NYC Election Day 11/04/14: My Day Serving at the Polls

I won’t start with why I decided to work at my local polling place — or, rather, why I applied for a chance to do so and, then, once “chosen,” showed up there at 5AM on the morning of November 4th. I’m still not 100% sure why I did so. But let’s leave that for now (or you could skip all the way down to the End Note). Let’s start with the training — the six and a half hour training.

Training? You need training to work at the polls? And you need six and a half-hours of training? Let me assure you, yes, you need every minute of that time and about, oh, I don’t know, let’s say 600 hours more. (Learning to become a fully competent poll worker in New York City reminds me of nothing so much as my navigation of Series 7 securities certification in the late ’80s when, our instructor informed us, you’d need 30 years of experience in the business before you could conceivably hope to pass the test, by yourself, that would allow you to work in the business! Hence, TAKE THE SIX-WEEK COURSE, KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT, DON’T ASK QUESTIONS, DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT QUESTIONS, JUST PAY ATTENTION AND PUT DOWN THE ANSWERS I’M ABOUT TO GIVE YOU, YOU SORRY-ASSED LOSERS!)

But six and a half hours of instruction really doesn’t suffice to make you a competent or un-frightened poll worker. Fact is, this training is but the slightest introduction to the myriad of duties you might be expected to perform on Election Day including, but, I’m convinced, not restricted to:

  • AD Monitor
  • Coordinator
  • ED/AD Table Chairperson
  • Inspector — Table
  • Inspector — Scanner
  • Inspector — BMD
  • Inspector — Privacy Booth
  • Inspector — Poll Clerk
  • Information Clerk
  • Door Clerk
  • Interpreter
  • Relief Inspector

Even as a voter yourself you likely don’t have a clue about these arcane titles or, what’s more germane, what their actual duties entail. And, to be honest, neither did most of us after our class had ended. It’s not that our instruction was bad or faulty — quite the contrary — it’s just that, unfortunately, there’s an awful lot that’s necessary to ensure a smooth-running operation and successful day of voting. Some of that “lot” is by no means as obviously predictable as you might think or, considered somewhat cynically, every bit as bureaucratically-dictated as you’d expect in this still Labor-oriented City government. From my one day of actual experience, however, I’d have to say that New York City has pretty much crunched it for carrying out a fair, successful, and satisfying election, for all the Monitors, Coordinators, Chairpersons, Inspectors, Clerks, Interpreters — and Voters! — involved.

So, let’s go back to the training. Yes, there a ton of detail was effectively irrelevant, but only because a) there was simply too much of it for any of us to remember, and 2) it was purely theoretical in the absence of prior experience — kind of like an explanation of how best to anticipate and pull a curve ball down the left field line to someone who had never picked up a bat or seen a pitched ball or even heard of that thing called baseball. That aside, which seems inevitable in any training class, there were some great and accurate — as we learned after the fact — lessons imparted. I give them to you largely as our instructor imparted them in the first half hour of our class:

1) Be on time! This turned out to be prescient short hand for a lot more than punctuality: Yes, we know the bars don’t close until 4AM and it might seem like a good idea to spend the night there and then slowly and surely make your way to the polls, arriving more or less on time at 5, but this is not suggested. You’ll have plenty to do getting the place ready for voting; you won’t have much of a clue about what all that readiness stuff is until you’re there in the huge empty room — usually a school cafeteria; and you won’t be in the best frame of mind, shall we say, to greet your voters at 6 and perform your duties over next 15 hours! (Oh, yeah, forgot to mention: Poll work is from 5AM to, conservatively, 10PM, i.e., 17 hours. For this, if and only if you work the full 17 hours, you’ll be paid a Franklin, $100. [Bet you get $200 in the suburbs.] So don’t ever think Poll Workers are doing this for the money.) This brings us to Lesson Two.

2) No hats! This was also admirable short hand and, if possible, even more so than Lesson One: You’re there to enable your fellow citizens to perform a fine and rare right and prerogative of citizenship, the right to vote for and choose [at least parts of] your local government and [at least a few select] courses of governmental action [proposals, amendments]. No hats (except for religious reasons)? Okay, that sounds a bit arbitrary. But, no, it really isn’t. You will wear no hats but, also, no: shorts; low rise pants — “you ain’t a gang-banger here”; tank tops; bare-midriff or halter tops — “you ain’t no floozy here”; flip-flops; or campaign attire.

The official word in the Poll Worker Procedures manual: “As a Poll Worker, you must dress and conduct yourself in a professional manner… You must respect the voter’s rights and all people regardless of party, culture, race, ethnicity, language, gender, age, disability, religion, or family background.” That’s to say, you will ignore all the things that tear us apart from one another in daily life and, on this one day at least, you will conduct yourself as if none of these discrete and discreetly dis-unifying things matter or even exist. (Also included in the list: cell phones, tablets, laptops — hence no texting, no emailing, no Internet; no Twitter, no Facebook, no Whatsapp — oh, and no headphones, either.) You’re there to serve voters and to facilitate voting, admittedly a somewhat different attitude than is prevalent throughout so many parts of the country today.

3) Do your job! In other words: Pay Attention in this class! Learn, then Apply! Once again, seemingly simple, too obvious to mention, but not really. This is essentially identical to the procedure in the Series 7 class: This is not a university class in Citizenship; yours is not to question or to dispute, yours is to pay attention and learn HOW TO: how to open up and at the end of the day close up the various Supply Carts; how to set up and place the Privacy Booths, with necessary supplies; how to set up the BMDs — which I was to learn, initially to my chagrin, later to my delight — are Ballot Marking Devices; more on this shortly); how and where to hang up appropriate signage (e.g., make sure the Accessible Pathway Sign is placed at the “inaccessible main entrance” — think about it a minute); how to set up the ED/AD tables (types of ballots, address finder, Voter Registration List, Privacy Sleeves, etc.); how to set up the Scanners and help the voters there; indeed, how to serve the voters throughout the whole process: Aside from all the crucial mechanical details of opening and closing this or that and setting up this or that, the real point of Lesson Three might just be: Embody Lesson Two, Serve Voters and Voting! I quote, loosely, once again from the Procedures manual:

1. Be Respectful
2. Attitude is Everything
3. Show Courtesy to Each and Every Person

HOW TO: Say Hello (“Good morning… Welcome, it’s good to see you”; “Thank you for coming to vote”); Ask or say how you can provide assistance (“Do you know your Election District? No? I can help you”); Observe your voter (pay attention to body language; make eye contact; smile, smile, and then Smile); Show and tell (show the voter where to sign on the Voter Registration List; direct the voter to the Privacy Booths, or the BMD, or to the Scanners). Turn that frown upside down and SMILE!

Feel ready to work the Polls from this description? Probably not; neither did I after the training, even though I was pretty sure I aced the test. A couple of days later, yes, I had indeed passed. But did I really want to do this? Could I do this? Well, let me get my assignment and then I can decide, and in another couple days, good Lord, I had it: Inspector — BMD.

Oh: I think I learned how to set up the BMD; I think I learned how to close it down — I think. But I know damn well I didn’t learn how to actually work the thing or what, really, the thing was. Okay, well, go to the book — it’s a Ballot Marking Device, not that that helps any. Well, look, they know I’m a novice at this; they’ll team me up with an experienced BMD hand, right? And, frankly, I can always decide to beg off. I mean, this is 17 hours, a hundred bucks, and I’m effectively clueless about my duties; I’ve skipped less onerous, more lucrative assignments, and ones where I was much more qualified… To say I was disappointed would be a true understatement.

As it turned out, I did show up. Couldn’t get to sleep the night before the Election, undoubtedly feeling guilty about what I was almost certainly about to do, namely roll over at the last minute and finally get some sleep. But, no, I wouldn’t do it, I’d show up and my experienced partner would take pity on my cluelessness: “It’s just a BMD for god’s sake; you don’t know how to do it? C’mere, I’ll show ya.”

Well, you could see the plot development coming a mile away, couldn’t you? Exactly, my partner, indeed a well-experienced Poll Worker, veteran of many Elections, but… do you know what to do with this thing? he asked as we introduced ourselves. Allan turned out to be a great guy, a substitute school teacher but also an accomplished artist, photographer and painter, avid conversationalist, fellow Upper West Sider… but didn’t know shit from shinola when it came to the BMD.

Turns out that Allan was mostly a veteran of the Tables serving each particular Election District, where you go first to sign the Registration List (as an already-registered voter) and receive your Ballot (in a Privacy Sleeve), thence to go to a Privacy Booth or, if you could not or would not use a Booth, to the BMD. There were 13 ED/AD tables — we counted — and anywhere from two to four people at each table. Allan REALLY wanted to be back at the tables, where he knew exactly what he needed to do. But here, with me, another befuddled BMD virgin? Nope, Allan was not happy, either.

So we set up our machines — five feet free space on all sides, rubber mat over the extension cord; that much we had been trained for — and waited. That is, we waited for our ignorance to be cruelly exposed, two idiots with machines that neither knew how to operate. Theoretically we could have asked for help from a BMD veteran — surely there was at least one out of the minimally 60-person crew here? — but things had gotten way too busy for that. There were a good dozen Privacy Booths already set up and in use within the first minutes of opening, and not much later Allan and I helped set up a dozen or more, anything to look busy. We counted those, too: 27 in all, and throughout most of the day there were feet at the bottom of each and every one. For the first few hours, then, our main job turned out to be directing voters away from our machines to the Scanners at the opposite end of the room, since many voters either mistakenly assumed our machines were somehow the next step in the process, or simply had no clue what to do next. So we just kept shooing away as many voters as we could — at least from the wrong to the right place — until, finally, we couldn’t.

Yep, eventually we were faced with a woman in a wheelchair who had a pretty clear idea that a BMD was exactly what she needed. With not a little trepidation, Allan opened up the covering panels of his BMD, and I hung back and observed. He winged it, I watched over his shoulder, throwing in a suggestion now and again. But then it quickly dawned on us: This was just like any other electronic program. Pick your politician, press the button on the touchscreen for him/her, press the NEXT button. So the lightbulb now burned bright. After directing our satisfied lady to the Scanners, Alan and I looked at one another, grinning broadly, for the BMD, we now saw, was indeed a Ballot Marking Device, gee, exactly what it said it was, a machine that electronically marks a ballot! That’s it, that’s all it is: A “device” that marks ballots!

From that point on, we actually began soliciting voters — come use our machine! — instead of hiding from them, and by the end of the evening we had helped well upwards of 20 disabled people — including a couple non-disabled but disaffected people who simply didn’t want to color in little circles by hand in a Privacy Booth — to vote. And what an incredibly satisfying experience that turned out to be for us both — not just relief at no longer feeling foolish, although there certainly was that, but something more like fun in seeing the delight (relief here as well!) and fulsome gratitude of our satisfied, happy “customers.”

A word about our voter-customers: They didn’t seem to be a truly representative sample of the neighborhood. The Upper West Side of Manhattan, sometimes also known as the Socialist Republic of the Upper West Side, is about as diverse a neighborhood as you’ll find in New York City, or in America for that matter: We are wealthy, we are poor, we are professionals, we are middle class workers and the working and non-working poor; we are Orthodox Jews and Jews too universalist for mere Universalism; we are Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Hondurans, Haitians, African-Americans, and whites of many hyphenated-nationality; on West End Avenue, we are rich, on Riverside Drive and Central Park West, filthy rich; on Broadway, we’re Yuppies; on Amsterdam Avenue, we’re all (relatively) poor, working or not; on Columbus Avenues, we’re recent university grads and current students at Columbia, Barnard, and a bunch of other schools, or we live in nice projects, as projects go. And we’re diverse in age as well; lots of 90 year-olds, lots of baby-carriaged one- and two-year olds, and of course every age in between; we’re the Greatest Generation, Boomers, Gens X and Y, Millennials, and whatever the infants have yet to be demographically- and psychographically-denominated.

At 92nd and Columbus, however, the crowd was predominantly one of color, one of age, and one of gender, i.e., female. Yuppies and professionals made a robust appearance after 6PM, as you’d expect, but throughout the day it was mostly older people, parents and grandparents: Perhaps it was not unpredictable that Allan and I served so many older, disabled people with our BMDs that, according to our Coordinator, are usually needed by no more than one or two people. It behooves me to single out Gen Y/Millennials for special mention, as indeed they singled themselves out by their virtually complete absence, according to my non-scientific observation. They were evidently way busy at Starbucks with “Call of Duty” and their Apple toys.

So, well, we threw a party and the Young didn’t come. But so many others did, others for whom a day at the polls would not be missed, as long as they could make their way there and answer their Call of Duty. My particular favorite was a 93-year old lady, a resident of Central Park West and, for half the year, a “dinky little village” in New Hampshire. She came to vote in her wheelchair, paralyzed in her shoulders and arms and a little bit short of sight. She hadn’t missed an election since moving to the city in 1950. I had to physically make her choices for her, pressing the buttons from the Welcome screen through to “Mark the Ballot,” strictly speaking against the rules but, I felt, fully within their spirit. After I led her down the to the Scanners, she asked, “So, what’s your story?” “Nothing much, just bumming around; was a lapsed academic then worked 25 years at New York Life.” At which she lit up and told me: “My great grandfather was the first insurance commissioner of the state of New Hampshire.”

Two lessons for the Election Board: First, throughout the day it became increasing evident that there was an almost universal disjunction in voters’minds between “marking the ballot” and “scanning the ballot.” Hardly anyone understood why they needed to scan the ballot; didn’t I just vote? Well, no; you marked a ballot, you made your choices; now you need to scan the ballot to make your vote count. This disjunction was even more obvious at the BMD; why, after electronically marking (making) my choices, do I now have to get up and stick my ballot in another machine? Makes no sense. Indeed, it really doesn’t; at least electronic voting should be fully electronic.

Second, more pens, please. You more or less have to use one of the pens that comes provided in the Privacy Booth to effectively mark your Ballot. But if that pen fails to work, guess what, Poll Workers now have to take the Booth out of circulation. (We did rustle up a few pens on our own and left them in the Booths, but voters ended up walking out with them.) We ended up removing nine Booths because of non-working pens. Turned out not to be a big problem, but it’s a silly problem to have. So arrange for a supply of the proprietary pens, please.

All in all, a really fine day. I’ll do it again two years from now. Hell, I’d even pay to do it again –no more than a Franklin, though.

END NOTE: Oh, and why really did I decide to do this? Well, perhaps this will resonate with my regular readers: I came to apply for Poll Worker training from, hold your breath, a banner ad. Occasionally they work! The ad did its job, it piqued my curiosity; the “Are you  Interested?” landing pages piqued my interest and held it long enough to convince me to apply for training — don’t we all get a kick out of qualifying? The “Congratulations!” email I received a couple of days later sent me happily to the page that provided all the details I needed to get to the class, and the class itself successfully kept me intrigued. A couple of days later I was informed I had passed the test and would shortly be given my assignment for Election Day. So all props to the NYC Web and Board of Elections folks: A well-done ad campaign, Web site, and email integration; each was intuitive, quick, easy, friction-less: An admirable example of both Web work and offline process integration.

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