Emelda Harness, 73, doesn’t usually wake up before the sun rises, but Saturday morning was different. 

Harness, a retired grandmother and lifelong New Orleans resident who completes puzzle books in her free time, got out of bed at 4:30 a.m. on Oct. 14 and ate her breakfast. Then, she made her way uptown to Eleanor McMain Secondary School to help people do what she believes is integral to democracy: voting. 

“It’s enjoyable to see people come out and vote,” Harness said. “And it’s fun and thrilling to work with the public.”

After arriving at the school, Harness, along with her friend and longtime colleague Diana Coleman, set up the voting booths, posted ballot information for voters and opened the doors. As Orleans Parish voters trickled in throughout the day, Harness never seemed to lose her smile.

Harness isn’t sure if she’s the longest-serving poll commissioner in New Orleans. But she said she’s been working the polls since 1968 — the year Richard Nixon was elected president — so she surely ranks among the most tenured of the city’s election workers.

Coleman and Harness met each other more than a decade ago while working an election. Coleman said that in the years that she has known Harness, there has been “nothing but joy.”

“She cares about people and is a wonderful person to be around,” Coleman said. “And she is so knowledgeable at this work.”

Harness was recently promoted to commissioner-in-charge of Ward 12’s Precinct 17. She began working elections as a teenager, when another one of her friends brought her to vote.

“After voting, my friend said, ‘Let’s see if we can work the polls,’ and so we did,” Harness said. “We took the test and after the test, we both got on as commissioner.” 

Harness soon started working elections at what is now Andrew Wilson Charter School but then moved to Eleanor McMain, where she’s been a constant presence for decades.

Thinking of her younger self, Harness said she is thrilled when young people come in to cast their ballots for their first time.

“When it’s their first time voting, we give them a round of applause,” Harness said. “It’s enjoyable to see people put the right person in the right place.”

Harness has never had any bad experiences working the polls over the years, and no one has had any issues with her either, said Elizabeth “Betsy” Stoner, executive director of the Orleans Parish Board of Election Supervisors. 

“In her 50 years of service, she has carried out her duties with the highest integrity. The voters and her fellow commissioners love her,” Stoner said.

Harness makes it a point to say a prayer with her fellow poll workers before voters arrive at the polls.

“I ask the Lord to help me to help anyone that comes in there, so that I’ll be able to handle their situation,” Harness said.

Her daughter, Melanie, who came to visit her mother at McMain on Saturday, said that that kind of selflessness illustrates her mother’s character: “She has always been devoted to people and has always put people before herself,” she said. 

On Saturday, Harness said she was sticking around until after polls closed at 8 p.m. She will work the polls again for Louisiana’s runoff election on Nov. 18, as she has done time and time again.

“On Election Day, working the polls gives me somewhere to go, something to do and I love doing it,” Harness said.

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Khalil Gillon is a New Orleans native from Algiers. He attended Thomas Jefferson High School and is a graduate of Louisiana State University in political journalism. Passionate about politics, Gillon ran...