Yesterday was my trial by fire, also known as working for the first time at a polling place in Florida during a hotly contested mid-term election. Getting up at 4:30 am for a 6 am arrival isn’t fun, but I made sure I had some coffee before we opened the polls. I was one of six Book Inspectors who discovered the worst parts, the ugliest parts and the best parts of being a poll worker in Polk County, Florida. So what were my observations?
The Ugly Parts
Our Supervisor of Elections is a terrific woman and clearly dedicated to her job. But the system sucks. I won’t take you through the details of being a Book Inspector, but it was crazy to have four people lined up alphabetically in front of one Inspector while three other people waited to be helped. The polling room was too small, ballots had to be completed by hand, and the ballots were so long that the back-up just to enter a booth was ridiculous. But we had a dedicated population who hardly complained at all, at least to us, about the wait. I understand that serious, competent research must be done to upgrade the system, especially due to all the controversy in the last several years about balloting systems, and I hope improvements will be made in the next two years. This voter and poll worker will be writing to the Supervisor to find out more about their plans.
The Bad Parts
The technology was not the only thing that was ugly to watch. One of the other Book Inspectors told me that people were coming in with the same typed list of how to complete their ballots; these weren’t the sample ballots (thank goodness for those people who came prepared), but he seemed quite sure that an outside group had provided voters with their lists (and this fellow was not a Republican). It’s not illegal to provide lists to people ahead of time, but it’s not pretty either. There were also 14 confusing amendments (are there any amendments that are not confusing?); a number of them had several unrelated parts to them, so if the voter had not prepared in advance, they spent a very long time trying to figure out how to vote (unless they had their list). At the risk of sounding racist, I was very disappointed to see the number of people who requested ballots printed in Spanish. One of our poll workers wanted to be helpful by offering people with Hispanic surnames the choice of a Spanish-language ballot. When we ran out of Spanish ballots, she realized that might not be a great idea, and shifted to letting people ask if they needed one. I found myself especially irritated at the large number of people who clearly spoke little English, and those who clearly did speak English and wanted a ballot in Spanish. Fortunately, they were almost always polite.
Most people were very friendly and smiled, but I had several people who didn’t speak a word during the entire process. They handed us their identification cards, in some cases glared, signed in our books where we pointed, took back their IDs and when we thanked them for coming, they turned around without a word. I’m not saying this was an overwhelming number of voters at all, but their behavior stood out in sharp contrast to everyone else. We also had an extremely large number of spoiled ballots (voters make an error and want a new ballot), and that requires a time-consuming process to replace them. According to one of our Book Inspectors, she’d never seen so many spoiled ballots. I suspect that we had many new voters, and with the complexity of the ballot, none of us were surprised at the number.
The Good Parts
I wanted to end this post, though, with all the good parts of the poll worker experience. We saw people of all ages. Parents were discouraged from bringing children into the polling place due to the size of the room, but one mother wanted her four kids to see the entire process. We were all delighted to make an exception for her. We had lots of Hispanics with a minimum of two last names, some hyphenated, some not, and also two or three “first names.” They were extremely patient with us gringos (as were the four book inspectors who spoke Spanish) in helping us figure out how the names might be listed in our books. Sometimes a voter would lean over and point out his or her name on a page! I always told them I needed all the help I could get, and we laughed together. The young voters were a delight, and we made sure to embarrass the first-time voters by calling out “first-time voter!”, cheering and clapping and giving them a special pin.
Every poll worker helped the others. The camaraderie and assistance made the experience one of shared dedication for the election process, and even though we barely got breaks and ate on the run, we all covered for each other without complaint. Our Precinct Clerk couldn’t do enough to help us in doing our jobs; the Voter Information Specialists who were the troubleshooters (sharing one computer!) were masterful. And the Deputy Clerk and Voting Equipment Operator were both outstanding. They were all helpful and courteous to everyone, voters and workers alike.
I realize that everyone who voted came with their own unique assortment of reasons: angry against President Trump and Republicans; thrilled to have their say about the governance of our country; wanting to make a difference in America and the world. Whatever their worldview, they showed up. Whatever their reasons were yesterday, they wanted to be heard and make their own statements about, and to, this country.
It was a long, demanding day and asked a lot of the poll workers and voters alike.
I hope to serve again in two years.Published in