The New York City Board of Elections has some 700 days to prepare for the 2016 presidential balloting. Based on my experience in these past two election cycles, I expect the BOE to gum it up again, unless some basic changes are made.
This year I was a poll worker at the side of a very dear man who was incapable of doing his job. Let’s call him Fred. A veteran with ten years service in the Army, he participated in the Reagan invasion of Granada and was discharged after suffering seizures. Fred radiated sweetness and a near-total incompetence that was recognized by all.
Five minutes after the polls opened our supervisor called for replacements for four workers who had been identified as problematic and was told that replacements were in a cab on their way to us. However, by 11 p.m. when we went home after an 18 hour day (minus two hours worth of breaks), no reinforcements had arrived.
In the meantime we managed. Fred’s unending good will melted my stony heart and together we figured out how he could tear the paper ballots from the pad without ripping them. We decided that would be his job while I signed in voters and answered questions about the ballot and the scanner, which some 80 percent distrust.
At least Fred remained calm throughout. Last year during the mayoral primary I worked in Greenwich Village. Early in the morning a worker at the next table spied Sarah Jessica Parker. My colleague started shrieking her name and ran up to talk to her in what became a brief commotion with flashing cell phone cameras. Whether SJP now casts an absentee ballot or comes to polling places in disguise I cannot say for I transferred to my own election district uptown where I found Fred.
He told me that he had worked at this very polling place two years ago. I recall the place in 2012 as a scene of complete ineptitude, exponentially aggravated by a high turnout for the presidential election. Voters stood on line up and down the street for more than an hour, and once inside were directed to the wrong tables, misinformed about how to fill out paper ballots, and subjected to broken scanners. I think I remember Fred himself misinforming me while impervious to my snarls. The chaos created by the workers themselves inspired me to enlist as a poll worker to try to understand why the BOE operates as it does. (enter Poll Worker in the search box above to read about last year’s experience).
To a certain extent, I then became part of the problem because of my lack of experience and sketchy knowledge, which are compounded by the fact that procedures change a bit each year. Many workers and nearly all supervisors know balloting procedures cold and do their best, but they can’t be with each of us simultaneously to correct mistakes during the day or when we close the polls at night’s end. They manage to do a credible job only when turnout is low. I passed tests this August, but had forgotten some key elements by November. Those who not pass are encouraged to take the training over and over until they do. Some ultimately accomplish this with the help of instructors, which may explain how my new friend Fred managed to qualify.
Here’s an idea: maybe those who cannot pass the open book test at the end of training should not be allowed to try again. The failure of this simple test, which does have a few questions that seem tricky, indicates that the job is not for them.
Last summer a Rob Lowe look-alike helped supervise my training. He told me that he takes a leave of absence from his job each year because he feels that Republicans like himself should get more involved and not leave it to registered Democrats. Thinking we were simpatico I asked, unwisely, if he thought that Republicans did not volunteer because they did not believe in government. He said they did not volunteer because Republicans tended to have jobs. Well, maybe there is something to that. Poll workers in New York earn about $10 an hour for a day that goes from 5 am to some time after 9 pm when the polls close. That money will be a godsend to many, including Fred.
Capable citizens are as much to blame for the alarming performance of the Board of Education as anyone. Friends and neighbors who saw me at work gave me patronizing smiles. Many people who say they care about voting have the free time and stamina to do this work and should sign up to do so, at least once.
On election night, a poll monitor thanked me for working with Fred. He said they knew he should not work again. I asked if the Board of Elections was about voting or make-work. The monitor mumbled, backing away, that it was a little of both. If so, the Board of Elections might seek new poll workers at unemployment offices, veterans groups, houses of worship, Facebook and Twitter where able-bodied, able-minded long-term unemployed people can be found. Those recruits might not be as pleasant or deserving as Fred, who made for better company than many world-beaters I know, but they might be able to do the job.
Should the BOE be a job program? What has been your voting experience? Please scroll down to the “Leave a reply” box