Stoking the vote: What’s it really like to be a poll worker on election day?

By the end of a 15-hour day I was impressed with the process, exhausted and unsure if I would do it again. But everyone should experience this once.

Robert Smith stands before the election exhibit outside MOCA Cleveland Nov. 9..jpg

When I arrived at my polling station Nov. 3 shortly before 5:30 a.m., I saw three people standing near the door in the 30-degree darkness. I joined them. We exchanged muffled good mornings. I assumed they were poll workers, like myself.

Then I realized they were not going inside. They were voters, queuing at a poll that did not open for another hour. That was my clue to what was to come, a long long day of eager voters, endless lines, and lots of brief but mostly amiable interactions with neighbors.

I’ve been voting for 40 years but the election of 2020 was my first time on the inside, helping to make the sausage. By the end of a 15-hour day I was impressed with the process, exhausted and unsure if I would do it again. But everyone should experience this once.

I volunteered to be a poll worker because I heard the big election needed help. Plus, I thought it was unfair to make seniors carry the load, as they always do, during a pandemic. Then my wife remined me I was 61, prime Covid age. When did that happen?

I was assigned to Clague Cabin in Clague Park, a modest polling station home to three precincts in the Cleveland suburb of Westlake. We processed more than 2,000 in-person voters that bright day. A poll observer for the Republican party told me 84 percent of the precincts’ registered voters had come through by 4 p.m., a turnout he described as “just incredible.”

Joe Biden took the cabin, and Westlake, with 54% of the vote. But you don’t know any of that when you’re helping people to vote. And you don’t care. You’re too busy keeping the machinery humming.

Most of us were volunteering for the first time, and none of us had met before, but a quick camaraderie developed. Poll workers are an amiable bunch, sort of like camp counselors for democracy. Everyone was up for the game, hard-working and jazzed to be a part of something they saw as momentous.

“This is historic,” Don kept saying to voters he was signing in. “His-toric.”

For awhile, I was next to Don at the check-in table, where the action begins. We sat behind custom-made laptops connected to the board of elections downtown. Quickly as we could, we verified a voter’s ID–typically by scanning an Ohio driver’s license–and captured their electronic signature. With a thumbs up, we handed them a ballot that matched their precinct and sent them toward the small maze of voting booths.

The Westlake ballot was especially long, with a whole page of charter review issues, so voting took awhile, even for people who are good at it. And some people are just not good at voting.

There’s much I didn’t know about voting in Ohio, including the three strikes rule. If you mess up your ballot, you can get a replacement ballot—but only twice.  It’s three strikes and you’re out. Believe  me, poll workers are pulling for you to get it right the first time. A “soiled” ballot has to be voided and a new ballot issued in a process that takes several painful minutes.

Most people, once they get to a poll booth, expertly fill in their ovals, cast their ballot and are on their way. Some people make mistakes. They have questions. They become hangers on, voters we can’t get rid of.

And some almost become family. One breathless young woman, a first time voter, was alarmed that the scanner had rejected her ballot. Two of us (always two) found the problem. She had tried to change a vote by striking an X through a blackened oval, like you might do on a quiz.

No erasing or correcting, we explained. You’ll have to start over.

This time, she made an errant pen mark on a page. Barely a scratch. But  the scanner detected the blemish and rejected the ballot. Now Judie, the manager of our polling station, counseled her personally. This is your last try, she explained gravely.

We all held our breath as she nervously slid her third attempt into the scanner. When it lit up with an Accept message, so did her smile. We had to suppress cheers.

We were a team of 18, about evenly split between men and women, and all ages—including a college student. We worked in pairs handling ballots and helping people to vote, always two people from opposite parties. If a fresh stack of ballots were to be opened, a Democrat handed the scissors to a Republican.

As an Independent voter, with no party affiliation, I was a wild card who could be paired with anyone. This made me handy and kept me busy. I was on the brink of feeling important  when my named was called for the third or fourth time, only to be asked to kill a bug.

We took our marching orders from Judie, the Voting Location Manager, a methodical retiree with a calm demeanor and loads of patience. The board put us through an orientation a couple of weeks before and our group met with Judie in the cabin on election eve. Tuesday morning, we mustered at 5:30 a.m. to swear an oath and get final advice. The backdrop, of course, was the coronavirus and the vague threat of menace.

There’s a voter who comes every year bragging of his concealed carry permit, Judie warned us. “Just try to ignore him.” We all had to wear masks at all times and voters were asked to do so. Should they refuse, we had to risk our health and help them to vote. This annoyed me greatly, but if it bothered the other poll workers, no one said anything.

As it turned out, there were no ugly incidents and everyone followed health protocols. At one point, a man in cammo fatigues came strolling through, scanning the room with angry eyes, and we all breathed a little easier when he got in his pickup and drove away. There was a Westlake police officer parked outside all day.

Mostly, a happy mood pervaded. I said hello to friends and neighbors, chatted with my kids’ former teachers, and watched a father share a high-five with his daughter after she voted for the first time.

Officially I was a PEO, a Precinct Elected Official. This meant I might hand you the “I Voted” sticker after you cast your ballot. Or wipe down a voting booth with disinfectant. Or look up your registration and break the news that you had to cast a provisional ballot, the penalty for the post office not delivering your absentee ballot on time. Sadly, there was a lot of that.

Polling tasks are mundane and repetitive and we switched the duties often to keep things interesting. My favorite job was “Scanner Official,” standing by the ballot scanner and instructing people how to finally cast their ballot—the climactic moment.

As they slipped their ballots into the feeder, a dial on the display screen spun in a kind of countdown until the screen flashed “Vote Accepted.”

I would sing quietly along to the countdown, rising toward crescendo: “Da da, Da Da, DA-DA! You did it! Now get your sticker!”

Most everyone smiled. Most everyone took the “I Voted” sticker and put it on, like kids who just got a flu shot. They earned it.

That line that started before  5:30 am by 9 a.m. snaked around a small parking lot outside of the polling station, down the park roadway and all the way out to Hillard Boulevard. At the check-in table, people told me they had waited two hours. No one complained.

The wait shrank to maybe 90 minutes by mid-morning and tapered off to almost nothing by late afternoon. It was obvious that everyone had rushed to vote as soon as they could, meaning we were crazy busy, then bored and tired. By nightfall, I was hungry and my back was killing me.

“Are you coming back in 2024?” a fellow poll worker asked me.

“In four years?”

She nodded brightly.

“I don’t think so,” I said. But I’m glad you are.

Smith is a writer in Westlake.

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