The Happy Box

I used to hate election day.

The stress of figuring out where my polling place was; navigating the gauntlet of an unfamiliar, busy, and crowded situation; and it always took much longer than I thought it would, which meant I was late to my job. Since I believed my job was so important and that I was personally so essential that being away from the office put the company’s success at risk, every moment I missed made me angry. [I’ve since gotten over that belief. Here’s a newsflash: no one really cares about the work you do and your absence will not imperil the company. So take a vacation – or just take a couple of hours off to vote.]

A few years ago, my husband convinced me to support democracy by taking time off to volunteer as a pollworker.

And now I love election day.

This year, I had a particularly good time working the polls. I was assigned a new role: information clerk. At the small NYC polling site where I worked, the information clerk is stationed right by the door; so I was often the first one to greet voters, and the last one to see them on the way out the door. A simple joy.

This polling site encompassed several election districts. An election district is just a sub-group of voters, based usually on street address. Each election district (“ED” in pollworker talk) has a ballot specific to that district (often they are the same as the other districts, but sometimes there are differences – for example, two EDs might be served by different representatives) and voters have to go to a specific table at the election site to pick up the ballot for their ED. Receiving the right ballot is so important to the process that, if you go to the wrong ED, the inspector at that table won’t be able to issue you a ballot, and you’ll have to go to the right table.

This meant that voters had to figure out what their election district was before they could vote. Older voters – one couple told me that they had been voting together over 50 years without missing an election – might remember their election district. And a few voters had their fast-pass cards, which list the voter’s election district. But most voters had no clue what their ED is – I couldn’t tell you my own ED if I tried.

Hence, my role: to direct voters to the right table so they could pick up the ballot for their election district; I had to ask every voter what their street address was, look up their ED, and direct them to the right table – and quickly, so the next voter wasn’t kept waiting.

Since most people only vote once a year – or perhaps twice, if they vote the primary – the situation is almost always new and unfamiliar to them, and they were at risk of making mistakes and feeling foolish. Being busy New Yorkers – and nervous about being indoors with a lot of strangers – they were also in a hurry. All this made them anxious and edgy.

And the first thing they are greeted by is someone asking them their address, something they probably don’t give out to strangers much.

My goal, as always when I work the polls, is to make the experience so painless for voters that the next year when they vote, instead of remembering the chaos and the interruption to their day, they remember how kind the pollworkers were, how they were treated like human beings, and how we went out of our way to make it easy and painless for them to vote.

When I worked retail, one of my bosses said that, when he was managing stores, his goal was to the make the store a Happy Box: when you came into his box, you might not be happy; but when you left, by god, you were going to be as happy as he could make you.

For me this year, pollworking was about the Happy Box. My approach was simple:

Step 1: Greet the voter with a big smile.

One voter said, “I like your smile.” His wife chided him, “How do you know she has a nice smile? She’s wearing a mask.” He replied, “I can see it in her eyes.” When you smile genuinely, your eyes twinkle and people connect with you. So that was step 1: connect with them.

Step 2: Say Hello.

Sometimes I just said, Hi or Welcome. Or I’d make a joke about the weather or the very heavy door that they had to open to reach the polling place. Or I’d say something like, “Hey, I bet you want to vote.” Something to wake them up and help them connect before we got down to business. I often do this in meetings at work: people are coming from somewhere, their heads are full of other business. When you need them to think about something new, you need to startle them into a new focus. In New York City, saying Hello often does the trick.

If people apologized for not knowing their EDs, I laughed and said, That’s great – if everyone knew their ED, I’d be bored or out of a job! That relaxed things a little.

Step 3: Express willingness to help.

Once they had made eye contact or smiled or said Hello back, I quickly followed by saying, “I’d like to help you vote” or “I’d like to help you get to the right table.” (I varied my approach throughout the day to keep from getting bored.) Pollworkers in NYC work from 5 a.m. until after the polls close at 9 p.m. – with all the post-closing activity, it ends up being closer to 10 p.m. or even 11 p.m. With that much time doing the same thing, you need to vary the routine so you stay fresh. Stating my role let them know that they weren’t imposing on me by their ignorance.

Step 4: Ask for their street address.

Having been told that I was there to help them, voters were less hesitant to share their street address. With all the media attention on voting rights and PII, people are defensive about being asked things at polls, and they are reluctant to give out something like their home address. Connecting my request to the reason why – to get you to the right table – shortened the pause before they rep

I also phrased my request as a request, “May I have your street address” as opposed to “what’s your address” or “give me your address.” I wanted them to feel like it was their choice. Of course they had to give their address to get their ED – but making it feel like they had a choice, gave them a sense of control over the situation and lowered their anxiety.

Step 5: Look up their table number.

I looked up each voter’s address, even if it sounded familiar, because I didn’t want to send people to the wrong table. And, by the end of the day, all the addresses sounded the same. The only exceptions I made were: a) if the person had a fast-pass card that showed their ED and I could just direct them to the table; b) if several people in a row had the same address.

It was weird how waves of voters came in from the same building at the same time – especially because many of the buildings in this neighborhood had so many residents that they couldn’t possibly know each other. I might say, if you’ll stand right here behind your neighbor... And they’d reply, oh, my building has hundreds of people in it, I’ve never met this person before. I always smiled and said, Now’s a great chance. Sometimes people would even introduce themselves and make a new connection.

If they were at the wrong polling place – something that drives people crazy – I looked up the right polling place for them and asked if they thought they could get there. Most of them groaned, or asked why their fast-pass had the wrong polling site on it – oops, BOE – but said they’d make the trip. If they said they weren’t going to walk all that way (usually the polling site was closer to their home than this site), I offered to let them vote with an Affidavit Ballot, which is where you fill out and submit a ballot but it doesn’t get counted by the voting machine. That way, they at least voted and maybe that will encourage them to vote again next year.

Step 6: Use verbal and physical gestures to direct them.

I’d point and say, “You’re at district 86, that’s the last table on the right.” Polling sites are busy places, with a lot of noise and visual cues, and a lot of people moving in traffic patterns that they’re not familiar with. Being specific and gesturing provided clues to orient the voter to the right table.

Step 7: As they leave, thank them for voting.

Since I was seated by the door, I was also the last person to see the voter as they left. I wanted them to remember a positive voting experience, so I gave them one last smile and thanked them for voting. If they had a child with them and the child had a “future voter” sticker, I told the child I’d see them in the future. If I could make a voter laugh or smile, it gave us both a little lift.

With all the fear associated with voting right now – fear that the rules have changed and you won’t be allowed to vote, fear that your vote will be cheated out of you somehow, fear that the polling site will be disrupted by some crazy person – some voters avoid voting because they are afraid of a negative experience. Out of the hundreds of busy, anxious New Yorkers that I helped vote, I only had two negative experiences the whole day. Both of which had to do with face masks.

In NYC, voters were encouraged through signage to wear a mask but pollworkers were not allowed to enforce masking rules. So I kept a box of face masks on my desk and, if someone walked in without a mask, I offered the box absentmindedly without a word, the same way you’d extend a box of Kleenex to someone who was sneezing, or a roll of paper towels to someone who had spilled something. Most people thanked me or apologized, took a mask and put it on. One lady took a mask, put it in her purse, and voted without.

One lady sneered at the masks, then went to a different table than I had directed her to, and complained for 20 minutes that I had misdirected her, tying up pollworkers who could have been helping other voters. Another lady took a mask, accused me of being in the gestapo, tore up the mask and threw it on the floor. I just ignored these two – if people are determined to have a bad experience, it’s not my job to feed their anger by arguing with them, and helping them make a drama out of it.

All in all, my Happy Box was successful. I liked the people I worked with. I supported democracy by helping several hundred people cast their votes. I got to smile a lot.

A simple kind of joy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s