Dem 49
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Reports From the Front Lines

Presumably, readers of this site don't need this reminder. But just in case, if you are voting today, be sure to be nice to the poll workers. The great majority of them are public-minded citizens who are just trying to do their civic duty.

And on that point, two of our readers (and regular mailbag contributors) have signed up to be poll workers this cycle. They've submitted reports explaining their thought process, and their experience getting ready. Those appear below. Later this week, we'll have reports from them about their experiences on Election Day.

B.J.L. in Ann Arbor, MI: In Michigan we have probably thousands of municipal polling sites to cover local elections. Money flows from the state to municipalities to manage the hiring of daily staff for Election Day and the hope is that there is enough training. Our city put out the request for workers in July and they have been IDing potential temporary workers available for both training and Election Day. I applied and somehow they picked me. I consider myself a dime-store anthropologist so resolving who is doing this is interesting to me given what we've been through.

What makes someone want to sign up to be a poll worker (at least, in my mind)? Three major things:

  1. Civic Pride: Local groups, like the League of Women Voters, seem to fill this key need in addition to groups supporting libraries, schools and the arts. Poll workers are older; the average poll worker age is likely 50+. A few students in high school or college can also populate the poll-worker ranks.

  2. Pay: I think people get $16.75/hr. It's not something I need, but for those older ones who are retired, the notion of a little bread might help seal the deal.

  3. Obligation: The prevailing fear that if I don't apply, they'll hire some yokel not ready for prime time and its better it's me than someone else.

What are the requirements? Workers need to be registered voters, or age 16 or 17. Since many polling places are schools, they're all closed. High schoolers are also not in school. You can't have a felony record to work the polls. The dress code is dark pants and a white shirt. If you are doing absentee ballot counting, your cell phone needs to be off from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and the group is isolated to count.

What is my assignment? I think I can be posted anywhere in our county. We get 3-4 hrs of training depending on job function. It seems each polling site is kind of like an army regiment. The regiment includes greeters who lack computer and database experience to track voter details (the privates), those who have more experience and training and are willing to do that also (the NCOs), and platoon leaders who will sign on behalf of precincts. A separate group is training on how to count absentee ballots.

After attending the poll worker training, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was among the oldest people undergoing training. I would estimate the average age among new workers was about 35 and it was clear that there were some collegians among the mix. I suspect the LWV-veteran types don't have to go through the basic training over and over again.

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY: This year, I finally did it. I signed up to become a poll worker, and I wanted to tell the readership a bit more about what that process looks like, at least in my central NY county (Onondaga County, home to Syracuse). I indicated my interest when I voted in the primary and quickly received a welcome packet in the mail. From there, I had to attend one of the 3-hour classes, whose sessions started at 9 a.m., 1 p.m., and 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, with one Saturday session. I did well in the first class, so they asked me to come back at similar class times to complete a second certification to become a Voting Systems Specialist (VSS), which I did. If I had wanted to become a polling site manager, I would have needed a third class. I will be paid for the training in addition to the pay I'll get for working the election, but it's really more of a nice bonus rather than a job for me. I am fortunately in a position this semester where I can make those class times, but I can see why a working professional with children might have a hard time with that schedule and why it's mostly retirees who work the polls. For election day itself, the hours usually run from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.!

In both classes, I lowered the average age of the poll workers by at least a decade; I'm under 40 and the instructor stated that the average age of poll workers in the county was above 70. Even though a few of the poll workers had worked before, everyone has to retake the class every year because of changes to policies and procedures. Throughout the first class, there was a first-time participant who kept challenging the instructor about how to keep "illegals" from voting, but the instructor had great answers to all of her loaded questions. He kept emphasizing that the board has the twin goals of making sure only eligible voters vote and that no eligible voter gets disenfranchised. I think the lady came away relatively mollified, or at least less defiant and suspicious.

Two other points that the first instructor emphasized were: (1) making sure that voters' privacy is maintained, as some nervous poll workers tend to hover near the machines; and (2) that absolutely everything is overseen and signed off by at least one Democrat and one Republican. The latter requirement can be tricky because Onondaga County has around 35,000 more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, so in some cases, an independent or Conservative Party voter gets appointed to serve as the Republicans' representative.

Most of the two classes had to deal with the 1% to 10% of "edge cases," i.e., all of the exceptions and strange situations that could crop up. Normally, voters simply come in with a driver's license or another form of ID (though we are prohibited from asking for one). They also might have the mailer that the county mailed to every registered voter in the county. If they have one of those things, then they can just simply scan them on the polling pad, sign off that their name is correct, and go vote on the optical scanning machine. If not, then they just tell us their name and address, they sign, we verify their signature, and they go vote.

If a voter shows up at the wrong polling site, the system will flag it and tell us their correct site, and we can even push a button to print them or text them driving, walking, or transit directions to their correct polling location. If they changed addresses recently, or they didn't provide ID when registering initially, or they asked for an absentee ballot and changed their mind, then they have to vote via affidavit ballot, which doubles as an updated voter registration form. If they are dead set on voting via the machine, they can go down to the elections board and convince a judge to give them a court order to vote. The instructor said most voters just do the affidavit ballot, but you might get some stubborn person who wants a court order.

Voters getting challenged (by another voter, a poll watcher, or a poll worker) is rare. The instructor said it had maybe happened a dozen times in the last decade. In that case, the challenger and voter both have to sign oaths stating that they believe that the voter is ineligible or swear that they are eligible, respectively. If the voter signs the oath then they can vote, but all challenges get investigated thoroughly. The instructor said that most of the time the challenger declines to provide their name or swear the oath. We are supposed to intervene if someone is only challenging certain groups of people (e.g., voters of color) but that is extremely rare.

As for the second class, much of it reviewed the edge cases from before because it turns out that the VSS is also a backup polling-site manager (gulp!). The last part of the VSS class was a practical exam on setting up the machine properly using the step-by-step manual. We even fed pretend ballots (about which ice cream flavor was the best) through the machines to see how it worked. I came away highly impressed with the security of the Dominion Voting machines that I will be working with. Every part of the machine is sealed with tamper-evident seals, and all of the seals are signed off by a Democrat and a Republican. Here again, there were complicated edge cases—in this case, helping a voter who needs ADA accommodations for marking their ballot—but the technology that allows a person with low-vision or low-mobility to do this was quite impressive.

Despite all this, I do think that the whole system relies to some extent on trust. For instance, if someone swiped a voter's mailer from their mailbox, they could attempt to impersonate that voter, since the mailer does not have a photo of the voter on it. If a voter messes up their signature, we are supposed to show the voter their actual signature and have them try again, which seems like it relies on some trust. (Most instances of a mismatch are because an aged or infirm voter's signature changed.) If voter gets checked in erroneously and we don't catch it somehow before they vote, then it sounds like there's nothing we could do. Absentee ballots simply get dropped in a turquoise suitcase so someone could steal a bunch of absentees, fill them out, and dump them in without me knowing about it. Someone could even try to take and destroy the suitcase if they thought it contained ballots for their nonpreferred candidate. Someone could attempt to provide an altered memory card to the memory card runner; there are fortunately backup paper ballots, but the resulting confusion would be a mess. You also have to trust that the people who take these classes and the people who work at the elections board aren't somehow cooking the books. However, I want to emphasize that I do not think that any of these scenarios are at all likely because the risk involved for the participants is huge and the likelihood of actually affecting an election is extremely small. I believe that every election denier should take these classes because at least some of them would stop bellyaching when their candidate loses (*cough cough* Trump *cough cough*).

Finally, the elections administration workers are definitely sensitive to the optics of how elections are run. As an example, there is a secure emergency ballot box in case a machine goes down, so voters can drop their ballots in there to be run through the machine later in case they don't want to wait for the machine to be fixed. The second instructor told us to wait until the end of the night to run those ballots through and to always make sure that there is one Democrat and one Republican present. Can you imagine the brouhaha that would occur on Faux "News" if two Democrats were caught running ballot after ballot through a machine in the middle of the day with no voters present? Yikes!

We look forward to your post-election reports! (V & Z)

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