When Kelly Bryant tells you to vote, you ought to listen. At 88 years old, Bryant has been working the polls in Durham for 53 years and knows what he's talking about.

Bryant took that privilege a significant step further when he became one of the first two black precinct judges in Durham County, along with Bernice Ingram, in 1953. Before then, he said, blacks only worked as ballot counters in some precincts and still felt largely excluded from the electoral process.

"Blacks didn't feel they were received as voters at that time," Bryant remembered. A groundswell of support among the black community led to Bryant's appointment. He first worked the polls at Brady's Store on the corner of Ramseur and Grant streets, when most black voters cast ballots at the courthouse.

"There were no polling places in the black neighborhoods," Bryant said. He later registered 720 black voters to create the Burton School precinct southeast of downtown.

County Elections Director Mike Ashe said his army of precinct officials ranged in age from 21 on up to Bryant and came from across the spectrum of society.

"I got some of everything," he said. It can take as many as 600 poll workers to run a presidential election in Durham, and a large chunk of Ashe's election-season workforce is currently in the midst of required training ahead of next month's primary.

"It's a good civic service, you know that?" Bryant said. Despite serving through tumultuous times, especially during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, Bryant said his service wasn't characterized by racial tension, despite serving white voters.

Bryant, who retired in 1981 as an insurance officer after 37 years with N.C. Mutual Life, has seen several presidents come and go at the polls. He's also seen a lot of change in the way votes are counted, with machines - which he said he adapted to well - replacing the hand counts that used to stretch into the next day, which caused a conflict back when elections were held on Saturdays.

"There's something really beautiful about being a part of democracy," said Nicole Rowan, who at 32 is one of the youngest chief judges. "It's a really nice feeling to be part of something that determines our everyday lives - it's important."

Rowan became a poll worker when she moved to Durham from Oregon seven years ago as a way of getting to know people. Since starting as an assistant, she's now chief judge in Precinct 8 and has gotten to know the voters who cast ballots at Montessori Magnet School and describes elections there as "a feel-good day."

Although Ashe lightheartedly sums up the precinct worker's role as "Get 'em in, get 'em a ballot and get 'em out," the training keeps them up to speed in the relevant areas of campaign law and procedure.

Beyond having to order the removal of the occasional candidate button, Ashe said he's had precious few problems with his poll workers. The most significant, he said, involved a woman who tried to sell Tupperware while helping voters.

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