Life as a Pollworker

Two days ago, I worked the election as a pollworker. Each time I do this, I learn something new. The last time I did this, I made friends with the other pollworkers and connected with at least one of them afterwards.

This time, the experience was different. I was in a different polling place, with my husband, who wanted me beside him. He was very nervous about Coronavirus and almost pulled out of pollworking several times in the days leading up to the election. I reminded him that we are all in different places with our courage about this disease and that he should pull out if he wanted to, and that I was not pulling out. We brought rubber gloves, extra face masks, hand sanitizer, and the N95 masks that a relative had given us. (We carried most of this home with us; the Board of Elections provided us with hand sanitizer and rubber gloves. They also provided us with masks but we used our own, changing them when we went home to lunch.)

The night before the election, the Board of Elections (BOE) called my husband. He had worked the polls several times before and taken some of the extra classes they offered. They needed a Coordinator (supervisor) for the site we were working at; could he do it? He said no; he had not taken the coordinator class this year and didn’t feel qualified. He hung up the phone and we looked at each other. This would be a wild ride!

When we arrived at 5 am that morning, we were pleased to see a large number of pollworkers. About half had been assigned to the site to manage the lines. And they had found a coordinator, someone that my husband had worked with before (“We lucked out – she’s good,” he whispered to me).

The equipment and supplies had all been dropped off the night before. And the maintenance person had set up the tables and chairs. But the equipment and supplies were all locked up – and the police officer with the keys hadn’t arrived yet.

The Inspectors

While we waited, the coordinator began pairing up people (“inspectors”) to work the tables where the ballots are handed out: one experienced worker with one new one. Each table is staffed with both a Republican and a Democrat representative. (Being NYC, Republicans are hard to come by, so Democrats are assigned to play that role.)

The inspectors have several important roles to play during the day: they must hand out ballots quickly, to keep the lines moving; they must maintain a calm, friendly attitude, especially when things go wrong, so that voters stay calm; they must make sure the ballots are handed out fairly and accurately, based on the voter’s registration status; and they must track and record all their media. The inspectors have a lot of work to do before the polls open, setting up the tables and organizing their media as the BOE proscribes. Almost every piece of paper an inspector handles has to be recorded and accounted for in a certain way, so that the count can pass an audit afterwards, if necessary and both inspectors assigned to a table have to sign their names to things at the end of the night. This takes time and is often started as soon as the coordinator arrives.

The BMD/Privacy Booth Operators

Next the coordinator identified the BMD/Privacy Booth Operators. There were two of us and our job this year included wiping down the privacy booths and BMD with Chlorox wipes after every voter. (The BMD is the Ballot Marking Device, a computer that assists people who need help reading or marking the ballot. I think we used it maybe 5 times throughout the day.) To set up for the day, we needed to roll the privacy booths out to their proscribed locations (determined by the BOE in advance), turn on the lights, make sure each booth had a magnifier, remove the pens, and lock the wheels so they wouldn’t move from their exact positions 5 feet from the walls and 5 feet from each other. (This year, the BOE was providing every voter with their own pen, to reduce shared contact.)

We also needed to make sure the BMD was plugged in and booted up. This had to happen first because the poll pads (used by the Inspectors) run on Wifi and the Wifi cradle was on top of the BMD. But our BMD, for some reason, was proscribed to be in a location that was completely wheelchair inaccessible. Usually the coordinator would have visited the site the night before and discovered this, but our coordinator had been assigned so late the night before that a site visit wasn’t possible.

“We’re going to move the BMD over there,” she said, pointing across the room. As someone grabbed her to ask a question about something else, I took charge, unplugged the BMD and started to move it. The Coordinator went ballistic. I had unplugged the BMD, which meant the WiFi cradle was unplugged, and it takes 20 minutes to reboot, 20 minutes we didn’t really have since the cop had been late. I apologized and asked if she wanted me to move it to the new location. Yes, but no. She needed to wait for a BOE tech to move it. Ok, did she want me to plug it back in. I stood there, holding the plug while she dressed me down for what felt like forever. Then a quiet voice beside her spoke up, “I’m the BOE technician.” She told him that she needed to move the BMD to a wheelchair accessible location and he said she couldn’t move it because it was where the BOE map said it should be. While they argued, I plugged the BMD back in and found something else to do.

Finally the technician stormed off and the coordinator moved the BMD, pugging it in to a different outlet. The wifi came on quickly and the poll pads started working. Then a third BMD/Privacy Booth operator arrived. The coordinator sighed in relief: he was someone she had worked with before and could be trusted to know what to do (unlike the idiot who had unplugged the BMD, she did not say out loud). She put us in his capable hands and rushed off to worry about something else. He looked at the BMD and shook his head. Whoever had plugged it in had made a mess of the cord. He unplugged the BMD, rearranged the cord. Then he opened the BMD, realized that the cord was messed up inside, too, and unplugged it again to clean up the inside of the BMD. The other early arrival and I held our breath but the sky didn’t fall. We ran through the opening checklist and booted up the BMD.

And the Rest…

The third step in the voting process in NYS is scanning your ballot. So scanner inspectors are assigned to open, staff, and close the scanners.

In addition, there’s an information table, where voters can go to be reminded which election district they are in so they know which table can hand out their ballot. There are interpreters – at our polling site, we had a Spanish and a Chinese interpreter, both of whom were very busy that day. And there are line managers. We had one line manager outside the door, one line manager inside the room, and line managers on the sidewalk outside. They had to set up all the signs, telling people where to vote, and the safe distancing markers.

Most of the Day

When the doors opened we were immediately busy. A line formed almost right away, mostly with people in wheelchairs and the elderly who lived in the building. (My husband said the building was just an apartment building but it felt very public housing to me; and it seemed to be populated almost entirely with Chinese octogenarians.) We were run off our feet.

Part of the problem was that the polling site had so many different tables and the only space for the privacy booths was behind the tables. And we couldn’t set up as many privacy booths as we needed because of safe distancing. So voters waited in line to enter the poling site. Then waited in another line to pick up their ballot. Then waited in line again for a privacy booth to open up and for us to clean the booth. And then waited in line for a scanner. There really wasn’t enough space in the room for all these lines. So effective line management was critical but things happened so quickly, that we didn’t really have a chance to get organized once we spotted the problem. The experienced BMD guy was good with the technology and the procedures, but he wasn’t really an experienced line manager.

Luckily my retail experience kicked in and the other privacy booth operator followed my lead, moving with hustle, thanking voters for waiting while wiping down the booth, and thanking them again for voting when they left the booth. I also directed the inside line manager to put down tape to organize the privacy booth line, and to take charge of the voters, who had no idea where to go. Then things started to move quickly. I think in the first two hours we helped 200 people vote.

As privacy booth operators, people often asked for our help with their ballots. There were a lot of new voters, who couldn’t believe it was as easy as it was. There were older voters who couldn’t remember how to vote. They often asked us to explain what they needed to do – NY is confusing because major party candidates are often listed two or three times, under different party names, I guess so you could vote for Biden as a member of the Working Families party if you hate the Democratic party. To make it even more confusing, in most of the down-ballot races, Democrats are running unopposed.

So, after the voter marked their ballot, they would call us over and show it to us: “Did I do this right?” They asked. “I want to make sure my vote counts.”

I learned that the white men who were Trump voters marked their ballot with a huge X or checkmark instead of coloring in the SAT oval. So they had to go back to the ballot table, wait in line again, and get a new ballot.

I also learned that a surprising number of old Chinese ladies were determined to vote for “President Trump.” They didn’t want to vote any of the down-ballot races (which were all Democrats anyway). And they all wanted me to look at their ballot and make sure they had done it right.

All of a sudden, at around 8:30, the lines ended. It stayed moderately busy until around 10 am. Throughout the day, the number of voters trickled off. Between 8 pm and poll closing at 9 pm – when I was sure we’d have lines – only 2 voters came in.

Poll Closing

At 9 pm, the doors officially closed. If there had been voters in line, we would have stationed a line manager at the back of the line to send late arrivals away, and stayed open to process the last voters. But there weren’t.

As a privacy booth operator, I had it easy. I turned off the lights, unlocked the wheels, and rolled the privacy booths together in a corner. Then we shut down the BMD, took down the signs, and organized all the BMD materials. The last step is to unplug and lock up the BMD, but you can’t do this until all the other electronics are shut down, because of the WiFi cradle.

While it had been slow, my husband had begun organizing his media to make sure he could close his table quickly. The hardest part of being an Inspector is that the most complex part of your job starts at 9 pm: you’ve been awake since 3 a.m., working since 5 a.m., and you’re tired and cranky and hungry and just want to go home. But you can’t leave until you document your media so that it can pass an audit, if necessary. That means following detailed instructions to the letter, doing math, and signing your name a million times. And you can’t really start until the doors close. But there are a few things you can do ahead of time to make sure things go quickly when the doors close. And it all begins with what you do in the morning and then throughout the day.

The procedures are so exact that even experienced pollworkers forget details between elections. And most of the people working the polls are not experienced. Even if you are experienced and, like our BMD operator, know your stuff, the procedures change each election. So, when you go to pollworker training, they teach you to look everything up in your book and follow those procedures exactly. The test at the end of pollworker training is open book because they want you to look up the answers: what they are really testing is your ability to look things up and follow procedures.

My husband was pretty much done and ready to go by 9:15. Except that one of the things you have to do is account for every ballot you handed out that day. And, for that, you need a count of the ballots from your table that were scanned. And one of our three scanners was unable to print the report. So the coordinator called for a technician and we all waited. Three of the other tables caught up with where my husband was in the closing procedures. As soon as the tech had arrived and fixed the third scanner, my husband totaled things up; his partner and he finished sorting their media into the appropriate bags and locked them, packed up their mobile supply cart, and handed everything off to the coordinator. His partner signed out and went home. I unplugged the BMD and we locked that up. And then I signed out: 10:05 pm. Not bad – if we had been able to close the third scanner at 9 pm, we would have left at 9:15.

Meanwhile the coordinator was handling her own closing procedures. My husband I were about to leave when we noticed that the last ballot table was still trying to close down. They were very disorganized. They weren’t following instructions. They didn’t have their media sorted. They hadn’t cleaned up their supply cart. My husband jumped in to help and I sat back down.

This was a great example of people who want to help and don’t work well as a team. One inspector was doing all the work while her partner chatted on the phone. We said, “Work together: one inspector read the checklist aloud while the other inspector puts each item in the grey bag.” But they couldn’t seem to work together. The person reading the checklist aloud named something that the other person didn’t recognize. The second person took the book out of the hand of the first person to read it for herself. She didn’t recognize that media either. My husband said, “It was with your ballots, you had to sign it this morning when you took out the first pack of ballots.” Crickets. He sent the partner over to go through the supply cart. The guy came back, shrugging. He couldn’t find it. My husband walked over to the cart, sorted through it and found the missing document. They hadn’t signed it that morning. He made them sign it.

Next step. Next step? They weren’t following the book, weren’t checking things off. They had reached that point where exhaustion made them stupid. This is the point in Air Disasters where the pilot makes a dumb mistake and the plane falls out of the sky.

They didn’t have their counts from the scanners. While all the other inspectors had been eagerly waiting for their counts so they could do one last calculation and pack up and go home, these inspectors had been checking election results on their phone and didn’t even know where to begin. Luckily the coordinator had not packed up the scanner reports yet.

Finally, their counts were tallied. They started again to organize their media. They were missing another document, one that they should have been using throughout the day, and had not. My husband sent one of the inspectors back to his media cart to find the document. He came back shrugging again. My husband went to their cart, found the document, brought it back. He explained that they needed to fill it out. He was starting to lose it. They had already sealed the envelope that contained the information that had to be filled out. They had to break the seal to get the media out and record it. And then the media hadn’t been filled out correctly either. Because they hadn’t followed the instructions in the book.

“Work together,” I said, over the noisy voice of my bed that was calling me. “One of you fix this media, while the other one continues organizing the pouches.” The woman on the team was trying to do it all. “Let him fill out the media,” I told her. “If you do everything, it will take longer. Split the work.” The woman was so angry she looked like she was about to cry.

Finally, the coordinator finished doing her own closing procedures and joined us. My husband explained that this pair needed help. She put her hand on my husband’s shoulder. “You’ve done enough,” she said. “Go home.”

And I took him home. We left at 10:35.

In Conclusion

Working the polls is an important job. Pollworkers are paid a small amount to work the polls, but really they’re volunteers. The work is tiring and it requires a knack for customer service, or the day becomes grueling for everyone.

I enjoy it, the same way that I enjoyed working retail at Christmas: I get a dopamine hit from helping people, managing lines, staying cheerful no matter what. I don’t know why. I also got really tired of the inefficient elderly pollworkers at my own polling site and, being someone who doesn’t like to complain when I can do something about it, I started volunteering.

The BOE tried really hard to make this a safe experience for everyone this year. They assigned many line managers to our site, they provided masks and rubber gloves and the biggest tub of Chlorox wipes I’ve seen in my whole life. They directed us to set up 6’ markers all over the place. Luckily there was early voting or it could have been chaotic all day.

I told my husband we should both sign up to be coordinators next time. “But if we’re both coordinators, they’ll assign us to separate sites, and then we won’t be together,” he replied, the old romantic.

If you can, and if you have the temperament for it, I recommend that you sign up to be a pollworker for the next election. It’s only 1 day of your life (plus 4 hours of training) and it’s worth doing.

As long as you follow the book, you’ll be fine.

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