Who Runs Your Elections?

A lot of people aren’t familiar with all that it takes to make an election happen.  Here’s just a little bit from my day as an election judge…

I got up at 4:45 on Tuesday morning, after less than four hours of sleep.  I left the house by 5:30 to make sure I had time to pick up donuts and a soda before heading to the polling place by six.  A few minutes after six, I pulled into the Community Association parking lot and started unloading.  Right behind me came Kim, who had graciously given up her day to come and help me.  We unloaded and unpacked everything, then set about wiring together the voting machines and turning them on.  People were waiting as early as six-forty to vote at our location, but with just two of us, it took us a while to get things in order.  We both had expected to have more people there to help us, but life and schedules and situations got in the way, and we ended up having to handle a polling place (with staff allowance for eight) on our own.  Even with those challenges, we opened the polls on time.

New voter ID laws in place now in Texas necessitated some review of procedures, which both of us had to do while actually processing voters.  The training the county provided was good, but all new procedures take time to learn well enough to execute without some review.  So we flipped through manuals and reference sheets as we took down information and checked voters in.

During an early break, in which I was tweeting my disappointment with the staffing situation, a neighboring precinct chair and election judge saw my message, called me and offered to send over a clerk to help us.  Both Mike, the clerk, and Ed, the judge who sent him, were Godsends to us.  We were able to process voters faster, because we didn’t have to get up each time and walk the voter to the next station and help him there before returning to serve the next person in line.  Yes, with three of us, it looked like we could handle the day reasonably well.

Voters trickled in all day, less than 300 total.  Few people had to stand in line for more than a minute or two.  The machines worked flawlessly for us, a report that was echoed from other nearby locations by our elections technician, when she would visit us to check whether we needed anything.  Nothing failed, or broke, or malfunctioned.

We did have other challenges:

  • The many people who walked in expecting to vote and had come to the wrong location.
  • The people who had been sent to us in error from another location.
  • The people who were  mistakenly attempting to vote in our county when they lived in the next county over.  (This happened twice, with each voter proclaiming that they ‘heard’ or ‘saw’ that people in our zip code were all supposed to vote at our location)
  • The one person who had registered two days past the deadline and was not eligible to vote until Thursday.
  • The guy who thought he’d registered when he obtained his driver’s license (Thanks, Moter Voter law that only works sometimes!)

Those people we tried to help as best we could, telling them that if our location wasn’t their final stop, we’d do our best to make it their next-to-last stop.  We pulled up voter information on the county tax office website to get their correct precinct.  We looked up their voting locations on the official list from the county.  We gave directions when needed.  We did everything possible to help those people vote.  We did it while continuing to process the people who DID vote in our location.  And we did it with three people.  All day.

Those weren’t the only issues we had to deal with, but they were the most common ones.  We also had voters who wanted to talk about the ballot or the political parties or the issues with us, which we are prohibited from doing, or with other people inside the polling location.  Some of them kept talking even when told about the restrictions and the distance markers erected for the purpose of preventing electioneering.  Then there were the voters who blamed us for not getting the races they wanted on their ballot, though that is determined by their residence.

However, most of the voters we encountered were very courteous, and we were thanked often for running the election.  To a person, every one of them showed their IDs, and the majority had their IDs in hand, ready to present them to us.  Most of them also walked out wearing an “I Voted” sticker, a reminder to others to go vote.  Those were stickers that I paid for and that the county does not issue with the voting materials, but I’ve always liked having them on hand in the hopes that it increases turnout even slightly.

When it was time to close the polls, we still had a lot of work to do.  The computers had to be reconciled and packed up.  The voting machines had to be broken down, packed away, and loaded into a cart to be stored for pickup.  (Those machines are heavy, too, and I’m sore today from breaking most of them down.)  The vote counts had to be reconciled, which Kim diligently triple-checked before we gave up trying to find the one vote we couldn’t account for.  The paperwork had to be sorted into its various destination envelopes for the county to process.  The supplies had to be boxed up and loaded into my van.  We had to put the room back in its regular setup arrangement.  And I had to drive the lot of it to the dropoff location and return it all to the county, ending my sixteen hour day.

(This doesn’t include time spent in two training classes, or time spent in line at pickup on Saturday, or time spent assembling the voting machines on Monday night, all of which I also did.)

It sounds like a lot of work.  And it is.  But why am I writing it down here?  Why should you care?

Because I think people should know all the work it takes to make it possible for them to walk into a voting location and spend five minutes voting.  And my hope is that they realize that there are some really simple ways to make it go more smoothly.

Be courteous.  It doesn’t cost you anything to give a smile and a thank you to the folks on the other side of the counter.

Be prepared.  Know what’s on your ballot.  And check your polling location before you leave.  It will save you frustration and time.

Be patient.  Sometimes clerks have to step away to help another voter, or a judge will need to split attention between multiple problems.  We’re trying to help everybody, we aren’t trying to make voting take longer for you.

Be understanding.  The man who had cerebral palsy and wanted assistance to vote NEEDED to have a clerk nearby to make sure his intentions were carried out.  He never misses an election, and he researches the issues before he votes; he just needs physical assistance because his palsy is so severe.  We’d do it for you, too.

Be forward-thinking.  If you’re an activist, get to know your election officials.  Often they have connections to other activists, or people who want to be active.  Use that connection.  Get on their e-mail lists.  Help them organize the precincts so that your candidates and issues will win in the future.  These folks can be key to a good ground game in your area.

Be a volunteer.  Offer to help in future elections.  If you want to be a poll watcher for a candidate, nothing prepares you for it like working the other side of the counter.  And there is a never ending need for election clerks and judges, people who are willing to give up a day so that others can exercise their civic duty.  It’s a few days a year at most, and you can easily make connections with local people who are involved politically.

I always enjoy working elections, even if it can be a long and difficult day.  I’m grateful that our county officials do so much to make our jobs at the polls easier.  I’m thankful for all the people who were so gracious to us throughout the day.  And I’m especially indebted to Kim and Mike and Ed, without whom I’d have been thoroughly lost.

Working elections is one of the most unglamorous parts of politics.  There aren’t victory parties or celebrations for election workers.  Many of us just go home afterwards and crawl into bed, hoping to recover before everyday life begins again the next day.   But those people who do it make everything possible.

Remember that the next time you stand in line to vote.