It is a myth that American democracy is built on the broad, young, muscular, mostly male shoulders of solitary heroes. Who is the actual foundation of our system of government? You met them the last time that you went to vote. You probably didn’t notice them, but that’s how they would want it. They are among the few folks who still believe that it is not about them.

They are the poll workers.

What sort of person might you envision stepping into this duty? You might imagine someone like the retired school secretary, with blue, curly hair and a cane resting on her giant purse. You might be thinking of the man who was an accountant at the mill before it shut down. He raised his kids on his own after his wife died. There might be a guy like the man who was a barber for most of his life; he follows sports and drives his grandkids to their games. A woman who is about 5 feet tall could tell you stories about the quiet dignity that was required to be the first Black woman in her field. However, like the rest of the volunteers, she feels that Election Day is about our country’s future, not her past.

You know these people. They are the ones who sign up to take notes at meetings. When they go on a hike, they take one of the bags their newspaper comes in so they can pick up litter dropped by other people. You could walk by any of them on the street without a second glance.

These people are the unglamorous foundation of democracy. Politicians can rant and rave. The electorate may swing right or left. Poll workers remain steady. Make no mistake, they all have their own opinions but consider it their sacred duty to leave them at the door. When they work at the elections, they are ardently neutral.

Our democracy is secure because at every polling place, there are steady, reliable people who think it is not about them or their party. They spend countless hours before you show up to vote and after you go home. They are doing what needs to be done, taking care of the boring details that make a functioning democracy possible.

When the integrity of an electoral count is questioned, these are the people who are being called dishonest. This takes me aback, because poll workers are cautious. You don’t want to be behind one in the checkout lane when they get change. You have to stand there while they recount it carefully before they put their wallet away. If you have one in your family, then you’ve seen their face when they’ve given you a gift but they haven’t yet received a handwritten “thank you” card. (No, a group email of appreciation doesn’t count.) Their cupboards are organized. Their vegetables grow in straight rows. Accuse them of a lack of spontaneity. Accuse them of a lack of imagination. But don’t accuse them of fraud. They don’t crave individual attention, but they deserve respect because they are fundamental.

You can find anthems to glorious jobs that contribute to our country’s enduring strength. But in the drama of election season, when there are so many people with a lot to say, when there are so many people fighting for attention, let’s pause. Pause and thank the poll workers, who are glad to stay in the background and do the essential and mundane tasks that allow the peaceful transition of power that is the envy of so many countries around the world.

Our country requires many hands, many shoulders. We need to be grateful for all the contributions, seen and unseen. Because to endure, we really need to respect that democracy depends on us all.

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