Working the Polls: Getting started

Polling Place Sign

Voting Place Sign, by Jonathan

Insert your own lame stripper pole joke here. I’ve heard a dozen and I’m over it.

When the chatter started up that this election would have the largest turnout ever, I started to think that perhaps I should volunteer my time. Part of my benefits package as a Virginia state employee includes 16 hours of volunteer leave, which I can use towards any worthy endeavor. Given that advantage over other folks who might have resistant employers I felt like I was somewhat obligated.

So I volunteered to be an elections officer and Arlington County took me up on the offer. Let me tell you about it.

My day on November 4th started at 4am, but this process started long before then. In my case I filled out a form on the Virginia State Board of Elections website, but each area actually handles the signing up and training of their own elections officer. So my application actually just got forwarded on to the Arlington County Board of Voter Registration, who promptly…. sent me another form.

The initial process of becoming an elections officer is a good introduction to the ritual and structure of being a part of the elections process. The pamphlet that Arlington sent me was very basic and really just looked for my name and contact information. It sat on my coffee table for a while before I sent it in because it was a little ambiguous in one way: it asked for party affiliation. Well, Virginia doesn’t ask when you register to vote, unlike my home state of Florida. There I’d always been a registered independent. So I finally picked up the phone and called, where they told me that the rules require that there be representation for both parties even though you’re expected to act in a completely non-partisan way. As it turns out this is addressed in their FAQ, including explaining the basis in law.

I said I couldn’t care less and they said good, if we’re under-represented on one side and you’re willing to represent the other party you might be asked to do so. Fine. So I filled out my pamphlet and mailed it in. Shortly thereafter they mailed me…. another form.

So I filled that out and sent that in. A lot of the same information, though they also asked if I’d be willing to work at a polling place that wasn’t my own. Well, Arlington’s not that big, so sure, why not? As it turned out, when my assigment arrived mid-October it was indeed for a different precinct. The only downside to that was that my navigation skills are somewhat crippled at 4:30 in the morning. If I had it to do over again I’d either print my directions out – rather than relying on my ability to figure it out – or drive by the location beforehand.

The only additional step before the big day was training. I assume that every area is different but similar, but I can’t back that up with facts. For Arlington county the training is spread out across a few areas and with multiple days to pick from. It’s further divided into sessions for new workers, returning workers, and precinct chiefs. There’s classes in addition to those for technical assistants and one on preparing the statement of results that is prepared at the end of the day. You can’t be a chief or assistant chief unless you’ve worked one general election, so my obligation was limited to the one class.

There was probably a lot more overlap between the class for newbies and returning officers this year because Arlington had just started using electronic pollbooks. If you voted in Arlington this year you probably noticed that you no longer had to get into a line based on the first letter of your last name. Once you got to the front of the line the worker looked you up on a tablet computer and checked your eligibility that way. A nice labor saver, but everyone needed to be brought up to speed on these things.

Aside from the general outline of how the day would go and what would need to be done, the major piece of useful information we were given was the mantra of the poll worker: “Call the Chief.” Voter insists that information isn’t right? Call the chief. Voter has a piece of ID you’re not sure is acceptable? Call the chief. The chief is the big kahuna who knows the answer or where to find it, and it’s a job I was glad I didn’t have.

Our chief was a nice woman named Heather who called me and introduced herself a week or so before the election. We chatted for a few minutes and said okay, see you on the 4th. After that there was nothing to do but wait. Like you can do, till I put up part two later this afternoon.

Well I used to say something in my profile about not quite being a “tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy” but Tom stole that for our about us page, so I guess I’ll have to find another way to express that I am a man of many interests.

Hmm, guess I just did.

My tastes run the gamut from sophomoric to Shakespeare and in my “professional” life I’ve sold things, served beer, written software, and carried heavy objects… sometimes at the same place. It’s that range of loves and activities that makes it so easy for me to love DC – we’ve got it all.


One thought on “Working the Polls: Getting started

  1. Hey nice job! I volunteered here in DC. Our experience leading up to the 4th seem very different. Back in September I applied to do the primary election by sending in one form. I then got a letter saying when I should go for training. In DC the training is based on position. Ballot clerk, name checker, special ballot clerk, technician, etc. I was chosen for ballot clerk so I went to the training, with about 50 people, most of them shockingly not bright. Of course since most of them are products of DCPS, I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked. The primary went fine, and I waited for November. BUT I got another call saying I needed to go for ANOTHER training before November. Ugg. The second training, for the same job, was brutally bad. The woman running it really knows her job- but she let person after person ask individual questions that were relevant to NONE of the rest of the 50 people in the room. After 45 minutes of this she said “OK, I guess I should train you now.”

    Of course on election day there were people there that the wonderful “chief” wasn’t expecting to show up- and one of them was totally untrained and screwed up a few things several different times! Apparently one person had a spoiled ballot, and he let them get away before telling them to go get a new ballot. Another time, when i was on break, he accidentally put voter card in the wrong boxes- since he was never told NOT to. Later in the day, when cleaning up some campaign literature he was making homophobic remarks to some of the other poll workers, who them added their 2 cents. They were all shocked that Patrick Mara would “admit” is for gay marriage equality, and actually put it on his brochure!

    The day went fine for the most part, but in the future, I’ll volunteer ONLY if I can avoid a boring 3 hour ‘training’ with a bunch of idiots.