That time I was put in charge of a polling location at the last minute

polling place general election sign

By Justin K. Rivers

A few years ago, I was in between jobs. I knew one of the two Montgomery County election commissioners because I was volunteering for some local campaigns, and he asked me to be a poll worker for the general election that November.

The county has been struggling to staff polling places. The shift is long, the usual folks are all getting older, and not as many people want to (or can) do it any more.

The job comes with a stipend. I needed the hundred bucks, so I said yes.

At the end of October that year, I drove out to the old courthouse and took the two-hour training session during which the commissioners quickly ran through the basics of how the voting machines worked and how to sign a voter in and give them a ballot. There was extra stuff that they glossed over, because each polling location was run by a senior election inspector (a more experienced volunteer) versed in the opening and closing procedures, as well as how to operate the new optical-scan voting machines (my county uses the Imagecast) for people with visual or hearing impairments, or for people with conditions that required them to interface with the machine using the mouth straw attachment.

Yes, everyone loved the old lever machines, they said. But people with disabilities could not operate them independently, and there were other problems with the aging machines. The new machines, the commissioners said, were more accessible and included safeguards that most people don't realize. (They also said the new machines cannot be hacked because they aren't connected to the internet.)

Nobody needs to bring their ID, because the system is based on address and signature verification at a local district level. Results are tallied by machine and verified by hand as needed.

I zoned out towards the end of the seminar. Somebody else would tell me what to do. I just needed to show up.

"You're it."

The night before the election I got a call from the town clerk.

"You're it," she told me. "You're in charge."

Huh? Zero experience, Maggie. Zero.

"Someone called in sick and you're the only one I can trust, you'll be fine. Just call the commissioners if you need anything. Oh, and pick up the ballots on the way home and don't forget to bring them with you tomorrow. That would be bad."

"Someone called in sick and you're the only one I can trust, you'll be fine. Just call the commissioners if you need anything. Oh, and pick up the ballots on the way home and don't forget to bring them with you tomorrow. That would be bad."

And like that, on account of my youth and cheerful disposition, I was a last minute, first-time senior election inspector at the village hall.

Election Day

My day began a few hours later, at 4am.

I rolled out of bed and gargled some tea and drove the two miles to the village hall. The other inspectors were waiting. Joan, a woman in her 50s, was from farther out-county and working at our location because they couldn't find anyone else closer. She had short, sandy hair and a gravelly voice. Mrs. Johnson, in her mid-80s, wore a dress with a shawl and spoke with the cheerful cluck of a kindly grandmother. She had been a teacher back when the village had its own school.

I explained that I was the senior inspector, and they seemed relieved because they were uncertain about the procedures with the new machines. I read the instruction book out loud with them a couple of times. Each polling place comes with a startup kit, with sealed packets and instructions, along with various required props. I started up the machine while the others busied with the scenery. The signs on the door, the tables for the sign-in books. The folders and blank ballots. The metal desks with cardboard blinders for privacy and cheap felt markers scattered everywhere.

We opened at 6 am. A couple of guys from the town road crew were already there waiting to beat the breakfast rush. Each person put their name on the sign-in sheet. This is not necessary or required, but it is a courtesy for poll watchers who come to check and see who voted. The poll watchers are usually designated by candidates to keep track of how many people who support them show up. They may also observe the proceedings generally, and challenge a voter if they do not think the person is eligible.

One of my friends was a poll watcher at another location, and the workers there were giving him problems by not letting him look at the sign-in sheet. He called the commissioner to complain. The guy who was being a jerk about it didn't really understand what the poll watcher was there to do, and was acting in a partisan way. But aside from hearing about that one bit of friction, there was no other politics apparent the entire day. Five or six old timers told me they were voting for Mickey Mouse, a classic line around the village hall. On the most important day of our political system, any serious discussion of the subject was taboo.

Five or six old timers told me they were voting for Mickey Mouse, a classic line around the village hall. On the most important day of our political system, any serious discussion of the subject was taboo.

Each voter placed their signature below their signature on file, which is photocopied into the ballot book next to a bar code. We are supposed to check to make sure the signatures matched. But between me and Mrs. Johnson, we knew just about everybody by sight. Joan was from half an hour away, and she knew a lot of people, too.

The polling place is organized by district. Only the people who are on record as living there appear in the ballot book and vote. If someone showed up to the wrong place, we looked up their name and sent them to the right location. If someone said they were registered and weren't in the roster anywhere, we had them fill out a provisional ballot. Those ballots are placed in a sealed envelope and dropped into a mail slot in the side of the machines, to be opened later by the commissioners to verify if the person was properly registered to vote or not. We did this twice that night. It's usually an issue of someone's address changing.

The long day

The rest of the day dragged on. Mrs. Johnson's daughter came by to bring her a sandwich. She sat at a table near the window, wrapped in her shawl. She seemed so frail, and yet she had the most spunk out of any of us. She put everyone at ease. The older folks were particularly uncomfortable with the voting machines. Thank god she was there to reassure them.

Most of the time we just sat there waiting. Voters came in waves, like at a restaurant. There was a breakfast crowd, a lunch crowd, a big dinner rush, and then the late night stragglers.

Most of the time we just sat there waiting. Voters came in waves, like at a restaurant. There was a breakfast crowd, a lunch crowd, a big dinner rush, and then the late night stragglers.

Towards the end of the day an old man came in. He had poor eyesight and probably shouldn't have been driving. He couldn't read the bubbles on the ballot. He went to the desk and strained his eyes to see. After a few minutes, he asked me for help. We're not supposed to assist in actually completing the ballot, so I was nervous about what to do. I tried to describe the layout of the sheet more clearly, to help him navigate. We had a magnifying glass but it wasn't enough. He blushed with embarrassment. "I think I'm just gonna vote straight party line," he said softly. I could see him try to trace that line with his finger.

A little while later, Charlie came in with his 90-year-old father, who clutched his arm as he made his way on unsteady feet. Charlie asked if he could go to the desk with him and lend a hand. I couldn't remember the rules about people needing assistance. It was clear that Charlie was going to fill the ballot out for his dad, but that one training session was fuzzy in my mind. As the senior inspector, I made the call and waved them through.

A young, red-faced kid was the last person in. He had a round meatball-shaped head and beamed a big smile at us. His first time voting!

After he was gone, Joan and Mrs. Johnson and I were left alone. At 9 pm the janitor came by to check on things. He set the door so it would lock behind us when we left. We closed the polling place and started to clean up.

"Gonna be a long night, Chief."

Mrs. Johnson was very tired but she wouldn't sit down. She and Joan packed up our supplies and chased after the stray markers. I leafed through the instructions and keyed the commands into the machine. The register tape began to print out the tally and then stopped. I heard a pop and saw a spring and a metal rod fly off of the printer and fall into the cavity of the beast. Joan saw it, too. Our eyes met. She shook her head. "Gonna be a long night, Chief." I called the tech support line.

I heard a pop and saw a spring and a metal rod fly off of the printer and fall into the cavity of the beast. Joan saw it, too. Our eyes met. She shook her head. "Gonna be a long night, Chief." I called the tech support line.

A very tired-sounding guy called me back a few minutes later and walked me through the steps as I unlocked the belly of the machine, picked up the retaining spring and the other bit that had fallen in, and then popped it back into place. Then the machine froze. He groaned on the other end of the line and we began the process of rebooting it. After a good 20 minutes, the ticker tape started up again and the tally printed out. We gathered the register tape and stuffed it into a zippered pouch.

At 10:30, the commissioners came by to pick up all the stuff and shove the ballots into big leather bags. Mrs. Johnson hugged me goodbye and got into her daughter's van. I saw Joan in the parking lot, leaning against her Jeep with a cigarette. Election day was over.

A system made up of people

They asked me to be a poll worker the following year but I declined. It was a grueling shift and I wanted to work on a campaign. I was frustrated with myself, too. I wanted to do a good job but felt that maybe I hadn't. I came away from the gig with a greater appreciation for the system and its gentle but clever safeguards, but also cognizant of its flaws.

Nothing about the process suggested that the election system was rigged, rotten, or tainted by conspiracy or some other cheap movie narrative. It was staffed by people. An older, tired, well-meaning, not-always-well-trained, dwindling group of neighbors with faith in the system.

Nothing about the process suggested that the election system was rigged, rotten, or tainted by conspiracy or some other cheap movie narrative. It was staffed by people. An older, tired, well-meaning, not-always-well-trained, dwindling group of neighbors with faith in the system. On the other side of the sign-in desk, people told me that the system is broken. I didn't see any sign of that. Instead, I saw a boring process that people don't know much about. Because it's boring.

The next November, as I stood in the parking lot of the village hall passing out flyers for a local proposition, I recognized the jolly red-faced boy from the previous year. He walked towards me but didn't know who I was. He wore a dirty denim jacket and shivered from the cold. I took a step in his direction and held out a flyer. "Get away from me!" he screamed. He raised his hands as if to shield his face from an animal, his eyes wide with fear.

I will never forget his face and how different it was. Other folks I knew came by and a few of them had similar reactions, sneering at me or shooting me curdled, anxious looks before they saw who I was. People from down the road, friends of my family. Some of the same ones who had smiled at me the previous year, people I had known my whole life. None of them knew what my flyer even said.

There is an otherness about politics that makes people feel uncomfortable. The more I experienced the system firsthand, the less I felt that.

I am very glad I was a poll worker that one time. Now, when I go to vote and see the candidates and poll watchers and election inspectors and campaigners with flyers and signs, I just see my neighbors.

Justin K. Rivers is a writer and performer who lives in Cranesville. You can find him on stage most weekends at the MopCo Improv Theatre in Schenectady.

Comments

What a great piece! I really enjoyed this insight into an aspect of the electoral process we take for granted. Also made me feel kind of guilty because I told myself 3 years ago when I retired that I would become a poll worker. Maybe I'm going to have to do that now.

This morning when I went to vote and signed the register, the poll worker said to me, "Where's your dog?" My dog accompanied me to every vote for the last 10 years. I told her I had to put the dog down on Friday. It was touching to me that the poll workers knew my dog and expected her to show up. And, yes, it was a reminder that these poll workers are my neighbors.

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