Working the Polls On Election Day

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First thing that happens when you want to be a poll worker is you have to attend a mandatory training and swearing in session. The swearing in is important, as you are acting as a temporary government official when you work the polls. For each new election you work, you have to attend an additional 1-hour training session. Some of these are critical; the training deals with changes to election law or voting practices as handed down by the state government. Some are less important, but the refresher course on the (now) complicated rules regarding who is eligible and what is needed to prove eligibility is pretty useful.

I live in Wisconsin, and I’ve been a poll worker for the last several years. It started out for me as a simple opportunity to make some extra money without the hassle of applying for a second regular job, but I’ve been surprised at how much working the polls has grown on me since I started. In my ward, I was one of the youngest people working at our polling place. After the November election, that appears to be changing, as more people are getting involved with elections. Having a large pool of people to work the elections can only be a good thing.

Last year was a particularly busy one. Besides the presidential primary and the November general election, we had a state primary and general election as well, so four elections altogether. No doubt this strained the budgets of many cash-strapped municipalities, but they made it work somehow. The Madison City Clerk’s mission statement on voting is that they want every eligible voter to be able to cast a ballot AND to have that ballot counted. They take every reasonable step to ensure that this can happen.

One of the most important rules to follow is the rule about not having political discussions in the polling place. It’s important because it’s an unfair advantage for poll workers, who could target fence-sitting voters and encourage them to lean one way or the other.

Since ballots are supposed to be anonymous, there is no photography allowed inside the polling place. Photographs of the ballot itself are also not allowed, as it could lead to counterfeit ballots being created and snuck in. There are occasionally folks who want to take a selfie of themselves voting. They are disappointed when we stop them, but they seem to understand the restriction.

The most difficult job at the polling place — in my mind, at least — is that of registering new voters and re-registering voters that have moved. The job is made easier by transparent overlays to help identify easily and clearly the parts of the registration form that need to be filled out by the prospective voter. Voters must show ID in Wisconsin, not only when registering, but also when voting, and some people forget to bring their ID with them. In the case of a voter unable to show proper ID, we must refuse to give them a ballot, according to state law. If they can come back with ID before the polls close at 8 PM, they can still vote. Also, if they can bring ID to the City/County Building by the end of the week of the election, they can vote provisionally. If ID is not shown to a City Clerk by that Friday, the provisional ballot is discarded.

There are times when you actually have to turn people away from voting — convicted felons who have not finished the terms of their sentence, for example (the terms of sentence also include probation, which not everyone knows). I once had to turn away a resident immigrant because that person only had a green card, not full citizenship. A friend had assured that person that they could still vote, which was not true.

Perhaps the most complicated job is that of opening and filing absentee ballots. It’s complicated because of several factors: there are strict rules regarding the handling of ballots, and usually two people work on it as a built-in double-check. Once ballots are removed from their sealed envelope, they are checked to make sure they are valid — they marked the ballot, the ballot is intact, and they voted for legally registered candidates. They are taken in very small batches to the poll book, and the ID of the voter is compared with the addresses in the book to make sure the person is eligible, and that the ballot was delivered to the correct ward.

Then the ballots are taken to the tabulating machine, where they are entered so the vote can be counted. It must look highly suspicious to have a person standing in line with a stack of ballots to feed into the tabulator, but that is what’s happening when you see that. The little we can do to reassure voters that nothing fishy is going on is to wear a sign around our necks when performing this task that reads “Absentee Ballots”.

At the end of the night, poll workers have to pull all the ballots out of the machine, straighten them out into neat piles, and stuff them into secure bags which are then sealed and sent to the City-County building for archiving. If write-in votes are registered, those often have to be fished out if there are legally registered write-in candidates to confirm their legitimacy and also that they can easily be found in case of a recount. Since ballots do not have names or any ID on them that connect them to a specific voter, the anonymity of the voter is still assured.

I was saddened one election when, while searching for legitimate write-in votes, I came across someone who voted for a famous actress, and for John Doe twice, respectively, to fill the three seats on that particular ballot. Why even bother, in that case? It is a useless protest if that was the intent, and if the person felt obligated to vote but had no information on the candidates, a quick check of the non-partisan League of Women Voters website beforehand, and a subsequent search for the specific municipality or state, could have given that individual more information in order to make an informed choice.

Voting is not actually a right spelled out by the US Constitution: with some effort, it is a privilege that could be taken away at any time. Please, please make sure you get out and vote in your elections, and learn at least a little something about the positions the candidate(s) you favor take on issues that are important to you. With less than half of eligible voters in the US casting ballots, it’s remarkably easy for a small group to take control of government for their own ends. The only way to prevent that is to get out and vote.

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