Guest Blogger: “The Sausage Factory of Democracy”

My friend, E, has responded to our request of sharing her pollworking experiences with us. Below is her account of Election Day 2006 experiences in California.

Today I ran into Tina, the area coordinator for my polling station. She gave me the coda to the story that follows.

I am a poll worker, one of those thankless, by-the-end-of-the-day-godless individuals who greets you, escorts you through the voting process and, if need be, takes your wrath for mishaps.

During the recent Gubernatorial Election in the Golden State, I was once again paired with several of the same poll workers as during the primary, as well as, alas, our Poll Inspector (PI), who shall, as will everyone but Tina, remain nameless. You’ll understand why and should you be unable to you really need to spend a 15 plus hour day in my shoes. Or sandals. I think it was sandals.

At orientation, we were told that the starting time on our letters of congratulations (Congratulations! You are now a poll worker! – No, really, it says that or something like it) was a mistake. We were to show up at 6:00 a.m., not 6:30 a.m., so, like the dutiful, godless worker I am, I rose early, dressed business casual and arrived at the nearby elementary school library at 6:00 a.m.

I sat there in the heated library, alone, for about forty minutes. At 6:30, our official or not start time, I called the number we were given for help, stated my name and polling station number, and said that I was alone, I couldn’t get a hold of my PI (just his answering machine). It wouldn’t have been so desperate a situation if there had been equipment to set up, but there was nothing to do but wait. It takes about an hour to set up. In theory – I’ve never had that hour thanks to our PI.

When another colleague poll worker arrived, and then a close friend of the PI’s who’d been corralled into working showed up, we piled into my car and drove to the PI’s house (the location of which his close friend knew). We found him dressed, but injured in one of his feet, and nothing loaded into his car. It was 6:45 a.m. We were supposed to open at 7:00 a.m.

The injury was never explained fully. I begrudge no one his health or lack thereof, but he had our phone numbers and, in case of an emergency, he was to have called us. This, I should add, is the second time he caused a late start at our polling station. The first excuse was that a friend of the family had died the night before. Granted, I understand this need to mourn, but, again he had our numbers and did nothing to ensure that the polling station would open on time during the primary.

We loaded as much as we could into my car, drove back, and slammed together the voting booths. I was most concerned about the InkaVote Plus scanner. This new device scans each ballot and tells the voter only one of three things:

  1. You voted correctly (i.e. there were no over votes on the ballot and you voted for only one candidate per category).
  2. You didn’t vote at all (achieved by not pushing the InkaVote wand far enough to make contact with the ballot).
  3. You over voted (you voted for more than one candidate per office).

We were told this machine takes a while to warm up. We also had to do a systems check before we could actually use the scanner, but we didn’t pick up the InkaVote Plus system in our batch of voting equipment.

We had to turn away angry voters who had come in early to vote before work. One woman was furious and I can’t blame her. “I would have voted absentee if I’d known this would happen. This is the only time today I can vote!”

Fortunately, we had grabbed the sample ballots that we use to demonstrate the process. They are legally binding; we are told to use them should we run out of the actual ballot. So I suggested she cast her vote provisionally. She was still huffy, but agreed and was our first voter once we got a booth up and operational.

Other voters who walked off muttering returned later that day. They were few in number and whenever I recognized one, I thanked them for their patience that morning and their commitment to our way of voting.

Our PI eventually showed (about 7:30) and Tina, who had arrived by then as well to help us out, let him have it. In a very professional, voice held low way, she and the PI entered into a heated discussion about his responsibilities. He claimed he had told her about his foot; she said that it was his duty to contact his staff (us) for help.

We had only one other problem and it, too, has occurred before. Our polling station is in an area with many Armenians. At both the primary and gubernatorial election, we had one man come in who spoke about five words of English. The first time it took an hour before someone had the bright idea to call the main office for a translator, but this time there was an Armenian couple casting their votes, and they translated for me. The gentleman in question had over voted in a category and, by law, we were required to offer him another chance. Legally, we give you three chances, and then you’re done. He declined and left, but I was grateful to the couple that translated so we could fulfill our legal obligation.

The day, in between setting up and tearing down, was actually pretty cool. Parents brought their young children and they loved the InkaVote Plus as it sucked the ballot down (or spit it out! They loved it!). I had to explain more than once that the InkaVote Plus was not tallying votes, but merely making sure the ballot was valid.

And, now, for that coda.

I ran into Tina today at Target. She let me know that our PI lost the red box. This, to the uninitiated, is the box that actually holds the cast ballots. The PI’s last duty of the day is to load his car with the equipment and, alone, take both the equipment and red box to the drop off point. From there the ballots are squirreled away to the magical area where the computers scan the ballots and count the votes.

Apparently, our PI had not cleaned out his car prior to the election (despite being told to do so at the orientation); it was full of his mother’s stuff, and, whatever, and he demanded that one of us follow him with the rest of the equipment. As he and Tina got into another discussion about responsibility (only one car per polling station is supposed to go to the drop off point), I bid everyone good night and went home.

Today Tina let me know about the lost red box, her promotion (deserved from what I saw) and that our PI probably wouldn’t be back. Hurrah!

The day in total was closer to 16 hours long (not the advertised 15 hour day). The votes must be reconciled against the voter registry and the number of ballots torn from the packs, and that was a blood letting, let me tell you.

Still, I know I’ll do it again, even if it is like working in a sausage factory. If you don’t know the adage, it runs like this, “I like sausage; I don’t want to know how it’s made.” Well, that’s democracy. It may be enough to make you become a vegetarian, but just hold your nose and vote. If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.