Rita Falquette and Patty Dowdy

Rita Falquette and Patty Dowdy don personal protective equipment before delivering absentee ballots to Dayspring Care Facility.

MANSFIELD -- Rita Falquette and Patty Dowdy are on opposite sides of the political aisle, but that doesn’t stop them from working together to make sure others exercise their right to vote.

Falquette and Dowdy are both seasonal workers for the Richland County Board of Elections. The pair is responsible for hand-delivering absentee ballots to registered voters in every Richland County nursing home. 

“(Residents) are usually pretty much confined to the nursing home, so they obviously couldn’t get to the polls on election day, but they still need to have their voices heard,” said Director Paulette Hankins of the Richland County Board of Elections. 

Falquette has worked the nursing home circuit for the board of elections for about seven years. Dowdy joined her two years ago after 15 years as a poll worker.

Falquette and Dowdy make their rounds in the four or five weeks leading up to Election Day, meeting one resident at a time and answering any questions they may have about how to fill out the ballot.

They are permitted to help a resident mark their ballot if a physical health issue like arthritis prevents them from filling it out, but they are strictly prohibited from trying to influence any voter.

Both women said their favorite part of the job is meeting the residents. 

“They love it. They want to vote. They’re all really happy that we’re there and helping them,” Dowdy said. “We get to know the people. They look forward to seeing us; they remember us.”

During previous elections, the pair visited more than a dozen nursing homes across the county, but this year their work looks a little different. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, they only got to interact with residents at two local nursing homes. At the other facilities, they swore in staff members (one Republican and one Democrat) to do the job.

Dayspring Care Facility was one of the few nursing homes that permitted Falquette and Dowdy to visit this year. They sat outside on a patio while residents met with them one by one on the other side of a cracked window and plexiglass shield.

Dayspring set up microphones and speakers on both sides of the window so the elections workers and residents could easily communicate. To further ensure the residents’ safety, Falquette and Dowdy donned face masks, shields, gloves and plastic gowns.

Despite the unconventional setup, voter turnout was higher than ever. Amy Clark, activities director at Dayspring, said there are typically between 20 to 25 residents who register to vote absentee.

“We had over 40 voters that day,” she said. “This year everybody wanted to vote. They've seen what's happening on TV and they wanted their voices heard.”

Clark said that many of the residents were dressed and ready to go by 8 a.m. -- a whole hour before voting was scheduled to start. 

“They couldn’t contain themselves for two days. They were actually ready before the poll workers showed up,” she recalled.  “They were very worried with the COVID that they weren’t going to be able to vote.

“A lot of our residents here are veterans and they fought for our freedom. I think it’s very important that we put out all the stops to do this for them.”

Falquette and Dowdy are required to stick together precisely because they have different political views. The board of elections staff is required to have an equal number of registered Republicans and Democrats at every function.

“It’s for checks and balances, so that the public knows that not one party is counting the ballots or tabulating the ballots or helping people vote,” Hankins said. 

While the polls themselves are a hallmark of democracy, the work of running them is completely non-partisan. 

“When we're hired to work there during voting season, we’re told right away, ‘Leave your politics at home,’ ” Dowdy said.

“Everybody that works down at the board of elections is so nice,” Falquette said. “We don’t really talk politics at work. That’s probably part of the reason we all get along.”

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Staff reporter focused on education and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. You can reach me at katie.ellington@richlandsource.com