Lonely Election Geeks With Clipboards
I’ve been an election worker for three and a half years, overseen the processing of around 10,000 voters, and been in charge of Early Voting sites and Election Day precincts that have varied from the safe and mundane Methodist church reading room, to a high security courthouse that had metal detectors sensitive enough to detect the iron in a leaf of spinach, to an abandoned mall that the 80s forgot, to an actual railway car that was converted into a teeny tiny phosphate museum. (Some days, you’re the Big Kahuna, some days you’re forced to channel your inner sardine.) No election is too big (the 2016 Presidential Election), or too small (a municipal special election that took place because a city commissioner shot a man in cold blood) for me to be assigned to.
Working at a polling place changes you in wonderful, horrible ways. I’ve seen sweet church ladies morph into election dominatrices within two hours of staring into the abyss-like pages of the voter pollbook, trying to ensure that Jennifer Lynn Smith, the liberal Democrat, doesn’t accidentally get issued the ballot meant for Jennifer Lynn Smith, the lifelong Republican. Then there’s the computer programmer of 30 years who can write code in her sleep, but has to watch helplessly as a poorly maintained voting machine glitches and because of a vendor maintenance contract, isn’t allowed to troubleshoot a machine that runs on the same code she used to write for a living. One of my favorite poll workers on Twitter is a former combat Marine who confessed to me via DM that a meltdown of one of his voters triggered a set of nervous hives. As for me, my time as a poll worker has resulted in all kinds of strange fixations on things like provisional ballots and botnets of zombie ballot on demand printers. I also require my loyal subjects address me as ” Your Clerkness”.
Local elections are the least glamorous event I can think of, populated by civic minded masochists, dedicated patriots, and magical ballot fairies alike. Yet they’re the elections where voters have the most impact. And if you want nail-biting suspense, the election outcome can be determined by one ballot. Since relatively few people have ever had the opportunity to serve in a local election, I thought it might be fun to show the readers of Ordinary Times what a day in my precinct is like.
4 am: Wake up at an unnatural hour of the morning and try to figure out how much lipstick and blush It’s going to take so I’m not mistaken for a magical election vampire under the tremendously unflattering fluorescent lights at whichever polling place I’m in charge of this election.
4:30 am: Fight with uncooperative hair and turn the official precinct phone on. Sometimes they call me with voters that I need to mark as “Voted Early” or “Voted by Mail” in the paper pollbook I’ve lovingly assembled alphabetically.
5 am: Check traffic reports and pray that I don’t get lost, since I get sent all over the county, and rarely work the same location twice. Load car with small mountain of election supplies and homemade lasagna for the crew. Drive off into the darkness of rural Florida.
5:30 am: Arrive at location and there are already multiple campaign signs within the 150-foot no-solicitation zone. Mutter obscenities under my breath as my trusty poll deputy and I move the campaign signs. The end of the boundary is in the middle of a field. The grass is too dense for our teeny tiny neon flags on blocks to be seen, and bright yellow chalk blends in perfectly with the grass. I make a mental note to shamelessly beg for screaming orange mini traffic cones or perhaps bright blue and silver all-weather pinwheels with the Supervisor of Elections logo artfully screen-printed on one of the spokes.
5:45 am: I contact security to let me into the polling place. When I enter, I pray to the polling precinct gods for functional electrical sockets, a working air conditioner, and toilet paper. Usually I have to pick two of the three.
6 am: My team is all present. Which is a minor miracle, given that I average two to three last minute dropouts or personnel changes per election. I go through pollbook inspectors like Spinal Tap went through drummers. We start setting up the ballot scanner and electronic pollbook. My Assistant Clerk and I shout random serial numbers to each other. Everything I received at supply issue has a numeric seal, and yes, they are sealed in order. The hottest commodity in the room is the miniature seal cutter. There’s three of us and only one cutter. And all of us have to have the equipment up and running before 6:30 am.
6:30 am: All equipment is running. I contact the election office to let them know we’re ready to vote. After hanging up, I shove two donuts into my mouth, distribute pads of ballots to my inspectors and Assistant Clerk. Realize I forgot to administer the oath, and command everyone to raise their right hand and swear or affirm to conduct the election in concordance with Florida law. If I have time, I also recite General Patton’s D-Day speech to give my team patriotic motivation.
7 am: I tell my deputy to proclaim that the polls are officially open. He barely gets the words out before a stampede of voters rushes the doors. Everyone thinks that they’re the only person who needs to vote before work/school. Wow, are they in for a nasty shock. We have a line out the door. Some voters are more patient than others. The processing time is about 87 seconds per voter- Voter ID makes finding a voter in the pollbook a breeze. If we can’t find a voter, they’re sent to the Assistant Clerk for an electronic lookup. Ballots are being issued right and left-hopefully the ballots were logged completely before issuance. People are willing to kill total strangers over a voting booth. It doesn’t matter how many are in the polling place- they’re no match for the 7 to 8:15 am rush.
7:45 am: My ballot box operator has had to stop at least 5 voters who are unaware that the ballot marking pens are not souvenirs. This woman must be some kind of pen ninja-she has not let one pen disappear so far. I like her. She’s no-nonsense, calm, and has kept the horde of voters from all trying to insert their ballots at once. And she has multiple orderly rows of I Voted and Future Voter stickers to give to voters after they cast their vote.
8:30 am: The morning rush has subsided. I can tell my equipment op is glad to have a minute to sit down. I’m roaming around taping fallen “no photography in polling room” signs. There will be no ballot selfies on my watch.
9:45 am: A voter comes in and according to the pollbook, she is 102 years old. She jokes that the period between elections lasts longer than any of her husbands did. I want to be this sharp when I turn 102.
10:30 am: No matter how carefully I divide the alphabet into separate poll books, there will always be a line of voters who are just in that ONE section of the alphabet. Fun facts: No voters in my poll book have a last name that starts with X. Only three have last names starting with the letter I. 235 out of 1324 voters have last names that start with B.
11:30 am: It’s quiet. Time to warm up the lasagna and send my first team member to lunch. This precinct has the best kitchen ever. Full range, microwave, a sink, plates, utensils, tables and chairs…somebody pinch me. When I ran Early Voting at the phosphate museum, we had to bring our lunches and sit in the “Phosphate Around the World” exhibit.
12:00-3:00 pm: The only lunch crowd here is us. Where is everybody? Don’t the voters like us anymore? What good is a lunch break if it isn’t interrupted by people coming in? My team doesn’t care about eating lasagna in peace, we care about making elections the most pleasant government interaction a citizen will ever have. We cannot do this without voters. In the morgue-like calm of Precinct 216, we are just a group of lonely geeks with clipboards. I soon prove just how geeky by calculating the percentages of maximum turnout, expected turnout, total turnout for in person and Vote by Mail voting, Vote by Mail ballot return rate, etc. Our count stubbornly remains at 92 voters. The ballot scanner is mocking me.
3:45 pm: My prayers to the election turnout gods have been answered. Twenty voters appear within a half hour, and a few are favorites of mine. While manning the ballot scanner, a spry octogenarian looks deeply into my eyes and explains metaphysics and the healing powers of Tai Chi. I’m wearing heels. Or more specifically, four-inch ruby red sequined stilettos that Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz would die for. They were a gift from political mapmaker J. Miles Coleman, and they get trotted out every election. Gorgeous, yes. But Tai Chi in heels on a slick wooden floor is a polling place injury report just waiting to happen.
4:25 pm: My polling deputy demonstrates his American Sign Language skills when a couple comes in and he is able to translate their heated argument. They’re voting for opposing candidates, hoping to cancel out the other’s vote. When they leave, they’re holding hands and look very much in love. I thank them for making voting part of their Date Night.
5:00 pm: A family walks in with their son. It is his 18th birthday, and he wanted to spend it with his parents, voting in a tiny municipal election. My team kicks into high gear and makes a huge fuss over him. There’s just something about that new-voter smell. In all seriousness, a voter’s first election is a very big deal, whether it’s because they just turned 18, or because they just gained US Citizenship. It’s one of the few recognized rites of passage we have left as Americans, and most election workers realize this and endeavor to make it special. We give him an extra I Voted sticker so his mom can put it in his scrapbook.
5:15 pm: Future Voters!!! An 18-month-old walks up to me and points at my ruby slippers. I teach her how to say “Ballot Fairy”. Then she proceeds to eat the Future Voter stickers that my equipment operator gave her. Her mom lifts her up, and she gently places mommy’s ballot in the scanner. The child is a voting prodigy. We tell her that we’ll see her in 17 years.
5:30 pm: 150 voters. Or 7 pads of 25 ballots apiece. Only one ballot has required a void/reissue. No ballots with timing marks accidentally ripped off. No bent corners on the ballots. No overvotes. No undervotes. The new electronic poll book has cooperated, and no jams in the ballot scanner. Is this what election nirvana feels like?
5:30 -6:50 pm: More emptiness. I tell my deputy to go outside and drum up some voters. He returns alone. In a Precinct of 1324 voters, the in-person turnout number stalls at 164 voters. That’s about 12.3%. It’s not the lowest turnout election I’ve worked, but it’s in the bottom 3. Such is life as a magical ballot fairy.
6:55 pm: I instruct the team to review their closing checklists. We have checklists for every possible polling place task, in every color of the rainbow. While in daily life I scoff at to-do lists, during an election, they are 100% worth the Astrobright paper they are printed on. At the end of Election Day, everyone’s brain is fried.
7:00 pm: I hereby proclaim that the polls are closed. Did you hear that? I got to proclaim something! Everyone gets to work: the election results need to be transmitted, the election has to be closed, the ballots need to be lovingly placed in the white voted ballot box, and my team needs to sign the printed results tape, I sneak a look at the results and predict that a seat will have to go to a runoff. As it turned out, I was right. (December 3rd is gonna be lit.) The only plus of a low turnout election is that paperwork is a breeze. Even using a completely new form that requires additional math didn’t slow me down. There are three carbon copies that need to go very specific places. Check twice, seal once. The green emergency seal apparently unleashes election evil into the world if you have to cut a seal and use the emergency one. One small victory: We did not lose a single ballot marking pen. Herding pens is like herding cats.
7:21 pm: We are the first precinct to get results transmitted! And we were not the lowest turnout precinct either. I can live with this. And the team got everything staged and packed in record time. When I promise we will be out by 7:30, we are out by 7:30. It’s not magic, it’s a capable team and logistics.
7:25 pm -7:44 pm: The car is packed, and it’s time to say goodbye. My Assistant Clerk is riding shotgun. There is no efficient route back to the election office. 15 miles seems a lot longer on deserted and poorly lit streets. The election warehouse is the first sign of civilization on the left. Only one car is ahead of us in line. Down the street, 15 other pollworkers are competing for entrance into the election office driveway. Horns blare in the distance. Glad we beat the traffic.
7:45 pm: A very serious looking sheriff’s deputy stares me down and asks for the certification envelope with the results and paperwork. He makes Judge Dredd seem like Mr. Rogers. The election staff unload the ballots and supplies from my trunk. Deputy Dredd signals: We are free to go. As we pull out from the line of cars, I sigh with relief. All I need to do now is return the Assistant Clerk to his vehicle back at the precinct. Across the street, the local dry cleaner’s marquee reads “ELECTIONS ARE WHERE MOST PEOPLE PICK THE WINNER”. Nice touch, universe. I click my ruby heels three times. There’s no place like home. Unless it’s Election Day.