News: The Other Side of the Booth

Adventures of a first-time poll worker

"Will my vote be counted?" The voter looked at me with reservation and a little fear. Knowing the history that gave rise to that fear, I gulped.

"Yes, Ma'am, your vote will be counted."

The eScan machine at our Roselawn precinct was spitting on Nov. 7 instead of scanning, and our presiding judge fumed at it. It wasn't until I sat down that I realized the malfunction was my fault. I wanted to be a part of the voting solution, and now I was part of the problem.

It all started that morning. The board of elections called because my presiding judge had a flat tire; we had to open the polls without her help. When I arrived, my co-workers had difficulty opening the cabinet of the eScan machine.

I turned the key easily and placed the cover inside.

I'd forgotten that the cabinet had to be completely empty for ballots to stack properly. After opening the polls on time, the machine began to jerk as it scanned a ballot.

I apologized profusely to my fellow poll workers, and they assured me the votes would still be counted. Yet I felt the weight of the democratic process on my shoulders. My baptism of fire as a poll worker had begun.

A month before the election, I was half-listening to candidate interviews on the local news. A man on the street asked, "What will you do to improve voter turnout?"

The candidate expressed the need for younger poll workers.

"You go to the polls, and everyone working there is old. Our young people need to feel that voting is for them, too."

My ears perked up. As an immigrant's granddaughter, I couldn't take the right to vote for granted. My first presidential election, I forgot to request an absentee ballot. I left campus, drove an hour to my old Kentucky home precinct, and drove back for my next class.

Four years later the Bush-Gore debacle highlighted the need for more poll workers in minority neighborhoods. Working the election meant bringing the fulcrum of change within reach for all.

The recruiter at the board of elections was glad to have me, especially because I requested an urban assignment. A week later, I attended a training class to practice using the new equipment.

On Election Day the presiding judge stationed me at the signature book to check IDs. If a name wasn't on the roll, I referred the voter to another judge with an address guide. Some precincts had closed last year, and several voters were upset that the board of elections hadn't held their voting location in perpetuity.

Each of the three precincts in the tiny church hall had only five booths for marking ballots. When each was full, voters had to wait. At 4 p.m. the line snaked out the door.

"You people are so unprofessional."

I looked up from the book to see a fortyish woman, indignant.

"You should have called down to the board of elections and gotten some more booths in here!"

The thought of the board of elections screeching to the curb with more booths made me giggle.

"If we did have more booths, where would we put them?" another judge countered.

I felt the tension of people waiting to vote but remembered that citizens in other countries wait far longer. Each person took all the time needed to read the issues and make selections. Yet for some the wait was prohibitive.

The presiding judge from another precinct asked us to let a young mother go to the front of our line. She'd been waiting half an hour in the wrong line, with kids outside in the car. She wouldn't have waited again.

I began thinking about what I'd do if I ran the election. Have one person in charge of the entire location, rather than leaving each precinct's presiding judge bicker with the others. Have an extra judge at the door, verifying each voter's precinct with an address guide. I saw many people wait in line at the first table, get sent to our precinct, then return to the first table because the worker there had sent them to us by error.

Provide more space and more booths to complete the issue-heavy ballot. Have the board of elections get sample ballots to the neighborhoods before Election Day. Reduce provisional ballots by a campaign to update voter registrations. Ensure people know their polling location.

At 8 p.m. the last voter left, and the presiding judge directed another judge and me to begin counting ballots. We worked in palpable quiet, each piece of paper thick in our hands. Now democracy was tangible, and a sacred trust passed through our fingers.

From the other side of the booth, I learned that there's room for more fingerprints on the fulcrum. We cannot make anyone own the democratic process, but we can make the tools of democracy more accessible.

Despite the long hours and low pay, I think I'll work the polls again. I'll take the signatures if you'll hand out the ballots. Just keep me away from the eScan, hear? ©

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