There’s still time to join the tens of thousands of civic-minded Americans who’ll be setting their alarms for 4 am on Election Day. Why 4 am? Well, if you want to be an official poll worker, you’ll probably have to arrive at your polling place by 5 am, in order to get it all spiffy, legal and ready for the hordes of voters who will start to arrive at 6 am, and who are counting on you to make the election run smoothly.
Why be a poll worker? Need I remind anyone that a trustworthy election system is basic to the peaceful transfer of power in a democracy? That voting is the essential act of democracy? We all understand that, right?
But what we may not understand are the mechanics of elections. To make elections work, you need people to verify identification, check addresses, hand out ballots, run the electronic voting machines and the optical scanners, keep the lines in order, set up and break down the equipment, help disabled people vote, solve problems, and monitor the checks-and-balances that keep the system fair. Most of all, to ensure the integrity of voting, you need people who are competent.
The people who staff the polls are, essentially, temporary workers employed by the Election authority in your area. In my county, there are 450 polling places. The way voting procedures are set up here, we hope for minimum of six workers at each polling place. Optimally, though, we should have eight, so that every job is staffed by both a Democrat and a Republican. Do the math. Boards of Elections need a lot of workers. And there’s always a shortage.
If you’ve ever complained that some of the people at the tables don’t seem to understand the system, you can do something to make things better by signing on with your local Election Board to be an Election Day poll worker.
That’s what I did about 10 years ago, after I encountered a poll worker who didn’t seem to know the alphabet and was, therefore, unable to find voters’ names in the alphabetical roster. I don’t doubt that she was well-intentioned and wanted to help, but her incompetence made me realize that the only way to help fix the system was to get involved myself. Up until then, I hadn’t really thought about who “those people” at the work stations were, how they got there, or even what they did.
Now I know.
I’m not going to pretend that learning to be a competent poll worker is a simple thing. But there’s a huge payoff—the pride of knowing that you’ve done something important on the day that means the most in a democracy.
Earlier this week, I attended the 2012 version of the training required by my local Board of Elections. Of the trainings I’ve attended over the years, this was among the best. [We have to do the training for every election: We don’t get paid if we don’t.] We had a trainer who had actually been a poll worker, and who was well-organized, direct, and sometimes even humorous.
Wisely, I think, he cross-trained every volunteer for all of the election-day roles. [I can only imagine the bureaucratic nightmare it would be for the folks who assign poll workers to locations to try to narrow it all down by specific jobs, when the no-show rate on Election Day can be as high as 25 percent.]
So, there’s a lot to go over: what’s acceptable ID in our state; what’s in the precinct roster; what procedures we follow to record each voter; what’s a “ballot style;” what we should and should not write on a voter’s ticket; how to help someone vote by affidavit; how to use the somewhat outdated Palm Pilot to verify voters; when to issue a provisional ballot; what record-keeping procedures are required; which worker does which job; where to sign, where to initial; how to set up the polling place; how to pack up the equipment and supplies at the end of the day; and many more details. My session took four hours, including a 10-minute break.
For this session, plus the 13-hour Election Day shift, we are paid $130.
Our trial by fire begins at 5 am on Presidential Election Day. There’s a lot to remember, and you’re doing your job in public, with long lines of voters coming at you non-stop. Ostensibly, poll workers get an hour lunch break, but it’s best not to count on this actually happening. I’ve worked at a few polling places where the poll workers brought home-baked cakes, Halloween candy, cheese-and-cracker platters, and jugs of coffee to share with their co-workers. That sense of community, I’m certain, raises the likelihood that workers and voters will have a positive experience on Election Day. But even without the goodies, I almost always feel a sense of camaraderie and community spirit with the team of random poll workers I’m assigned to. In non-Presidential elections, there can be down-time, in which to exchange personal stories, muse about the world, and possibly make a new friend or two. [I’m not counting on that bonus on Nov. 6]
Presidential Election Day is, for me, the best day to work at the polls. It’s non-stop—you’re never bored. You have to stay on top of things. You have to engage your brain, use what you’ve learned, and react to evolving situations—always remembering that the voter is your customer, and that you work for him or her. It’s hectic, exhausting, and it’s also a rush. You get an inside look at the workings of our election system. And, if you’re like me, you walk away with an amped up sense of your own role as a citizen. If you want to do some good in our democracy, this is a great way to do it. Even if it means stumbling out of bed at 4 am.
[To sign up to be an Election Day poll worker, contact your local Board of Elections.]