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Tales from the Polls - Impact and Importance of Poll Workers

By November 6, 2012

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I just got back from voting. My polling place is in a stunning, soaring addition to a local high school, and the new gymnasium wing has a wide, spacious lobby with a long wall of windows three stories high. Six voting districts are located here here, but they are almost lost in the overlarge space.

There's always a bake sale held in this same space, so it's a treat to buy a treat after you've voted. It benefits the high school and they apparently earn over a thousand dollars each year.

The poll workers are for the most part 60+ and have been serving their respective districts for decades. One recognized me as a neighbor; she asked about a mutual friend. The other was an older gentleman who had little to do since it was fairly quiet -- the lull before the storm of lunchtime and after-work voters. When I went in to vote, there were only 3 of us in line for my district.

There was one notable change from the last election in which I voted.

After years of living in the past, New York State retired their old-fashioned metal machines with the tiny metal levers you flip down to indicate your choice and large pull levers which register your vote. For this presidential election, they've entered the 21st century with new optical scanners which read your paper ballot.

This system seems to work well, although other new methods aren't as straightforward. In Pennsylvania, a software developer who tried to vote for Obama found that his "vote" on a touch screen kept registering for Romney. When he complained to a poll worker, he reported that "She [hemmed and] hawed for a bit then calmly said 'It's nothing to worry about, everything will be OK,' and went back to what she was doing. I then recorded this video."

Jezebel covered this story (as did a gazillion other media outlets) and Erin Gloria Ryan writes, "Expert opinion is that the machine is "obviously miscalibrated," and that the way to fix it would be to ask one of the old ladies running the polling station to recalibrate the machine."

And that's the problem. A lot of the problems that happen at polling places are not due to deliberate tampering but human error, along with the inability to deal with error or the unwillingness to admit there's a problem.

I know this first-hand because I saw it first-hand. I was as a poll worker for two elections -- including the 2008 presidential election -- and what I experienced the second time at the polls made me quit. It would require pages to describe the nitty-gritty details of the many errors I witnessed and the territorial attitudes of the women (all of them 65+) who'd worked that particular polling place for years and didn't want to hear a word of dissent from any of the newbies. When I went to the head of the polling place to complain, I was told I didn't know what I was talking about.

I'm not being ageist. Many of my friends are 65+. But this particular crowd of women staffing the polling place did not have the skills to efficiently handle the work at hand. One woman didn't have her reading glasses and had a hard time looking up registered voters in the book. A line of 6 people grew to 30, and the five minute wait lengthened to over 40. When one voter said impatiently, "Turn the book around and I'll look up my name myself," the poll worker snapped, "No, you can't! This is my job!"

When I asked the woman in charge if I could replace her, she glared at me. "She's done this for years and this is her job. You're a floater. Just keep everyone in line!"

A certain culture exists in certain polling places. And this was probably one of the worst. I wasn't the only new poll worker. A woman in her forties and a man in his mid-thirties were also assigned there. All of us received the sane treatment. All of us were made to feel unwelcome. When, at closing time, it became clear that certain "opening the polls" procedures had been overlooked/forgotten by the women in charge, we saw them fudge the numbers and when we asked if that was the appropriate thing to do, we were told it was not our concern. We all looked at each other and mouthed our mutual despair and frustration.

This is not to say that this happens at every polling place. But it happens enough to worry me.

Fortunately at the place where I vote, the poll workers are on top of what they're doing and they know their stuff. But as the woman who greeted me admitted, "I like doing this because I get to see my neighbors and keep in touch with what's going on."

This is a lovely sentiment, but it's also a problem when women (and men) age out of the task and/0r can't handle/don't comprehend the new technologies involved in voting. A 2003 report by New York State Senator Liz Krueger noted the problem of "improperly trained election workers" and its impact on "the fairness of our democratic process."

The Pew Charitable Trusts is one organization that recognizes the impact of the poll worker on the election process. Their reports on poll worker training, pay and recruitment highlight the differences that exist across the country and how we can better to support these one-day workers.

To have fair elections, we have to enable average citizens to take part in the process. As things currently stand, the only individuals able to participate as poll workers are those who are retired. Those of us who are full-time employees can't get the day off from work or take the time off to attend mandatory training classes. Suppose this became a priority in the U.S.? Suppose that software developer who encountered a miscalibrated machine was able to work as a poll worker because his company encouraged his participation?

This "government intervention" won't sit well with those who espouse less government, but if we're going to hire and place poll workers to ensure that our local and national elections go smoothly, we need to make sure they're the best people possible. If we can spend billions of dollars on electing candidates, can't we manage to spend a fraction of that on making the election process as free of human error as possible?

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