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Want a (Low-Paying) Job With Short Commute? Try your local polling place

By Karen SueJoy Miller  Posted by Joan Brunwasser (about the submitter)     Permalink
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Want a (Low-Paying) Job with Short Commute?
Try Your Local Polling Place

What if we threw an election and no one came?

Not voters. That's enough of a problem. I mean the poll workers. The people we count on to be there with a smile and a ballot on Election Day. The citizens who enable us to exercise our right to vote.

Or not.

I once considered the act of voting as akin to regular garbage pickup, public restrooms, our national parks, and everything else I'd come to take for granted. I just wanted my "I Voted" sticker; I didn't care who gave it to me. But last week I served as an inspector for my voting precinct. For 16 hours my team and I endured insults, roster errors, lost voting booths, miscast and misplaced ballots, voting anomalies, and confounding closing procedures. Good thing we only had 150 voters.

I'm concerned like everyone else about voter fatigue, lack of choice, and the other reasons we can't get more people to vote. But low voter turnout is one thing. When we can't trust that those few votes cast are properly handled, that's something else. And there's plenty of reason to worry.

Here's why: Those who pick up our garbage, clean our public restrooms, and supervise our national parks are paid employees. Those who process our votes aren't. They are volunteers. Sure, they get a stipend, which on average is about $100. But divide that by 34 hours for classes; picking up and delivering supplies; coordinating with building managers; recruiting and training clerks; coordinating Election Day duties; and opening and closing the polls. You don't have to do the math to understand people don't do this for the money.

Depending on volunteers to run the polls presents lots of issues. First, there's recruitment. The Election Guide specifies that each precinct have three clerks, an inspector, "and maybe a city employee." (Of course, they have more important things to do.) With thousands of precincts throughout Southern California, recruitment is already a challenge. Add the problems caused by changes in this year's primary, and you have a mess.

The reinstatement of June primaries is partially to blame. According to the Polls and Offices Section of the Register Recorder County Clerk's Office, the most frequent excuse for poll-worker cancellations was "out-of-town graduation." Another is the increasing complexity of voting procedures. The new rules, workers complained, had "too many complications."

Complications indeed. As a lawyer, I know a thing or two about paperwork and procedures. Primaries are already confusing. But this time there were three pages of changes, including the addition of five new political parties to the usual three. That's eight different ballots, all color-coded to match the also-new Inkavote Recording Devices in eight different voting booths. But the kicker took place after the polls closed. After 13 hours I didn't know if I was assembling Ikea furniture or securing ballots:

"Remove the ballot receipt and place [it] in the pink Sleeve and then [in] the pink Provisional Envelope...then put the voted pink Provisional Envelopes into the Ballot Security Envelope (not the Plastic Provisional bag), and place the pink Provisional List into the Green Stripe Envelope...[but] Do Not Place the Green Stripe Envelope into the Black Supply box."

Which raises the second issue. If we must use volunteers, they should be trained, dependable, and competent enough to understand and complete the voting procedures with relative success. Had my team encountered any serious problems on Election Day we would have been out of luck. Our "coordinator," the designated go-to person for problems, never showed up. (Nor-surprise!-the "city employee.") But at least we had a full team. When you don't, apparently you can just recruit poll workers from among the waiting voters, as one inspector in Santa Monica had to do. Then, though voting guidelines require otherwise, she had to drive alone at 11 pm, shell-shocked and with a car full of completed ballots, to the drop-off center.

Could she have possibly inspected and tallied the ballots, locked the "black box," confirmed provisional votes were accounted for, and conducted the other grueling close-up procedures alone? Doubtful. Not correctly, anyway. Or did passersby help?

I'm no Robert Kennedy, Jr., and I haven't yet read his Rolling Stone piece on the 2004 national elections, but even I can see there's a problem when those entrusted with the duty of preventing vote tampering and fraud-and presenting an accurate ballot count-hand off that duty to others. Maybe situations like this don't affect the election outcome. But the perception of laxity, confusion, miscalculation, and potential fraud is disconcerting.

I'm not criticizing inspectors or poll workers for doing whatever they must do to get an onerous, thankless job done. And maybe the County Clerk's office is using its best efforts to keep a damaged system afloat. Their job isn't easy around election time, and I didn't exactly go easy on them. Going forward, however, there are common-sense things that can be done to minimize these concerns. Like not scheduling supply pickup on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Or providing food and beverages to poll workers during their 15-plus hour shifts. Or ensuring that pollworkers feel appreciated, not abandoned, when they run into problems on Election Day.

One last thing to keep in mind: Seniors and retirees make up the bulk of volunteers, and represent nearly all of the experienced ones. Many cancelled this time for age-related reasons. Soon the reason will be simpler: mortality. Those who still can work do it out of a sense of civic duty. But that generation is disappearing fast. Though few in number, their role can't be overstated.

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