Thursday, November 09, 2006

Working the Polls

I worked my first polls in 2004. It was a presidential election year and several of my former students had volunteered to work. I figured that if they could do it, then why not me and so contacted the county registrar for an appointment. I was asked to be a clerk at a polling site located in a small building at the back of a nearby Volvo dealer’s lot. The polls were supposed to open at 7AM, but the lot manager didn’t show up with the key until 7:15AM. I lobbied for setting up the booths in the parking lot, but the site inspector (i.e., supervisor) refused even though some of the 20+ people, who had shown up early, started leaving for work. Eventually we were able to open—and, indeed, had a wonderful day participating in the democratic process—but I swore that if I ever did this again, I’d be the inspector so no one would go away unhappy.

Well, be careful what you wish for! Sure enough, last March I got a call asking if I’d like to supervise a polling site during the June primaries. Remembering how rewarding it was to help facilitate the election process in 2004, I said yes and quickly proceeded to recruit three students to work the polls with me. Unfortunately, our site was located inside a decrepit convalescent hospital that smelled of urine and housed several moaning and screaming patients. Still, despite these distractions, we got the job done and felt good afterward. So much so, in fact, that I gladly agreed to supervise another site during this week’s gubernatorial election.

So, what do pollworkers do? Once you agree to serve, you’re invited to attend a 2-3 hour orientation. There you watch three videos (how to setup, how to close, and what to do in-between) and ask all manner of questions. Much of the work is just common sense; but there are certain protocols that must be followed and there’s a ton of detailed paperwork to complete once the ballots have all been cast. The best thing to do is recruit competent clerks who can each handle a small part of the process (e.g., check-in; mark rosters; collect ballots; etc.). The inspector then manages the clerks and troubleshoots any problems. I also make a point of insisting that everyone who walks in the door gets to vote, even if s/he lives in a precinct thirty miles away.

Ten days before the election, the inspector picks up the voting equipment at a designated place in Culver City (e.g., Fox Hills mall). With a major election like the governor’s race, it’s expected that many people will want to vote and so we were given five regular booths, one lower (more sturdy) booth for disabled voters and (something new!) a “talking booth” for visually-impaired and non-English language-speaking voters. In addition, this was the first election to use the new Inkavote ballot-scanner—a small photocopier-sized machine that reads each ballot to make sure the voter hasn’t double-voted, etc. This sits atop the ballot box, which is a little larger than those Rubbermaid boxes designed to store Christmas ornaments or other less precious items.

I guess enough people complained about the convalescent hospital, because this time we were assigned to a polling site in the waiting room of a tire store (!) The manager couldn’t guarantee that anyone would be available to open the store at 6AM, so I threatened to setup on the sidewalk if necessary. For two nights, I tossed and turned with nightmares about having to open the polls late. I even convinced Tim to go with me in case we had to setup everything outside. Come election day, however, the store owner himself was there by 6AM (phew!). The polls opened right on time at 7AM. By 8:30AM, fifty people had already voted. It looked to be a busy day.

Only two of my students were available to work again; but happily two other pollworkers—a mother and her 18-year-old son Nick—unexpectedly joined us at 6AM. Between the five of us, we were able to handle all duties quite smoothly and even had time to take long breaks during slow times. Poll watchers stopped by periodically to see how things were going. A staffer from the Secretary of State’s office also dropped in and asked me some questions. Taking notes on a clipboard, she congratulated us on doing a great job and then gave us all red-white-and-blue lapel pins. At 7PM our young pollworker Nick cast his first ballot. We all cheered.

Despite some celebratory moments, it’s always a long day working the polls. By 8PM we were thoroughly exhausted and reeked of rubber. Once we declared the polls officially closed, Tim returned to help us tear everything down and count the ballots. Two hundred and thirty-nine people had voted—over 30% of our precinct. Not a bad day’s work.

Still, it’s a wonder to me that the process even works. For little more than minimum wage, the county registrar is able to recruit thousands of volunteers to staff the polls for thirteen long hours every election. That the ballots even get delivered safely back to the registrar seems a miracle.

Driving back to the Fox Hills mall late that night to deliver the ballots and equipment, I turned on the radio just in time to hear that the Democrats had reclaimed the House of Representatives. Bursting into tears, I realized that the process does indeed work and that sometimes even the longest days have a happy ending.


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