Why this poll worker has served on every Election Day since 1939

By Janell Ross

The first time, the very first time, Laura Wooten was a little afraid.

It was 1939, Wooten was just 18 years old and her hometown of Princeton, New Jersey, was, as she describes it, “very much a Northern, Southern town.” Even the black doctor who lived around the corner from her family was not allowed to treat his own patients when they were admitted to Princeton hospital.

But there she stood, near the entry to the “colored YMCA,” with a list of registered voters in that precinct, a badge that identified her as a “challenger” and a pencil to mark off names.

In Princeton, black people did not challenge white people in public without penalty and young black people were expected to show deference and respect at all times. Wooten, so young at the time, had been born the year after American women gained the right to vote. But as a challenger, Wooten’s role was to identify which people had voted, people who could vote but had yet to do so and deliver up to date lists to a party or campaign looking to target eligible voters and win. She was a critical human cog in a much bigger political machine. Adding to the pressure: her uncle’s name was on the ballot. He was running for Justice of the Peace. He won.

“It was a little nerve wracking. But I think I managed the job decently,” said Wooten, now 97. “As a matter of fact, I liked it. I liked being that close to this thing called democracy, watching all kinds of people come in, express themselves and everyone of them have just as much say about the way that things ought to be as the other. Democracy is just a beautiful, beautiful thing.”

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