Wednesday, November 5, 2008

General Election 2008

To remind the latecomers, I've been working for the past two and a half years as a Machine Inspector at my local polling place for Primary and General Elections. I'm mainly responsible for operating the voting machines throughout the day, as well as opening them up at the beginning of the day and closing them down at the end of the day.

This year, as you may well imagine, we were expecting a very busy day, with a large volume of voters, many first-time voters, and possible shenanigans by various partisans. In anticipation of that, last week I went to a refresher course for poll workers to brush up on procedures and find out if there would be anything new I should be aware of. By the end of the meeting, I hadn't really heard anything new, but at least I had the sense that I was pretty well-prepared for Tuesday.

On Monday, Andy, my next-door neighbor and Judge of Elections for our precinct, and I went up to the polling place to set up the room for Tuesday. It's our Township Commission meeting room, so we mainly had to move out the chairs normally set up for the audience, arrange tables for the voter sign-in and place the voting machines in position to be ready for opening the next morning. It didn't take long, but it's good to get that done ahead of time so there's no sense of rush on Tuesday morning.

Our polls in Pennsylvania are open from 7AM to 8PM, so we poll workers got there between 6 and 6:30AM to get everything ready. We posted all the informational fliers for voters, including several sample ballots, which are helpful because many voters seem not to know what candidates or questions are on the ballot before they get to the polling place. We signed our oaths and did all the paperwork and mechanical details involved in opening up the voting machines and set the clock to official Verizon time. We were pretty well ready by 6:50 and Andy went outside to catch a smoke before the polls opened officially. He came back in and told me that there were over 60 voters in line already. We've never had that kind of crowd at opening before. I think people had heard so much from the media for the past couple of weeks about possible crowds and problems at the polls that many wanted to get there early.

We opened up at 7:00 to a large but very orderly and patient group of voters. In our first half-hour, we had 100 people vote. We were busy all through the morning with fewer and shorter "slack" periods than we usually see, and before noon, we'd seen over 400 voters. We joked that, at that rate, we might get every voter on our rolls (around 1100) in to vote and be able to close the polls before the scheduled closing time at 8.That didn't happen, of course, but it was a good thought.

Overall, even though we had a busy day, it was probably one of the smoothest election days I've worked. We had the usual cases of voters who weren't sure if they were supposed to vote in our precinct or somewhere else, or people who weren't in our books, which led to our making calls to the County Clerk to verify registration, and many first-time voters, or people who hadn't voted in a few years and were unfamiliar with the electronic voting machines. Our people at the sign-in table used the sample ballot to show people what the machine would look like and what the candidates and question on the ballot would be, and I could usually take the time to show people how to work the machine, before I turned it on for them to vote "live". I must say, I remain very impressed with the dedication and patience of my fellow poll workers to help every voter to make sure they could find the right polling place and to make sure they understood the machine and the process. I was also impressed with the patience and understanding of the voters. If I was explaining the machine to a first-time voter, or an older voter unfamiliar with the machine, no one waiting in line complained that this was holding them up. If our people had trouble finding a voter's correct polling place and it took a while, people waited patiently and invariably thanked us for our efforts. People wanted to vote, and they were understanding of the time and effort that would take, on everyone's part. I don't think I heard cross words exchanged all day.

There were, of course, the amusing moments. There were the voters who still insist that the electronic voting machines are new, and they know that last time, they used the machine with levers, or the people who will stand in front of the curtains waiting for them to open, even when I say, "Walk through the center of the curtains." There was the teenage first time voter who came out of the voting booth and shouted "I just voted!" to cheers and applause. Then, she went out to the parking lot and got the same reaction from the people out there. There were the people who wanted "I voted" stickers so they could get a free cup of coffee at Starbucks or a free ice cream from Ben and Jerry's. We didn't have any of those stickers, but fortunately some of the political party workers out in the parking lot did. There were the Moms and Dads who brought their kids to watch them vote. They nodded and smiled knowingly when I suggested they keep the kids on their left side in the booth, so the kids wouldn't accidentally push the "Vote" button before Mom or Dad was ready. I could usually hear them say, when they were ready, "Okay, you can push the green button now.", and we'd make a big fuss for the kids that they'd helped Mom or Dad vote. One other suggestion for any parents who bring their kids with them when they vote: Please do not, as soon as you bring them into the booth, say, "Don't touch the green button." Consider: What do you think of if someone says to you, "Don't think of a blue elephant."?

We finally hit our big "slack" time around 7PM, by which time we'd had 848 voters, more than I've seen in my time working there, and over 75% of our registered voters. We ended the evening with two Dads and their kids arriving at 7:55 (Remember: Polls close at 8.), who brought the total of voters on our machines to 850. We also had one or two voters who cast provisional ballots, and around 30 absentee ballots. That was a wonderful turnout. By the time we closed out the machines, it was about 8:15. I left the hard-core political junkies to pore over the vote tallies and I headed home, with aching legs but a glad heart. People care about the process and will act patiently and cooperatively to make it work. It's not perfect, because people aren't perfect, but, especially when it goes smoothly, it's very, very good.

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