Pay no attention to those women behind the curtain

OR… Behind the scenes of the democratic process

Two years ago when I went to vote, I saw that all four of the local "election official" positions were vacant because the ladies who'd done it for 40 years or something decided to retire, and no one was running in any of them. I figured that someone had to do it, so I chose the one that sounded like it required the least knowledge and experience, and wrote myself in. A couple weeks later a notice arrived in the mail that I had won! (obviously I was the only one who entered my name.) So yesterday was the 4th election now that I've worked, and I thought I would share a little bit about what goes on in the trenches of democracy…

Last week: Linda, the Judge of Elections (our local "top dog", also new 2 years ago), and I went to a county-wide pre-election training session. This is held just prior to each election, to refresh our memories about the machines and the procedures, and to let us know about any changes or special things to be aware of. We were admonished not to talk on cell phones (apparently there had been problems in some precincts last time with that), and also alerted to watch for voters using their cells to snap photos of the voting screens (which apparently also happened in the Spring).

Monday night: Linda and her husband brought the voting machines to the church basement which is our polling place, and I went over to help set them up (just physically unfolding them, not getting them ready to vote yet), and to set up the tables and chairs where they need to be placed. We have to set up the machines so that no screen is visible to anyone standing in line or walking past, so we're able to use the dividing curtains in the church to help screen the screens. We have to set up a line of tables so that no voters (or children) can be in any area other than what we've deemed to be the polling place. We also have to set up a table for any "watchers" that might come, such that it's at least 10 feet away from any voting machine, and out of sight of the screens. So far we haven't had a watcher, but we have to be ready in case we do.

Municipal General Election 2007, Tuesday, November 6:

5:00a  Got up to get dinner ready. Each Election Day, the 3 or 4 of us take turns providing our 3 meals, since once we're in the polling place we may not leave. The last couple times I've done breakfast, so this time I volunteered for dinner. I thought something in the crockpot would be a good idea, since last time Linda and I didn't get to eat when Debbie's dinner was still hot – we were just too busy right then. This way I figured we could each eat a hot meal whenever we were able. So… chopping potatoes & onions, making couscous, etc. It took a little longer than I'd hoped, so I had to just jump in the shower quickly, grab my American flag pin from my dresser, and drive the 2 minutes to the polls a little late.

6:15a  Since I'm the geek of the group 🙂 I always get to take care of the voting machines, which I don't mind at all. We get 4 touch-screen machines, which Linda picks up each time a few days prior to the election. I have to "open" each machine in turn, by inserting a "Master" device into each one, which loads it with the ballot for this election. Then on the last machine, which is always the "audio" machine (the one which can be used by vision-impaired voters), I plug in a little baby thermal printer, and as the final step it prints a "zero tape", showing that no votes have been cast prior to the opening of the polls. We must post one copy of the printout on the front door for voters to see, and one copy goes into an envelope to go back to the county Bureau of Elections.

Meanwhile, the others are getting everything else set up. There are lots of posters and regulations we must post around the room, and lots of papers to sign. We must each take an oath, promising to fulfill our duties with honesty, etc. I forget what all we promise, but we definitely do it.

Debbie brought coffee & pastries & fruit for breakfast, so the caffeine helped (my brain was fairly fried from court depositions for work all day Monday). She wasn't actually able to stay to work this time, so she recruited a young woman from her church, after clearing it with the county.

7:00a  The polls are officially opened. We had 3 or 4 people in line. Actually the first person showed up at 6:40, so we had to send him away. I didn't know him, but hopefully he came back after work.

We as election officials don't really have assigned tasks on Election Day, we kind of rotate jobs throughout the day to keep it interesting. So for part of the day I was signing in voters, looking them up in the big Registerd Voters book, and having them sign. Part of the day I recorded names in the two copies of the Numbered List of Voters booklets, where we record each voter in the order they come in. Part of the day I was setting voters up to vote; we have a "Supervisor PEB" device which must be inserted into the machine before each voter begins, to initialize the machine for that voter.

There were 8 pages of voting this time (school board, judges, retention votes, row offices, etc), so it took each voter a good 5 minutes to complete their ballot, longer for some. We ended up with a line out the door a couple times, probably for that reason.

Normally there's a constable assigned to our polling place, just to hang around in case there's any problem (we actually did have a little fracas last Fall), and to keep the campaigners in their place at least 25 feet from the outside door. He never showed up though, and at one point his mother came to vote and told us he had woken up sick. Luckily we didn't have any problems throughout the day.

Someone from the county also always stops in sometime near the beginning of the day, just to make sure we got our machines started OK, and we have no problems. Although we have a direct line to the Bureau of Elections which we can call at any time after 6:00a to resolve any difficulties. We were just fine when he did finally show up around 8:30, although I pointed out to him that one of the machines was acting a little strangely; it seemed like it had to completely reload the ballot each time we went to initialize it for a voter, whereas the others started right up as usual. He didn't think it was a problem, but not 10 minutes after he left to continue his rounds of precincts, that machine gave us an error message, and then went black in the middle of a voter's vote. So the guy had to come back to fix it, and we had to have that voter complete a Provisional (paper) ballot instead.

11:30a  Linda ordered pizza and Pepsi to be delivered from Vocelli's, yum!

1:30p   We heard reports from voters that a tree had come down over Rt 65 in the high winds, so people were having to go about 5 miles out of their way to get to us. It sounded like it was a couple hours till it was cleared, so I imagine we lost some voters due to that.

2:45p  We hit 200 voters. Our precinct has 1,004 registerd voters, so that makes for easy percentage calculations.

4:30p  A voter left their machine before finishing casting their ballot, and we didn't realize it till we took the next person to that machine, so we didn't know who had left. The rule is that if that happens, the vote must be canceled. Therefore, we're very careful to remind each voter that they need to go all the way to the Confirm screen, and they must see the message "Your ballot has been cast" before they walk away. But this person left anyway. Unfortunately, they left at a point where we could see how to make the machine cancel, and when I called the Bureau for help, they had me insert my Supervisor PEB, which then turned the screen black and caused it to make a strange chirping. So we had to call the guy back again to restart that machine. Meanwhile, people were coming in after work, so with only 3 machines for about half an hour, we ended up with quite a line.

5:15p  300th voter.

6:30p We had a little breather, so we got our dinners in between doing our various jobs. I had made Moroccan Chicken in the crockpot, and I had made couscous in the morning at home and put it in a thermos, so it was still hot. I also brought some of my "veggie box" organic salad greens, with olive oil & balsamic vinegar, and also a jug of apple cider. So not too shabby a dinner if I do say so. Linda and Jera said they liked it.

8:00p  Polls are officially closed. If anyone is inside the door at 8:00, they still can vote, but no one was. A man came in at 8:05, but he was too late. We ended up with 390 voters, a 39% turnout. Not bad for a municipal election, though obviously it should be higher. Not to mention the fact that I can think of a number of my neighbors that I don't see on the list of registered voters, so there really should be more.

Then we begin the closing process. Again, I'm in charge of the machines. I have to begin at the same machine I opened first in the morning, and download the votes from each machine in turn into the Master PEB. When I get to the last machine, I hook up the printer again, and it prints 4 copies of the total votes for each candidate for each office, including a list of write-ins, which there were a lot of this time. We all have to sign the bottoms of these tapes, we post one on the front door, send 2 to the courthouse, and as Minority Inspector I'm required to keep one copy for one year, along with several other items. Then I have to remove the little flash drives from each machine, which are a backup of all the votes, and put them in a special bag to take to the courthouse. Then I fold up the machines.

Meanwhile, the others process the Absentee Ballots, which we had 14 of this time. We just verify that they're all done correctly, by the correct voters, open them, mix them up, and put them in an envelope for the Bureau to count. Then we take down all the posters, sign all the rest of our papers, and put back all the table and kitchen stuff the way we found it. We had everything cleaned up and the machines and electon materials loaded into Linda's pickup truck by 8:50, which was better than last time I think. Linda had worked throughout the day to get as much of the paperwork done as early as possible, so there was less to do at the end.

She and I got down to the courthouse by 9:15, and the line of cars in the rain was around the block and out into Main Street! We had never seen the line that long… we guessed maybe that's what it's always like when you get there early, so maybe it's not worth it to hurry to be early. But still, they move along relatively quickly, so by 9:35 we were in front of the courthouse door, where we do our little Chinese Fire Drill. Linda jumps out and takes all the paperwork inside to turn in, and I take over the driver's seat. The workers first get the bags from me that hold the flash drives, PEBs, and printer – we keep them in the front seat, knowing they take those first. Then I drive around the corner, still in a long line of cars, and another group of workers unloads the machines and the big bag of other election materials out of the truck and into the backs of waiting panel trucks. By that time, Linda is usually done inside, and we switch seats again, and drive back home. So we got home last night at 10:15 – a 16-hour day of constant activity. I honestly don't know how all those little old ladies do it (which seems to be what many of the election officials are). Our pay is based on the number of voters we get, and it varies by office too; this time my pay is $105, so that works out to $6.50 an hour, but obviously I'm not doing it for the money.

We had 4 or 5 people sign up yesterday to be poll workers, so that's great! We could really use more than 3 people, so it's easier to deal with problems, eat meals without doing it in front of the voters, take bathroom breaks, etc. I'm looking forward to seeing how things go with a Presidential Election!

All in all, this is something I enjoy doing, and I do like feeling like I'm part of something very important to the life of our country. I very much encourage anyone who is thinking about it, to sign up to work at their local polls.

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