Californians went to the polls on Tuesday - well, at least a few of them did - and I was there to help. It was the first time I'd volunteered to be a poll worker, and what I learned that day confirmed much of what I'd believed about American-style democracy, and left me in wonder that the system works as well as it does.
The whole system runs on volunteers. It's fragile in ways I wouldn't have expected. During the week before the election, all the voting machines and materials are distributed to volunteers across the state, where they sit in cars and homes, waiting for election day. At the end of the day I rode to the local Registrar-Recorder's drop-off station in the passenger seat of another poll worker's car with all 73 votes from my precinct in my lap. The voting machine was in her trunk, tied down with rope; folded up voting booths were piled in her back seat. The miracle is that that system really does work.
Some poll workers are in it for the money. Some poll workers were there because, like me, they believe in democracy and the importance of our right to vote. The guy I spent the whole day working next to, on the other hand, was in his early 20s and had never voted before. He made it clear it was all about the money for him. Poll workers get about $100 for a 12-hour day, plus $25 if you show up for a two hour advance training. Then again, another guy in his early 20s who ran the other precinct table is a grad student in political science and has worked the polls "ever since I was young." He spent his down time reading W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage.
Some voters come with a single-minded mission to vote for one person in one race. A voter with two young children in tow asked me to show him how to vote, because this was his first time. As I flipped through the pages showing him all the choices and how to press down the InkaVote pen, he said, "No, I'm only here to vote for X-----." I flipped to the right page and showed him his candidate, even though I'd voted for someone else in that race.
Other voters are fairly clueless. One older voter with limited English spent over half an hour in the booth. When he dropped his ballot in the box, it was rejected because he'd voted for too many people in each race. I voided that ballot and sent him back with a fresh one, along with someone to show him how to vote for only one candidate per race. Another voter spent about twenty minutes in the booth before coming back to the table and asking for a voter pamphlet. "I don't know so much about the candidates," she admitted a little sheepishly.
Who's that sketchy "poll watcher" dude? A gentleman in a pin-striped shirt hung out with us most of the morning. He wore a name tag written in the first language of most voters in my precinct, which is written in a different alphabet from English. When he went over to "help" an elderly couple vote, I got the regional supervisor involved. She happened to be doing an inspection visit at the time. Most of the poll workers with me also spoke their language and could help the voters just fine. Eventually the official LA County Registrar-Recorders Guide for Poll Watchers was pulled out and read. Apparently poll watchers - even those working for political parties or individual candidates - can stand right next to voters and "help" them.
A poll worker's job is a lot like a firefighter's. My polling place was inside a fire station, which I'd thought would be pretty cool. Mostly, though, the firefighters ignored us, or seemed a little irritated at our presence. They had to rearrange their trucks, and we were in the way of their crossfit equipment. Most of what they did all day looked a lot like what we were doing: hanging out maintaining the equipment while waiting for something to happen. Then there would be a sudden rush of activity. In our case it might be three voters in line at a time. In their case, it might be a traffic accident calling for the Jaws of Life®.
Grownups love stickers too. Some voters took them with obvious pride. Others giggled, or looked a little embarrassed. But everyone took the "I Voted" sticker I offered them. Every single one.
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