PSA: Be Kind to Poll Workers


Tomorrow's September 13 of the year following a presidential election. That doesn't mean much to the vast majority of American citizens, but for denizens of New York City, it means it's time for the New York City Primary Elections. As I am wont to do, I registered to vote the day I arrived here, so I believe I should be all set to vote tomorrow. I'm excited, mostly because they apparently use old lever voting machines here, so I get the experience of literally "Pulling the lever" for a candidate.

I believe I must have some sort of voting fetish, because I've voted at every opportunity I've ever had. This includes the 2000 General (I turned 18 on October 22, 2000, so I couldn't vote in the 2000 Primaries), the 2002 California Primary, the 2002 General, the California Recall, the 2004 California Primary, and the 2004 General. I even voted in every ASUC election at Berkeley, and lord knows how pointless those are.

But of all those elections, the 2002 California Primary holds a special place in my heart. Why? Because in that election I not only voted, I served as a poll worker. And the lesson I'd like to impart to you based on my experience is this: Being a poll worker sucks, so please be kind to them.

Start with the pay. Most poll workers, at least in Alameda County, are paid $70 for their services (it's not a volunteer position, despite what some people think). Inspectors are paid about $100, but they're better trained and it's damned hard to get appointed to an inspector position. $70 for a day's work doesn't sound too bad, but consider this: Polls open at 7 AM. Poll workers are expected to arrive an hour early to get set up. Polls close at 8 PM. Between waiting for the last voters to finish, packing everything up, tallying and certifying the vote, and driving the ballots to the local precinct, a poll worker doesn't generally get done until 10 PM. In the middle, they get one half-hour lunch break. So that's 15-16 hours of work for $70, or roughly $4.52 per hour.

Why would anyone take this job, particularly since it means sacrificing a whole day of work? Two reasons leap to mind. The first is love of country and the electoral process. The second is because you really have nothing better to do, no job and no prospects for money. When I worked the polls, all four of us at my polling station were in the latter category. In my case, I didn't have a job and had never had a job. I didn't really know how to go about getting one (and based on my experiences applying for a part-time job after I graduated, I still don't really know how to go about getting one) and $70 seemed like a pretty darn good amount of money for a day's work. My classes were such that I had only one lecture on Tuesday, and I had friends in the class who could give me the gist of it, so there wasn't anything really stopping me.

My election was a primary in an off year, so it wasn't too crowded, but there was a steady trickle of voters, which prevented me from getting any serious reading done. Needless to say, the job gets very boring very fast. This boredom is punctuated by brief vitriolic interactions with patrons, as angry voters discover that they're not on your list and demand to take this clear case of voter disfranchisement all the way to the Supreme Court. Or they're angry about whatever. We had one lady who was a Green Party voter who was angry because the designated Third Party Voting Booth doubled as the disabled voting booth and felt this was the Alameda County Registrar of Voter's way of hinting that third party voters were mentally handicapped. We sat through 15 minutes of ranting about this. At another point we were yelled at by a union poll watcher for being twenty minutes late updating the exterior address list. Now, I'm a big union supporter, but I have serious qualms about the external address list. Thanks to California State law, poll workers are required to post a copy of the address list on the outside of their polling place. The address list gives all the addresses contained in the precinct, along with all the voters registered there. We use the main one to make sure people are whom they say they are. What I really object to is that we're required to update the outdoor list every hour to show who's voted and who hasn't. This is to give union enforcers, of the kind who browbeat us, the ability to monitor who's voted and who hasn't, and thereby go out and drag people to the polls. It's the law, so we have to obey it, but it makes me really uncomfortable.

I tended to be the voice of reason among the poll workers, as I was the only one who had read the thick volume of procedure and could maintain a calm demeanor while explaining to voters the options they had in handling whatever their problem was. Our inspector, ostensibly the leader of our rag-tag band, actually tried to pick a fight with one voter before I intervened and calmed her down.

Then we got to the end of the day and closed everything up. I don't know how this works anymore, what with the touch-screen voting, but when I did it we used punch-cards (and no, the 4000th hanging chad remark wasn't any less funny than the first; it's impossible to get less funny than a hanging chad joke, so it doesn't really matter how many times you hear it) and we had to carefully count every single ballot, twice, and compare that tally to the tally on the official voter log and the address list. Any discrepancies had to be accounted for, and the insinuation was that there would be an investigation to make sure nothing untoward had happened. Then, after we had each attached and signed our own seperate seal, we all had to drive the ballots to the precinct office, all together to make sure none of us got up to any monkey business.

So: Poll working is not fun. Further, in any given precinct, there will be a dozen voters who turn up but can't vote, either because they made a mistake or because somebody at the Registrar of Voters office made a clerical error. If you end up being one of those people who has trouble voting, please don't make a Federal case of it; somebody somewhere probably screwed up, and there is a simple process for handling it and making sure your vote counts. Further, your poll worker will happily explain your options to you. Just remember that, while it is a hassle, it wasn't anything systematic, it's not aimed at you, it was somebody's mistake and the person whose mistake it was is almost certainly not the poll worker. Yelling at them doesn't punish the party in error, it merely makes their shitty day even shittier.

Having said all this, I'm actually glad I worked as a poll worker. It was an interesting experience, it's given me some good stories to tell, and I met some neat people. Also, you get to take an Oath of Office in the morning, with the whole "I, Molten Boron, do solemnly swear to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States and the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic" etc. I'm not sure if the Oath applies to just the day you're a poll worker, or if it's a lifetime commitment, but nonetheless, I wouldn't talk any smack about the California Constitution around me, or there could be trouble. And, if you work a Primary, you get to see which party all your neighbors are registered as. I worked in North Berkeley, and since I had the address list I got to see the geographic distribution of parties in the area. Not surprisingly, it's almost all Democrats, with a smattering of Greens and a few Republicans. During one of my bored moments I did a tally and, at least in our precinct, the Greens outnumbered the Republicans 2-to-1. We had a cute old couple come in that was one registered Democrat and one registered Republican, and they performed some faux-bickering for us. In any case, it may interest you to know that there's an unusually high concentration of Green Party voters on Vine Street. Similarly, a lot of conservatives live on Arch Street, particularly in one building, the address of which I can no longer recall, which housed a gaggle of Republicans, several Constitution Party voters, a Libertarian, and two American Independence Party voters. While walking around later I stumbled on the building and it looked like some sort of religious cult; plain on the outside, you had to walk around back to the entrance. No sign outside, but through the glass doors you could see an ornate interior with lots of crucifixion scenes. I decided it wasn't prudent to investigate further.

Now, I would never do the poll worker thing again now that I've done it, but even knowing what I'd be getting into I think I'd still have made the decision to do it the first time, if that makes sense.

I'll relate one story from my day poll working. My fellow clerk (the lowest-rung on the poll-working hierarchy is the clerk position) was named Curley. He and I had a bond, in that we both were victims of typos by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters office. For years I got calls from political groups who got my name from registered voter lists and asked for Zarhary Slorpe (Pronounced, Zar-HAR-y). I tried contacting the Registrar to correct it, but to no avail. Curley, on the other hand, was referred to in his official mailings as "Curlff." I don't even know how you'd pronounce that.

Anyhow, there was a lull in the voting, and Curley went outside for a smoke. I joined him and started making conversation. "Things seem pretty quiet now, no voters in sight." Curley got the thousand-mile stare and just said "Charley's in the trees, man. Charley's in the trees." The image of guerilla voters has stuck with me ever since.


California Constitution? Ain't shit.

Man, why you gotta be comin' into my house and startin' shit? You know I can't let that slide.

But seriously, though, have you seen the California Constitution? It's like a train wreck. Take a look. You'll note there are no Articles 8, 17, or 23-33. We have an entire article of our constitution dedicated to creating a stem cell research center. This crap shouldn't be in a constitution! This is what you get when you allow constitutional amendments by simple majority plebiscite.

Well, shit. Now I've gone and done damage to the Constitution of the State of California. Can impeachment hearing be far behind?

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