday.

AMANDA: I did. So Texas was one of more than a dozen states that held its primary on Super Tuesday, which was this year on March 5. And this was a first time that I had served as an election worker, and I did so because of the threats to democracy, because I have heard from a number of different places that there are a shortage of election workers, that because of some of the threats of political violence, that people are less likely to sign up to be election workers.

And so I thought, ahead of the November election, that it would be good experience for me to see what it’s like firsthand to work in a primary election, and then hopefully, to then recruit some additional people to come and serve with me in November. So that was the reason that I signed up to be an election worker this year. And I have to say, it was a great experience for me. I both learned a lot, and I also had some fun spending all day — and it was a really long day — with voters in my community.

HOLLY: Well, tell me about the polling place.

AMANDA: Yeah. So I signed up — I live in Dallas County. I signed up through the Dallas County elections office to be an election worker, and in Texas — you have to kind of refer to your own state laws and your local laws about who can serve, but it’s basically if you’re a registered voter, then you can sign up to be an election worker. So I did that, and then I was assigned to a polling place, not in my direct neighborhood but about ten or 15 minutes from where I live at a high school, is what served as our polling location. I showed up at 5:30 in the morning to help set up the election equipment.

HOLLY: So, Amanda, you volunteered, and then you got posted at a place where you were needed. And do you get assigned to a certain segment of the day, or is it a — it’s an all-day requirement?

AMANDA: Well, this time it was an all-day requirement. I have to imagine it’s because of a shortage of poll workers that there aren’t shifts, that you actually do work the whole day. I will note that I was by far the youngest person who was working at my polling location, probably by at least 15, 20 years the youngest person. For listeners, I’m not a particularly young person.

HOLLY: Well, but that’s my experience, too, and I think that makes sense. If it’s an all-day duty in the middle of the week, you’re going to draw primarily from retired communities. As we’ve talked about recently, if there’s a great need for additional people to work in the elections, to work election day, there are plenty of people who can take a day off and who would benefit from seeing that process, from helping reduce the load of those that are volunteering. So it’s great that you had that experience.

AMANDA: Yeah. And I’ll say, you know, one thing I noted was just how heavy of work it is, you know, to set up all the machines and the computers, and, you know, with all the cords that were out and to figure all this out. I mean, there was training, but then there’s nothing like on-the-job training when you’re there waiting for the polls to open, which were opening at 7:00 a.m.

But we pulled together. We were ready. We had a voter come at 7:00 a.m. We were not a particularly busy polling place. Polls in Texas were open 7:00 to 7:00, and over that course of time, we had about 225 voters come to our location, which is quite low. But, you know, we were there for them when they arrived. And then at the end of the day, it was about another two hours for us to close everything down. So I worked a 15-hour day on my day off.

HOLLY: In addition to setting up, what else did the workers have to do?

AMANDA: Well, early on, we kind of learned different roles. My primary role during the day was actually to check in voters. So there were a few of us on the machines. We would request the ID, make sure they were in the voter roll, and then print out a ballot, and then at that point, they would go to the machines to actually do their voting.

And there would be another clerk there who would help them if they had any questions about how to actually insert the ballot into the machine. And then from there, they would go to another clerk who was waiting by the box that actually accepted the ballots. And so each voter was able to feed their ballot into the tabulator and see that their vote was being counted. And then at that point, everyone’s favorite part, they were offered an “I Voted” sticker before they left the polling location.

And so, you know, because at our location, we didn’t have a line at any point during the day, this whole process, depending on how much research or how much they had already done or how much time they needed to read the ballot, this whole process probably took ten minutes for them to come in and vote.

And so we tried to make it as efficient and easy and positive an experience as it possibly could be, because we want people to come back. We want people to vote in every election in which they’re eligible. And so being a part of that process was really satisfying to me.

HOLLY: Who were your co-workers? How many people were on the team?

AMANDA: So there were two election judges, one who was a Republican judge, one who was a Democratic judge. And then there were, I guess, six of us who were election day clerks, was our title.

HOLLY: Okay.

AMANDA: We do, I will say — we are not volunteers. A lot of people came in, thanking us for volunteering. They do pay you an hourly wage for doing the election work, so at the beginning, we clocked in; at the end we clocked out. But I will say, none of us were there for the pay. We were there out of a sense of community service.

And, you know, some of my reflections — and Texas has a pretty strict voter ID law, and I was expecting at the beginning of the day that I was going to have the unfortunate task of turning people away from voting because they didn’t have the right credentials to vote. I found that everyone who came had an ID, and what — as I was reflecting on it later, I thought, this doesn’t mean this is not a barrier to voting.

It just means the people who don’t have an ID are exempting themselves from the process, that they won’t even show up at the polling location if they’re not — if they don’t have an ID. And all of the people who came, only two people we couldn’t find on the voter registration role. So same issue. Everyone who comes has registered to vote.

But it shows, I think, what a tiny minority of the overall population is actually showing up to vote, especially at a primary election. I think statewide, the numbers were less than 10 percent voted in both the Democratic and the Republican primaries. In Texas, you don’t have to be a registered member of either party. You can show up, and when you show up, you get to choose which ballot you vote, and so those were the numbers overall.

HOLLY: So the Republican and Democratic judges were there in case there was a question about actually how the votes were cast or how the machines worked or something like that? Is that what they were doing?

AMANDA: Yeah. As clerks, if we got something that was a little too complicated for us, then we could just call over a judge and kind of send a more complicated case to the judge. And the idea of having one of each party is to provide an extra element of fairness to the process.

That was another takeaway. There are so many layers of protection for the vote that these baseless claims of somehow that an election could be stolen are just belied by the facts of how these elections are run. There are so many different checks to ensure the integrity of the vote. And so I felt part of my duty as an election-day worker was to, at each point, to kind of convey that sense of confidence in the vote and the integrity of the vote to the people who were coming to the polling place.

For me, it was a great experience of just being on the ground, of seeing how much goes in to every election that’s run and that these elections are the beating heart of our democracy. This is how we all participate. This is a requirement of citizenship, a requirement that a lot of people don’t abide by — you know, more than 80 percent of the Texas registered voters didn’t abide by in this primary election. That’s something that has just even reinforced my desire to be involved in future elections and to help others get involved as well.

HOLLY: Well, I really like how your experience shows, too, that, you know, you can sign up to be an election worker, and there’s a system that will put you where you’re needed. And so now that you have that training, you know, you might get assigned there again. You might be the lead, training someone else to do the work that day, or you can be assigned to another place, maybe one that is overcrowded and needs more people.

And it also — it points to the diversity of experiences in different districts. We’ve all seen on TV the polling places that are over-burdened. More places are like the place that you described, Amanda, where people can come in, vote, get in and out without trouble, and that you have sufficient coverage of those who are working there.

And that was something that really stood out as we learned about the work that people are doing to defend democracy and ensure voter protection that we focused on in a recent episode of Respecting Religion.

AMANDA: Yes, Holly. I want to remind our listeners that just a few weeks ago, you interviewed Chris Crawford from Protect Democracy for Respecting Religion. That conversation is episode 14 in our feed. And you talked about the many ways people of faith can be involved in elections, including as a poll worker.

HOLLY: Yeah. In that interview of Chris Crawford, I heard a lot about the different needs in communities but also this great opportunity for people to do exactly what you did, Amanda, to get involved, because then you really do come away with a greater confidence about our country, as well as, you know, a renewed desire to talk about the importance of voting because we see how many people don’t vote.

We encourage anyone listening to check your local election board for the qualifications about serving in your local area. Generally, as long as you’re a registered voter, you can sign up to work the polls for elections — including in early voting if your state has that — on Election Day. And as we get closer and closer to the presidential election, I think everyone will be thinking about, how can I make a difference. How can I be involved, and what can I do to protect democracy and stand up for the importance of voting?

HOLLY: Well, that brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. Thanks for joining us. For more information on what we discussed, visit our website at RespectingReligion.org for show notes and a transcript.

AMANDA: Respecting Religion is produced by Cherilyn Guy with editorial assistance from Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons.

HOLLY: Learn more about our work at BJC, defending faith freedom for all, by visiting our website at BJConline.org.

AMANDA: We’d love to hear from you. You can send both of us an email by writing to [email protected]. We’re also on social media at BJContheHill, and you can follow me on X, which used to be called Twitter, @AmandaTylerBJC.

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AMANDA: We also want to thank you for supporting this podcast. You can donate to these conversations by visiting the link in our show notes.

HOLLY: Join us on Thursdays for new conversations Respecting Religion.