Confessions of A Poll Worker

I volunteered to work the polls to improve voting in New York City. Instead I became part of the challenge. If you meet me Nov. 5 I will do my best, but now we are using optical-scanning machines. I have not so much as seen one since I was trained on August 19 when 12 hours of training were crammed into six because we had to learn the scanner as well as the lever machine for the primary. My section never discussed write-in voting, but no matter. That wasn’t on the test.
Don’t despair. Assisting the first few voters on Election Day might enable me to get the hang of it, and I may have the guidance of a more experienced poll worker. I myself voted on a scanner last year when the confusion at my polling place during the presidential election inspired me to volunteer with the Board of Elections so I can help you this year.
You might remember me from the primary election, if you are one of the 22 percent of registered Democrats and 13 percent of registered Republicans who bothered to vote. Less likely, you encountered me at the Public Advocate run-off when only 6.7 percent of registered Democrats appeared. On that day to break the afternoon lull we poll workers broke into spontaneous applause when voters showed up. They must have known they were special because when they departed, they waved good-by in the grand manner of the British royal family.
Do you wonder what motivates us poll workers? Some believe in civic duty. Most are in it for the pay, which works out to about $13 an hour for a sixteen-hour day with two hours of breaks that are not always honored. We start at 5 a.m., sometimes far from home. One colleague, a social worker, told me that he volunteered after receiving a notice to tell his clients to sign up to be poll workers and earn extra cash.
Meanwhile, here’s a peek at a few things we’d rather you did not know: on primary day, one of the two coordinators at my election site whom we will call Susie told us to forget what we had learned in training. She observed that everything we were doing was irrelevant because “things are being decided at a very high level.” Whether her problem was corruption or medication levels, I will never know. However, detecting certain mood swings and her lack of interest my colleagues and I turned to the other coordinator, whom we’ll call Mary, who had conducted trainings and insisted on doing everything “by the book.” When the polls closed, Mary announced that as a result of working with Susie, she would never work the polls again. She may have meant it because when we returned a few weeks later for the runoff for Public Advocate, Susie was the only coordinator on site and she managed alone.
Also, the closing of the polls, when tallies and back-ups are recorded, gets a bit slapdash because we are all eager to leave. On primary night I ended up as chairman of my election district because no one else wanted to sign the time sheets and tallies. After hurried hubbub or retrieving forms, I signed and sealed support materials and gave them to a police officer who signed a receipt. But then Susie discovered I had left out something important. No matter. I snatched the package away from the surprised officer, peeled off the seals, inserted the missing item, and sealed it up again. Work done! A few weeks later on the night of the runoff Susie hurried me even more, herself pressured by the menacing woman collecting our blunt-end scissors who was ready to go.
If you don’t like our methods, you could demand that the New York City Board of Elections do a better job of training and recruitment, possibly calling for volunteers at places of worship, libraries and through public service announcements. Possibly outreach should be less about a payday for good people who need money and more about voting. However, what matters most is better training and improved management. You could write officials to demand a more organized process and back that up by actually turning out to vote yourself.
I swear it does matter. When I was a teenager in the segregated South people died fighting to claim the right to vote. Partly because of them, I saw candidates elected throughout the country who expanded possibilities for millions of Americans and for the mandate for peace. Then officials were elected who put the brake on those expansions. So that’s why I get a little serious about voting. Often I don’t like the candidates, so I write one in, which reminds me to check my manual to learn how you can do that too.

But whatever happens, I don’t think you have to worry about the accuracy of the vote unless it’s really close. Poll watchers from both parties and from all candidates check on us through the day and each writes down the final count at night. Checks and balances for an accurate count are in place, but they are above my level, which is not the level where I deal with you.

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