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.

Your Identity or Your Life, Jobseekers, Submit to Abuse

Target Corp. just announced that it would stop running criminal background checks on potential employees. Good, because among other things the practice discriminated against needy, capable senior citizens who committed minor infractions during the Summer of Love. Worse yet, job applicants must supply their Social Security numbers and birth dates to people who may expose them, however unwittingly, to identity thieves.  No one could quibble if responsible Human Resources personnel checked into those in the final stages of the hiring process on any level, but today a job application form with a low wage employer — or even a classy one — is like something one should fill out before being approved for a U.S. ambassadorship. This has disturbing implications for all of us.

Some (not Angela Merkel or Edward J. Snowden) would say we are paranoid to protect our little-people identity and guard the on-ramp to all our financial information, so let us monetize this issue. The Internal Revenue Service says it mistakenly pays as much as $5.2 billion annually in tax refunds to criminals filing false returns using Society Security numbers they have stolen. The IRS estimates that known identify fraud cases have grown by 650 percent since 2008. I suspect that is due in part to exposure of personal data on the Internet. I myself was amazed to obtain the foreign passport number of my pesky neighbor when I entered his distinctive name alone into a Google search. I, of course, will use this power for good, but protecting my own information from faceless or over-eager strangers has worked against me.

Three years ago I was dumbstruck when two sympathetic, responsible women at the New York Botanical Garden asked for my Social Security number and birthdate the first (and only) time they interviewed me for a position in their public relations department. Not having looked for a job in a while, I said I knew they would need that information if I became a finalist for the job. I never heard from them again. The request shocked me and felt like a horrible violation. Common sense indicated it was a terrible risk.

Yesterday to prove my point I applied for entry sales jobs at New York City stores. Target’s on-line application required my Social Security Number. When I did not supply it, I could not proceed. CVS asked for my date of birth explaining that it wanted to send age-appropriate ads (mascara and condoms vs. adult diapers and Medicare spam). Then CVS “proposed” that I take an optional survey. When I tried to take advantage of my proffered right to decline, pop-up boxes insisted that CVS really wanted me to take it. Then I had to agree to a privacy policy that would have permitted robocallers to “contact” me and would have allowed CVS to disclose my information to “third parties.”  I declined other CVS opportunities (I don’t know how many jobs they have anyway because they use check-out machines instead of cashiers).  Macy’s wanted me to take a tax survey. I declined, but after more coaxing pop-ups, I agreed because this was clearly the only way to apply. The first question on the survey was my Social Security number and my age — literally whether I was over or under 40. Then we proceeded to the question about the year I graduated from high school. I would hate to be a 41 year old single mother, unless I had a job in a human resources department. What do these people do nowadays or have they all been laid off? We might not be getting jobs, but we sure are getting ads and robocalls.