My Brief Life as a Poll Worker

The California Presidential Primary: An Imperfect Process

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt


[caption id="attachment_17360" align="alignright" width="360"]1909 election day 1909 Women's Suffrage cartoon[/caption]

The scent of potential disaster wafted in the wake of our letter carrier’s truck as he scooted away, having delivered a Registrar of Voters Official Appointment Notice letter.

“Congratulations!” the letter began, and it continued with confirmation of my appointment as a touch screen inspector for last Tuesday’s Presidential Primary Election in California. “Touch screen,” I read again, as in technology.

“Are you nuts?” I bellowed through my office window to the hummingbirds, who were sucking down nectar as fast as my fanny was puckering up to my earlobes. Anything to do with computer stuff is a “thingy” in my world, and I promptly doubted both my fantasy that it would be fun to volunteer at the polls this year (an historic year with a presumptive female presidential nominee) and the process for assigning volunteers. Had I volunteered for that? Better I should be looking up voters’ names and confirming their addresses or putting completed ballots in the ballot box and cheerily handing out “I Voted” stickers (meant to entice those who’ve not yet voted, to race to their polling places and get their own).

The letter concluded with the suggestion that if I had any concerns about my ability to complete my assignment, I should feel free to call Poll Worker Recruitment. I did, and spoke with a very nice gal, soft of voice and able to laugh in the right places. She assured me my role required no technological expertise, that the classroom training I was to receive would allay my concerns.

She did have a nice voice, and so it was, with the training completed and Election Day arrived, I landed at the poll location five minutes before the designated set-up time of 5:30 a.m. I was armed with bottled water, two PB&J sandwiches and hope that I wouldn’t screw up the touch screen thingy.

At 5:30, another volunteer arrived, we commiserated over the early hour and continued waiting in the parking lot.

At 5:40 a.m., the lead inspector of our polling place called to say his assistant had suffered an alarm malfunction and, because they were driving together, they were late but would be there by 6.

I caught that scent of doom again, wafting through my car vents this time, and tried focusing my breathing on the location of my stress.

At 6:05 our fearless leaders unlocked the doors, and I raced in with my three containers of touch screen equipment, accessories and directions, desperate to get the thing up and running by 7:00 a.m., when the California polls opened. I was so focused on my task that I didn’t have time to entertain resentful thoughts of those who’d stolen thirty-five of the ninety minutes on which I was depending. But, at 6:50 a.m., I proudly declared the touch screen ready for the first special needs voter.

By then, the two lead inspectors having bickered over proper protocols for setting up the polling place and the distribution of responsibilities, my pronouncement was met with an irritable “Where’s the report you were supposed to print—the one that documents the machine is starting with zero votes?”

In lieu of barfing, I re-read the manual, found no such directive, read it again—and a third time—with the same result, and shared that with my accuser, who insisted I was still wrong. Disaster oozed from the touch screen tablet like the sharp smell of ozone from a sparking outlet, and there was nothing I could do. The only vote count report I’d produced was tidily rolled up and locked in the touch screen printer’s paper spool, per the manual, and voters were lining up at the door. Then we were distracted by other challenges.

The person responsible for looking up names and addresses on the voter lists was a self-described dyslexic and had the wrong glasses. Folks racing in to vote between other responsibilities languished in line, while the poll worker struggled to find their names, lose them, and find them again.

[caption id="attachment_17367" align="alignleft" width="266"]1957 Voters and poll worker 1957 Voters and poll worker[/caption]

Next, a gentleman strolled into the church office in which we were set up, shared his affinity with the religious paintings on the walls and snarked that there were surely some who wouldn’t appreciate them as he did. He was right. I could imagine feeling uncomfortable with the unrealistically white Jesus peering over my shoulder as I cast my vote.

One gal thought is was darn un-American that the State didn’t require voters to produce ID cards at the polls—no matter that they had when they registered. And she seemed to think the State’s benevolence was our fault, personally, the four of us volunteers.

Another person wanted to vote for both Democratic and Republican candidates, including the presidency—an impossibility in the primary. When I voiced sympathy for her disappointment, she shot me a drop-dead look that rivaled any my siblings ever produced—better even than my daughter’s in her teens.

Far too many folks learned they had unintentionally registered to vote as members of the American Independent Party (AIP), a right-wing, anti-marriage equality, faith-based party with a history of separatism. They’d thought the word “Independent” denoted independent of any party. “No Party Preference” is how they should have registered. They were distraught that they couldn’t vote for the presidential candidate of their choice, and I wanted to yank them into the hallway and train them to read the registration form or force the AIP to brand itself for the bigoted platform it espouses—both perhaps hopeless causes.

Some who did register as No Party Preference (NPP) wanted Republican NPP ballots, but the Republican Party refused voters that option—only the Democratic, Libertarian and American Independent Parties offered primary ballots to NPP voters.

And there were scads of issues that resulted in people having to cast provisional ballots, those ballots wrapped in pink envelopes that seem to scream, “Your vote doesn’t count!”

I feared we did not handle all such cases properly—I was just about certain we didn’t, whether missing a name on the voter list or handing out the wrong ballot, and by the end of the night, our count was off. I was not impressed with myself, my peers or the process, and while I stewed in disappointment and guilt, watching inspectors counting and recounting until after 10:00 p.m., I determined I would never again be a poll worker.

[caption id="attachment_17361" align="alignleft" width="321"]1944 First time voter with poll worker 1944 First time voter with poll worker[/caption]

Tossing in bed later that night, imagining the multitude of ways I’d probably screwed up, rendering my fellow citizens’ votes invalid, I tried to recall each voter I’d matched to a ballot, and I remembered the dirty look one man shot at a young woman who requested a Spanish ballot for her mother. Then I remembered their pride in bringing back their completed ballots and receiving their stickers. And then I remembered other moments during the day, moments that made my left-wing heart sing patriotic songs I hadn’t voiced since elementary school.

We had ten or twelve brand new voters in a variety of ages, ethnicities and races—and body modifications. We cheered and applauded them, tossing “I Voted” stickers like confetti. We had old men who brought their even older mothers to vote—“She hasn’t missed an election in sixty-six years,” said one. We had families whose children watched solemnly as their parents cast their votes, daughters helping first-time voting parents, plenty of people saying, “What about my sticker?” when we forgot to offer them up.

I focused my breathing on the location of my stress and realized this: Like our democracy, voting here is an imperfect process, powered by well-intended, if slightly inept, volunteers, but it isn’t a total disaster. It’s certainly better than not being able to vote at all. I can live with it and hope it improves … and I still will never again be a poll worker.

Love, K-B

[caption id="attachment_17363" align="alignright" width="300"]I Voted My sticker[/caption]

P.S. If you want to vote in the November 8, 2016 General Election, be sure you are registered—you can check that with your county’s registrar of voters. San Diego County residents can check here.

If you’re not registered—or you blew it and joined the loonies at the American Independent Party by mistake—you can register or update your registration online here.

The deadline is October 24, 2016, but don't wait!

Photos credit: U.S. Library of Congress