Sunday, January 27, 2008

My Life as a Poll Worker

For the last several years, my father has worked as a poll worker on election days here in South Carolina. You know, the people who sign you in and take you to the booth on election days. This year they were short some people so Dad browbeat me into working. I worked the two presidential preference primaries, the Democratic Party yesterday and the Republicans the week before. It was a very interesting experience to be on the other side of the table on election day. Here are a few observations.

Be nice to the people working the polls. I now have a much greater appreciation for the folks who work at each election. The polls in our sate are open from 7 to 7. I had to be there by 6:30 AM, and the two ladies working with me were already there then. And of course one of them had picked up the machines the night before. We didn't finish closing the polls, tallying up cleaning up, etc. until about 7:45 PM. There was no real time for lunch, but the two ladies I worked with did bring snacks. For this over 13 hour day, we are going to receive the princely sum of $60. (I am told it just got bumped up from $50 to $60) Now I'm not arguing for a raise, because frankly, most of the people aren't working there for the money, but to do a service to their community, but I am saying that everybody should be real nice to the people working there, because they sure aren't paying them enough to put up with any grief.

People were mostly very nice. South Carolina has developed a reputation for nasty, ugly politics. And considering the Bush-McCain race in 2000 and the Clinton-Obama clash this year, it is understandable why this is so. But I think this nastiness is practiced mostly by the professional political class rather than by regular people. The people I dealt with were almost all very nice and friendly. This was true across party lines. People were patient and good natured with lines and other difficulties that arose, and generally seemed happy to be able to be there and participate in the democratic process. I think working these two elections made me a little less cynical about people and I'd recommend everyone try it sometime.

Republican wake up earlier than Democrats. My precinct ended up with over twice as many Democrats casting ballots than Republicans. (I think this is due to a combination of the demographics of my precinct and the fact the weather was much better yesterday than a week ago.) But I wouldn't have guessed that it was going to turn out that way by 8:30. Republicans also seemed to come by themselves or at most with their spouse. Democrats bought the whole family to vote at once, husband, wife, college age kid, cousin, etc. We did seem to have more voter issues out of the Democrats. Nothing serious, but people at the wrong precinct, address changes, etc. I think this was because we had a lot of new voters and voters who hadn't voted in a while among the Democrats. As someone who usually votes Democratic, let me tell you this is certainly understandable. It's been a long time since a Democratic candidate really excited people, especially in this state.

A perfect election is impossible. There is no way on earth to completely eliminate the possibility for human error or fraud in an election. At least not without a lot better technology, a lot more training for poll workers like me, or both. Like most Democrats, I was appalled by the Florida situation in 2000. Having worked an election now, I'm convinced that any vote put under the microscope afterwards would look screwed up. We did the best we could, but it wasn't like we were doing DNA exams on everybody that came up. There's a balance between making sure everyone is who they say they are and making the process so onerous that people just stay home. And you always will have human error. I had to fill in a bubble next to everyone's name when they came in. (Kind of like the SAT, complete with No. 2 pencils.) I think I did fine, but is it possible that I filled in the wrong bubble in the rush of people? Of course it is.

Local results don't guarantee statewide performance. Huckabee won my precinct on the Republican side, which was consistent with his performance in the county, but not statewide. In fact, Fred Thompson almost took second away from McCain, but not quite. Obama won for the Democrats. His margin was even bigger in my precinct than his statewide margin which was huge itself.

Everyone should do this sometime. It was two very long days, but I'm glad I did it. Anyone who can take the time off from work should try it some time. The two retired ladies I worked with were real sweet and I probably put on weight from the brownies and other snacks they brought. And as I said a little earlier, it made me less cynical about people. So try it if you can.

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