When Robert Palmer, 64, voted early Tuesday morning at his polling station in O’Fallon, Missouri, he presented his passport as a form of identification to receive his ballot. He says the poll worker looked at him and asked, “Are you a member of the caravan?”
Palmer, who is a bank administrator, said he was so shocked by the question that he didn’t respond. Palmer said the worker looked away, then said, “Morning humor.”
“It was bizarre. I am not Hispanic,” Palmer told HuffPost. “I have an American passport. What does that have to do with the caravan?”
In the lead-up to the midterm election, Republicans and right-wing media outlets have honed in on the so-called caravan, a large group of Central American migrants walking through Mexico toward the U.S., wrongly vilifying them as “invaders.” President Donald Trump’s campaign even ran an ad indicating men in the group were potential cop killers.
Palmer went to the polls with his roommate, Shelley Powers, a 63-year-old computer engineer. She said she was also surprised and confused by the comment. Powers said the area is fairly diverse, and that people in line to vote were from diverse backgrounds.
“It made no sense,” Powers said. “It was very awkward and very uncomfortable.”
Poll workers have a duty to make voters feel comfortable and welcome, said David Becker, the executive director at the Center for Election Innovation and Research. He said it was not illegal for a poll worker to make an insensitive joke, and that this alleged comment would not qualify as voter intimidation because Palmer did not appear to be Latino.
“Hopefully that exchange sent a message to the poll worker that he was being too flippant,” Becker said.
Palmer and Powers also described a broken scanning machine at their polling site. They said a worker who could not get the ballots to scan told several voters to place their paper ballots in a slot at the back of the machine.
Palmer said he was hesitant to do that. He worried that his ballot would end up forgotten at the bottom of the pile and that his vote wouldn’t be counted.
HuffPost could not immediately reach the St. Charles County registrar’s office on Tuesday due to call volume. The registrar’s office also did not immediately respond to a email about Palmer’s accusations about his polling place, Holy Cross Lutheran Church.
Exchanges between poll workers and voters are some of the most important on Election Day, said Trey Grayson, former secretary of state of Kentucky.
“As much as poll workers train and plan, those interactions with voters are usually positive,” he said. “But sometimes they’re not.”
This story started as a tip from ProPublica’s Electionland project, which monitors voting problems around the country. If you had trouble voting, or if you saw something you want to tell us about, here’s how.