As it’s the first Wednesday of the month, ordinarily I would be doing a Favorite Things post. But I spent yesterday working at my local polling place and wanted to write about the experience while the election is still on people’s minds.
I’ve never been an avid electioneer. I’ve never worked on a political campaign, and as far as I can remember, I’ve only ever made two political contributions–one to Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC in 2012, and one to the Ready for Hillary PAC earlier this year. I’ve voted fairly consistently since registering when I turned 18, but like most people, I’m more likely to vote in a presidential election than a mid-term. In 2013 I didn’t vote at all because I was still registered in California but living in DC. When I finally got my DC driver’s license, I registered in DC and, for the first time in the 20+ years I’ve been a registered voter, chose to register as a Democrat rather than an Independent.
A little over a month ago I received an email from the DC Board of Elections that they were looking for poll workers for Election Day. It was the kind of email that I would normally delete without even reading, but I guess I was feeling civic-minded that day, so I opened it. There was a short survey asking if I would be available to work from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., what transportation options were available to me, whether I would be willing to work at a polling place other than my own, whether I had experience using a computer, things like that. I submitted the survey, which indicated that someone would contact me if they were interested.
The idea of working from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. gave me pause, but I don’t work full-time, so I figured I might as well give something back to the community while I had the flexibility to do so. A week or two after submitting my survey I received a phone call from a DCBOE employee to confirm that I really was interested in being a poll worker. He reiterated that the hours were 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and said that I would receive $160 about six weeks after the election as compensation for my time. He then asked me again about my level of comfort with using a computer.
He put me down for the job of “check-in clerk” and said that they had training sessions scheduled over the upcoming weeks. There had been no mention of a training session in the initial contact email, but it made sense that we would need to know what to do on Election Day. I signed up for a session on a Tuesday evening, from 5-8 p.m.
The training session was fairly straightforward–aside from the fire alarm that went off 20 minutes into the session, forcing us all into the streets on a chilly, rainy evening. Because it was an actual alarm, not a drill, and because we were at One Judiciary Square, which is apparently an Important Building in DC, the response from the fire company was robust. I counted eight fire trucks, plus the Fire Chief’s vehicle. I’m pretty sure there was no fire, because they let us back into the building after about 30 minutes.
While we were standing around outside I chatted with a couple of young ladies who appeared to be in their mid-20s, Hannah and Rachel. They were both relatively new to DC and were volunteering for the first time, like me. Unlike me, however, they both had full-time jobs from which they were taking vacation days to work the election. Now that’s dedication. I would definitely not take a day off from work to go work a 15-hour day at an election. Hannah, Rachel, and all the other people who do that, I salute you.
The training walked us through how to use the ePollBook, the computers that have replaced the large, paper poll books used in previous years. We also learned how to handle situations like people voting outside of their assigned precinct, people who have moved but not updated their address with the DCBOE, people who haven’t voted in such a long time they’ve been marked as Inactive, people who want to do same-day voter registration, and people who requested Absentee Ballots, but show up at the polling place. The answer in almost all of those cases is that they have to cast a Provisional Ballot.
Part of training included a role-playing exercise where the person opposite us was a “voter” and we were a “poll worker.” Then we switched roles so that everyone could get some hands-on experience. We were evaluated on our performance by the trainers, and we also took a short written quiz at the end of class. We were informed that we might be asked to participate in remedial training if we didn’t score high enough, or even asked to work in a different position. I’m happy to say that I must have done just fine, because I never heard from the trainers again. And kudos to our training team for getting us out of there on time, despite the fire alarm setback.
At training we were informed that we were also supposed to participate in election set-up at our assigned polling place the day before the election and that we would be contacted by our Precinct Captain with a specific time. I was mildly irritated that all this extra time commitment was sprung on us later, rather than being mentioned at the outset in the original email request. But I suppose they have a hard enough time getting people to sign up to work the polls as it is. Being upfront and saying, “Hey, want to make $160 for 15 hours of work on Election Day, plus another 3 hours for training, and another couple of hours for set-up?” would get them nowhere.
As luck would have it, my assigned polling place is two buildings down from my apartment building. When I signed up initially, I indicated that I would not be willing to work anywhere other than my own polling place. If I have to be somewhere at 6 a.m., it needs to be as close as possible to my home. So showing up Monday afternoon for set-up wasn’t much of a hardship for me. And it gave me a chance to meet some of my fellow poll workers.
It was clear right away that for many of the poll workers, it wasn’t their first rodeo. They knew each other already and knew what needed to be done to get set up. My fellow newbies and I just did what we were asked, which primarily consisted of positioning tables and chairs, taping up signs all over the walls of the school gymnasium we were using, setting up voting “booths,” and watching the tech guy set up all the electronics.
I chatted with a guy named Tim, who was also taking time away from his regular job to work at the polls, but who works for an NGO that helps countries create democratic election processes, so at least it’s related. We were both signed up to be check-in clerks, and I think we were the only people there under the age of 50, so we bonded over that. Set-up took just under two hours, then we all dispersed, lamenting the fact that we would be back at 6:00 the next morning.
Getting up at 6 a.m. is one thing; having to actually be somewhere at 6 a.m. is a whole different ballgame. Walking half a block through the chill early morning darkness I passed a woman out for a jog and marveled at her dedication to running. I was only marginally awake at that point, but the bright lights of the gym sparked a bit of energy.
The polls officially opened at 7 a.m., so we spent that first hour placing signage outside, making sure our ePollBooks were operational, and setting up the electronic voting machines. We had one eager voter who tried to come in and vote at 6:45, so we had to turn him away until the time was right.
We had five check-in clerks, two paper ballot clerks, two special (provisional) ballot clerks, two electronic voting machine clerks, two voter assistance clerks (to help disabled voters curb-side), one person to help voters put their paper ballots into the ballot box (which is stupidly difficult), one precinct captain, and a couple of extra people who could direct voter traffic and serve as relief for breaks.
At 7 a.m. we opened the doors to voters, and they flooded in. For the first 51 minutes, it was non-stop. Then I had a break of about 30 seconds to get a drink of water before the hordes descended again. We had five lines of voters, one for each clerk, all consistently at least four voters deep.
As a check-in clerk, my job was to ask for their names, look them up in the computer, verify their address, get their signature on our electronic signature pad, print their voter information and put it on a card, ask whether whey wanted to vote with a paper ballot or electronically, and direct them to their next stop. With only two electronic voting machines, the line backed up rather quickly. We had 16 paper voting stations, so many people who would have voted electronically chose a paper ballot when they heard that it would be significantly faster.
The period from 7-9 a.m. was very, very busy. Clearly, people like to vote on their way to work. From 9 a.m. until about 4 p.m., voters were more sporadic, but there were no long stretches without anyone coming in. Things picked up a bit around lunchtime, but even then it was very manageable. Around 4:00 we started to see the after-work crowd, and from 5:30-7:00 we were rather swamped, but still not as much as the early morning hours. The polls closed at 8 p.m., and I processed my last voter just a few minutes before then.
By the end of the day, I had helped 306 voters cast their ballots, plus another 30 or so whom I had to refer to the special ballot clerk to cast provisional ballots. We had roughly 1500 voters come through our precinct, which I heard was a good amount, especially for a mid-term election. It probably helped that we were electing some important DC offices yesterday, including Mayor, Attorney General, Council Chairperson, and Delegate to the House of Representatives.
Overall our voters were pleasant and courteous. Even when lines were long, I didn’t hear any complaints. Almost everyone gave a general, “Thanks,” after I finished processing them, but several people specifically said, “Thank you for your service,” or “Thanks for doing this,” which was nice to hear. It made me wonder whether I’ve ever thanked a poll worker for their service (I can’t actually remember).
Many parents brought their children with them so they could see what the voting process was like. I had a number of voters who let their children decide whether to cast a paper or electronic ballot. A lot of couples came in together to vote, but I was amused by the number of people who asked whether their spouse had already voted, so they could call and berate them if they had not been in yet.
The day was verrrrrry long. It’s incredibly hard on your body to sit in a folding chair at a table for hours on end, hunched over a computer. By the end of the day, everything hurt: my head, my neck, my shoulders, my back, my legs. My ears were ringing and my head was pounding from hours of noise. During our busy periods it was very difficult to hear people over the general din. And gymnasium acoustics are just plain terrible.
Another fact that had been sprung on us during training is that we weren’t allowed to leave the polling place all day. I had been told during the initial phone call that we would have “plenty of breaks throughout the day,” so I figured I would be able to go home for lunch or a snack. But no, we were trapped there all day. I was able to take a couple snack breaks and a lunch break to eat some food I had brought (and my awesome husband brought me Chipotle after work when he came to vote), but not being able to leave was a real drag.
My new Election Friend Tim and I tried to inject some fun into the day by competing to see who could help more voters. The ePollBooks kept a running tally of how many voters we “posted” so it was easy for us to compare. For most of the day I was ahead by a margin of between two and nine, except for a brief period when Tim took the lead and a short time when I was almost 20 ahead. But in the end, we helped out each other and both ended the day with 306 posted voters.
Will I ever again serve as a poll worker? I don’t know. It felt nice to do something civic-minded, but man, it was a long day. By the time we cleaned up after the polls closed, it was just after 8:30. So we worked 14.5 hours on Election Day, plus 2 hours of set-up, plus 3 hours of training for a total of 19.5 hours. When I woke up this morning, I felt really bad for my fellow poll workers who had to go to their regular jobs today. I would definitely not work at the polls if I had a full-time job.
It would be better if they could break up the day into two shifts. It’s just unreasonable to ask people to work for 15 hours straight. One voter came back in the evening with paperwork she needed but hadn’t had with her earlier that morning and was shocked to see all the same people there. I realize that cities have a hard time finding people willing to work at the polls, and breaking the day into shifts would require them to find even more people. But maybe they would be able to attract more people if they weren’t asking for a 15-hour commitment.
DC also needs more electronic voting machines. We had so many voters who would have preferred to vote electronically but didn’t have the time to wait for a machine. And there were a number of people who stood in the electronic voting line for many minutes before changing their minds and switching to paper.
Also, Public Service Announcement: if you move, you need to change your address with your Board of Elections. Just because you can register to vote when you get your driver’s license doesn’t mean that your address is automatically updated with the BOE when you update it with the DMV. I had a ton of people who assumed that changing their address on their license would automatically change it on their voter registration.
Lastly, the cutest part of the day was when a group of students at the elementary school serving as our polling place came in to learn about elections and received “I Voted” stickers. I’ve never seen anyone so excited to get a voting sticker!
All in all, it was an interesting experience. If you have the time to devote, I encourage you to serve as a poll worker someday. Your community will appreciate it. At the very least, make sure you vote–in every election, not just the presidential elections. Just think about all the people around the world who don’t get to vote because of the political structure of their country. Count yourself lucky to live in a place where you get to cast a ballot. Even if you think it doesn’t matter, it does!