Four years ago, I was sitting in a church in Brooklyn, listening to someone drone on about how to be a poll worker. In honor of Throwback Thursday, here’s what I wrote on the Terrifying Tuesday – election day – that followed:
Working the polls wasn’t what I thought it would be. I thought I would sit, greet my people as they ought to be greeted, hand them their ballots, and go back to my crochet or conversation. It wasn’t like that. It was trial by fire.
From down the block, I picked out the polling station by the line of people lined up down the street. That line lend me around the school building, through the front door, past the PTA coffee&tea table, down the hallway, and into the gym. Inside the gym were – I later learned – six districts, each with its own table and a heart-sickeningly long line.
My fellow stand-by worker – how I came to be a stand-by poll worker is a story for another time – and I found our Poll Coordinator, Randy. Randy, sunglasses propped on his head, papers in hand, and bold red shirt, was barely holding on to control. Needed everywhere at once, Randy greeted us as generously as he could – he gave us two seconds of his time. An efficient man, who believed in delegation, he told us each to man one of the two most overwhelmed tables. I took the one with a single person and an extra chair. As I sat, the harassed poll worker who had been on her own turned in Randy’s direction and demanded, “Does she know what she’s doing? I CANNOT have anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.” Randy, without knowing my name, muchtheless the fact that I’d been trained a day earlier in an abridged session that skipped much of the usual content, said, with authority, “She’s a pro.” It seemed safer not to contradict him.
My fellow poll worker told me the tables’s Electoral District, Assembly District, and which number voter and ballot we were on. I filled in the voter cards, she checked in the people. Fifteen minutes later, she’d judged me capable and left me alone at the table as she took her first bathroom break after four exhausting hours on the job. It was 9AM.
The voters were a delight, if utterly baffled by the lack of levered machines and excess of paper ballots. Apparently, voters hide under a rock between presidential general elections. Most were happy to be there, if utterly confused on how to vote, and some were flat-out thrilled that they could have a ballot of their own. Despite the wait in line – over 30 minutes when I arrived – they were courteous and generally kind.
The only people who had trouble were the affidavit voters, and that blame falls squarely on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The day before the election Gov. Cuomo announced that anyone could vote affidavit [absentee voting from a polling site] – but he didn’t discuss this with the people running the election. In the normal course of events, your vote cannot be counted unless you go to your polling station. What Cuomo tried to say was that if you cannot reach your polling station because your home, neighborhood, or polling station has been devastated by Hurricane Sandy, you can vote anywhere via affidavit. Practically, it meant that people showed up because they were in the neighborhood already and didn’t feel like going to their polling station later. One person, when I explained that she’d have to go home to Long Island to vote, even though she attends college in the neighborhood, demanded a further explanation. When I clarified that only people affected by the hurricane could vote by affidavit, she wanted to know why she couldn’t just claim to be a hurricane victim for voting purposes. It was the first time* I’ve ever had to tell someone “I cannot advise you to commit a federal crime.”
That was bad enough, but then we began to run low on affidavit ballots. Randy, the voice of authority, called the Board of Election. We were promised ballots; none came. We ran out of ballots; none came. The clock clicked closer to the end of the polling day, and nervous voters – some of whom has been sent to us by other polling sites without ballots – sat around. Then one of those earnest voters came over to my district table and demanded to know why the woman next to us was doling out an affidavit ballot to her daughter when she wouldn’t give him one. Randy, who had kept his cool with angry voters and a recalcitrant Board of Elections during that harrowing day, swooped down on the table live an avenging angel. He seized all of the poll worker’s affidavit ballots and demanded to know who she was saving them for. She claimed that she had just happened to find them at that moment. Randy glared in silence. She said she hadn’t realize no one else had any of them. We had been talking about little else since the polling station had handed out ‘the last one’ over 30 minutes prior.
Randy gave the ballots to those who needed them until they ran out too. He kept a close eye on that poll worker for the rest of the night.
Despite such hiccups, the poll workers were a dedicated and hearty bunch. From 5AM-12AM we worked the polls, making democracy happen. As we closed down the poll, the news came through the wire: Obama wins in preliminary polling. With a shout, Democrat and Republican poll workers embraced. It was a draining day, and it was a beautiful day. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back.
*Not the last.