By MARSHA MERCER
As another election goes into the history books, let’s agree on three things: No one should have to stand in line for hours to cast a ballot, voting machines should work and election officials should be competent.
But if it’s election-bashing you want, you won’t find it here. Today, this space is devoted to praising the heroes of American elections: the poll workers. These volunteers make up a grassroots army in service to democracy. They work long hours for minimal pay.
We owe poll workers gratitude, not blame, even when the system doesn’t work the way it should. Localities need to buy reliable voting machines and provide quality training to poll workers. State legislators should consider the real-world effects of complicated voting laws and encourage early and no-excuses absentee voting.
I’ve spent many an Election Day outside polling places, asking people for whom they voted and why, but this time I wanted to see an election from the inside. I applied to be an election officer, or poll worker, in Alexandria, Va. Poll workers are city or county employees for the day and are apolitical on Election Day; they’re different from poll watchers who represent the political parties and candidates.
After filling out a sheaf of application papers, I got called for training. I spent about three and a half hours at in-person and online training. At the unholy hour of 4:45 am. on Election Day, I reported for duty, coffee thermos in hand, at Precinct 102 in City Hall.
Virginia poll workers stay at the polling place for the duration – they may not leave the premises until the election is over and all reports have been completed and signed. Over the next 15-plus hours, my job included monitoring the check-in line to keep it moving smoothly, greeting voters and giving them information about the ballot process, and checking voters’ IDs.
People worried that Virginia’s new voter ID law might cause problems, and reportedly it did elsewhere. But no voters showed up at our precinct without an ID.
Chief Election Officer Jeff Herre, calm and collected, set the day’s tone. Only a few of the 18 workers were first-timers. Herre administered the oath of office, called us a team and urged us to help each other. My fellow election workers were smart, courteous, efficient and kind – and they had fun.
Alexandria had returned to paper ballots, but there were no hanging, dimpled or pregnant chads. Voters marked ballots with pens provided in the voting stations and fed their ballots into a scanner.
One of our two scanners malfunctioned, causing a slowdown until an IT person made repairs. An initial rush when the polls opened at 6 a.m. resulted in a line that snaked around the corner, and some voters reported waiting half an hour in the cold. After that, though, there were no long lines.
But some voters’ names weren’t in the computer poll book and they had to see Herre or his assistant to find their correct polling place or fill out address or name-change forms.
At times, half a dozen voters and election officers stood in line, waiting for Herre to solve their problems, but Herre, 66, a retired CIA analyst, never lost his cool or raised his voice.
I spent part of the day at the door with Deborah Cureton, a retired government auditor and veteran poll worker. Cureton enjoys seeing neighbors and meeting new ones, and when the precinct’s election results finally print out, “you know where you fit in the whole event of worldwide importance,” she said.
Of the roughly 118 million votes cast in the 2012 presidential election, 1,481 came from Precinct 102 Tuesday and 752 absentee ballots were cast earlier.
Around the country, poll workers in 176,000 precincts see elections from the grassroots. The largest group of poll workers is between 61 and 70 years old, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Efforts to recruit younger workers and college students are ongoing.
As a student, Chris Kurowski, 36, helped his mother, an election official in Newport News, Va.
“Elections are a social event; they’re like a reunion,” he said, recalling home-made casseroles and desserts poll workers there shared. Kurowski worked his first Alexandria election mostly outside, even dog-sitting while pets’ owners voted.
Nobody gets rich working the polls. Localities set the rate of pay, and in Alexandria election officers receive $100 and the chiefs, who also must pick up and deliver equipment, $200.
So, next time you go to vote, don’t forget to thank the poll workers who make it happen.
© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.