A new generation of poll workers

by Brooks C. Braun

On election day, November 8th, 2011, more than 30 students from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) worked as Officers of Election in Henrico County, VA on behalf of the Tidewater Roots Poll Project (TRPP). TRPP is a project organized by William & Mary students to inspire college students to make a commitment to civic duty and participatory democracy by becoming the next generation of Virginia poll volunteers. We sat down to talk with three of these students to hear what they had to say about their experience.

Tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you heard about TRPP.

TEREZA: My name is Tereza McInnes, I’m an international studies major at VCU and I heard about the Tidewater Roots Poll Project through a VCU e-mail. I was really interested in it because all I’ve heard is that it’s something that ‘old people do’ and I kinda wanted to see what exactly it was about. And I guess I also heard that, you know, there was money involved.

DAVID: My name is David, I’m a 28 year old full time student at VCU. I’m in my fifth year. I have a dual degree in criminal justice and psychology with a concentration in pre-physical therapy. I got an e-mail from VCU saying that they were recruiting. I get 15 to 20 e-mails a day so I just breezed through it and moved on to the next e-mail. Later, one of my other friends, Thomas Kidwell, said that he had spoken to you on campus. He mentioned the e-mail, at which point I went back to read it again. My interest was piqued so I went ahead and put my name in the pool.

GABRIELA: My name is Maria Gabriela Ochoa Perez. I’m a freshman at VCU and I’m studying communication arts. I’m 18. I was born in Venezuela and I became a citizen 2 years ago. I’m really interested in the governmental system here in America because I experienced firsthand in Venezuela what it was like under a less democratic system. I was introduced to the project by this interesting looking gentleman standing in the cold in front of the VCU commons one day. I had already tried to figuring out how to do that kind of thing; poll work. I remember having talked to my government teacher in high school about doing it. I just hadn’t yet taken the time to contact the Montgomery county registrar’s office to sign up. So I was really interested when that nice gentleman told me what TRPP was doing. I mean this is something totally different than just voting. Working at the polls puts you right in the middle of the process and enables you to learn more about it.

Had you thought about election administration–the nuts and bolts of carrying out an election–before you became an Officer of Election in Virginia?

TEREZA: We had talked about it a little in my government class in high school and at the time it seemed really abstract. They didn’t go into exactly how an election works. It was basically: “you go to a polling place, you vote, and then your votes go off somewhere where they determine the outcome of the race.” But they never really went into the little nuances, like setting up voting machines, which I never would have thought about had I not been there watching it all happen.

DAVID: Not particularly. I am, at a political level, involved in politics. By that I mean, I argue with my friends on Facebook about current events. I have thought about the relevance of the Electoral College, but that’s as close to ‘administrative’ as I’ve gotten.

GABRIELA: Yea. I always wondered how it worked out so well. Or why it is that some people seem to get it right and others can’t. Before I joined up with TRPP I had been looking for a way to get voters my age more involved. I was hoping to get something like that started before the next big election. But working as a poll worker during this last election got me to notice how little attention we pay to all the local stuff. Which, actually, is what really matters. I mean, sure the presidential stuff is important, but whoever becomes president isn’t going to affect you as much as the people controlling things in your community. That people don’t realize that is kind of sad.

When you first signed up, did you have any preconceptions about what it would be like to work the polls on election day?

TEREZA: The only thing that I really knew to expect was that there were going to be a lot of people working that were from an …uh… ‘older generation.’ But I didn’t really have any idea going into it, about what I was going to be doing, or whether it was going to be busy or not, or if it would be boring. I guess I was just kinda diving right in. But I really ended up enjoying myself, it was really fun. And it was really interesting, I learned a lot.

GABRIELA: I was thinking there would be a lot of scantrons, and alphabetizing, and we would get a lot of paper cuts, and there would be 150-year-old people working there. But, it turned out to be pretty awesome.

Before you were able to work you had to attend the training. How did that go?

TEREZA: Well I got there just before they started the training and they announced that because so many people showed up there were more people than they had spots to fill. When they said “not everyone is going to get a spot,” I think that may have been a bad thing; a lot of people in the back, where I was, stopped paying attention. I don’t know if they were actually picked to work, but they weren’t really paying attention to what they were supposed to be doing. Honestly though, I’m a ‘learn as you go’ type person, so while I thought the training was helpful because it clarified for me what I would be doing generally, when it came to actually doing specific tasks, it was the people at the polls that taught me.

DAVID: I remember them talking a lot about how the older poll workers weren’t accustomed to the computers; how they were accustomed to the paper poll books. It seemed like they spent a lot of time telling us that we were going to have to use our computer knowledge to assist. As far as the information they handed out in the training packets, it was mostly self-explanatory. It was good to know generally what was expected of us so that instead of walking into the precinct in the morning and saying “ok, now what?” we had a general idea of what was expected of us and what we could expect with respect to the older workers and technology.

GABRIELA: The training was only helpful for learning about the electronic pollbook software. Other than that we really didn’t need to know anything else. But I liked the training because it was kind of funny. The General Registrar was talking about how the training was going by so much faster because he didn’t have to teach everyone what a blinking cursor meant. He told us how you have to teach older people how to double-click: “it’s ‘clickclick’ not ‘click…[pause]…click.’” I thought he was exaggerating. He wasn’t.

Take us through what happened on election day.

TEREZA: I had to wake up at 3:30am in the morning because I had to give these two other girls a ride to their precincts; that was very early. But I ended up getting to by precinct on time, which was good because I tend to be late. So I get there at like 5:00am and meet the person in charge. His name was Oliver. He was really cool. He told us exactly what we needed to do. First we helped set everything up. Stuff like, taking all the locks off the machines. Then they paired me up with this old man. His name was Floyd. He was awesome. He hung out with me all day and taught me what I needed to know. By the time people started to roll in I pretty much knew what was going on. I watched the first few times to see how they would use the key card to activate the voting machines. Then I started doing it myself and we really got a system going. It was really streamlined.

The only problem was that it was a little slow; people were just trickling in. So one person would walk in and we would each do our little part to assist them and then we’d sit back down because no one else was in line. But then as soon as we’d all sit down another person would come in and we’d have to all get up again. That can get exhausting.

It was a pretty good turnout nonetheless. In the end, I think we had 700 people show up to vote. In my mind that’s pretty good; considering it was just a local election and there wasn’t really any hype about it like the big presidential elections.

DAVID: Well, it started way too early; there was nowhere to get any coffee! My morning was particularly rough because, being an avid Philadelphia Eagles fan I had stayed up to watch the Monday night game. First, I picked up another poll worker, Charles Dooley, and dropped him off at his precinct. It took a little while to find out where his precinct was since it was in the middle of a large development. When I got to my precinct a little after 5:00, everything was pretty much set up. We went over formal introductions and got a briefing on what the day was going to look like. I also spoke with the precinct chief, Evan Chesterman, about some of the numbers: how big the precinct was and expected turnout percentage. Then, only a couple of minutes after 6:00 people started coming in to vote. It wasn’t a big rush, the most people we ever had in line was 8:00 to 10:00, and that may have happened only once or twice. The precinct stayed busy enough that we didn’t spend a lot of time conversing. You were always either getting switched around to another post or assisting some of the older workers with the computer. That was one of the first things that I did. Still, we had a pretty good turnout. Evan told me that the precinct had around 1500 people. For the presidential elections they have around 60 to 70 percent turnout. At the end of the night, turnout for this election was something like 40%; just a tick over 600 people.

GABRIELA: So I woke up at 4:00am and was dreading my existence. I probably shouldn’t have stayed up the night before playing video games. But I did wake up. I caught my dad on the way out and he asked me what I was doing. I said “I’m going to be an election official dad!” and he responded “at 4 in the morning?” I got to the polls at about 5:05, five minutes late, and I was freaking out because I thought everyone there was going to be mad at me, or they weren’t going to let me work because I was this irresponsible college kid. So I felt pretty crummy about going in. And I got in there and everyone was so nice! It was great! And Tereza was there too. We had actually sat next to each other in the training. So it was serendipitous when we saw each other again at the polling place.

There wasn’t too much to set up really. I helped put the computers together. We got to choose what we wanted to do. I chose to go to the computers and stayed there most of the day. It was so much fun. Our precinct captain Oliver was awesome. He was very sarcastic. Which was fun. I’m glad he wasn’t all grumpy and “blah.” He was a very kind man.

We had a steady stream of people. I mean, we were dead a few times. You know. It wasn’t a huge rush but it wasn’t as slow as it could have been either. We would make little games out of it, competing for who could hand out more stickers and the like. I really thought that everyone would be so mean and grouchy and grumpy. But they were all so energetic. It was very infectious, really.

Then we had the potluck. One of the other election officials made the best barbeque ever! I brought some of my Halloween candy. Some of the older poll workers would come over saying “trick or treat,” asking for candy. They were very funny.

Finally we closed. I started taking down the computers really quickly and the elderly lady I was working with started freaking out because I wasn’t following the instructions. I had to slow down and explain each of the steps for her. It was stuff like “unplug the Ethernet cable from the modem.” We opened up the voting machines to count the votes and we got to see the write-ins. Hilarious! We had a whole bunch of write-ins for “me” and “Thomas Jefferson.” I think there were also votes for “Scooby Doo” and “Ronald McDonald.”

Could you describe what your duties were?

TEREZA: Well it kind of evolved over the day. At first I would take the tickets people got when they checked in and then I would walk them over to their booth, activate the machine, and give them any other help they needed. After that I would make sure that they actually cast their vote. Some of them would forget to press the big red ‘vote’ button. We’d have to run them down and tell them they had to finish or else their vote would get canceled. When they were done I gave them a sticker. As the day went on we created a more streamlined system. I would take the ticket. Floyd would walk them to their booth and activate the machine. And then this guy named Charles and lady named Kyota would give the people stickers and confer with them to make sure they had properly finished voting.

DAVID: I was rotated through a couple of positions. One of the first things I did was assist some of the older workers with the electronic poll book. I stepped in when one of the longest serving officers needed some assistance in learning the computer system: where to type things in, how to search for a name, etc. The training was spot on. But we were all on a little bit of the learning curve. In the training they told us what we should do is enter the first three letters of the first name and the first three letters of the second name. But sometimes, like when you enter ‘John Smith’, you might get like 15 results for ‘John Smith’ and in the general area you might have 4 or 5 just for that precinct. So what we stated doing after that was just typing in the address. Then we would have them repeat everything back and confirm the information. Going straight for the address ended up being the easiest way to find the right voter. She eventually asked me if I would like to take over so I did that for two to three hours. After that I went over to work the electronic voting machines. We didn’t have a greeter outside; it was a little too cold for that. The way the church we were in was set up you had to come inside, and then you had to come through another door. And that’s where we would greet people and offer to show them how the voting machines worked on our demo machine. Most of the people who went there had already voted in that location many times before, so they knew exactly where to go and what to do.

GABRIELA: We were allowed to move around. So we could either greet the voters at the door, or be the person who stood next to the machines. Those people would take the voters’ tickets and escort them to their machine and then give them stickers. Or, we could sit at the pollbooks and sign them in and give them their voter tickets. I did the pollbook/voter ticket thing. It basically went “Can I please see your ID?” “Can you please state your name and your address?” “Thank you very much. Here is your voter ticket.” That was it. Then they would take their ticket over to the machines. The person there would put the ticket into a box–it was just an old shoe box.

Did you have any interesting conversations with the people with whom you worked?

TEREZA: Oh yeah. That guy I was talking about earlier, Floyd, I think he said that he had been working the polls for some incredible amount of time. Something like 15 or 20 years. And so he would know everyone who would walk in and would lean over and tell me “I met him at my church” or “that’s my next door neighbor” or “I bought a boat from that guy!” It was fascinating to see how involved this guy was with his community. There were also these four other people working with me on the voting booths. When we were just sitting around, we talked about everything. I mean, we were there for 14 hours. It was a good group. They definitely helped me through it. I met a lot of interesting people. Lots of old guys with suspenders.

DAVID: The precinct stayed busy enough that we didn’t spend a lot of time conversing, but we had a few conversations throughout the day. I don’t think we ever really talked about how long they had worked the polls. We did have one conversation where we started talking about Kim Kardashian and then, after many segues and digressions, ended up talking about Occupy Wall Street. This was a whole group of us and the conversation kind of continued in fits and starts in between helping voters. When it was all over I kind of wondered out loud how we had gotten from one end to the other. I wish I had a transcript of the conversation to see how we managed that.

GABRIELA: Everyone there was so light hearted; always cracking jokes, too. It was much better than I expected it to be. Mr. Floyd, he was so funny! It was like being around my grandpa again. And Tereza was awesome of course. And Mrs. Caroline too. We all talked about everything. We talked about political things, about how kids our age should get involved and, uh, I was taught a lot of ‘life lessons.’ Like, I was sitting with Mrs. Caroline and this other elderly woman and they were having a lot of fun passing on all this wisdom they had accrued. Mrs. Caroline and I talked a lot about books. The other lady was talking about her experience as a poll worker; she has done this FOREVER. She was talking about how back in the day they had the paper poll books, and about which streets in the precinct voted the most. For instance, she remembered that last year, I forgot which road it was, but every single person that was eligible to vote on a certain road had voted. That was really interesting. And they knew everybody! This really amazed me. I mean everybody. I’d never seen anything like this in my life. They had this amazing little community where everybody was coming in saying “Hi Brenda,” “Hi Lauren, how are you? How are the kids? How’s your aunt?” and I was so surprised.

Did you encounter any issues while working?

TEREZA: There was this one guy, his name was Pickles. He actually ended up leaving without voting because the ballot didn’t indicate whether the candidates were Republicans or Democrats for certain offices. He got a little anxious and ended up saying “I can’t do this, I can’t do this” and just walked out.

DAVID: Like I said, some of the older people need help with the new electronic poll books. It was confusing even for the voters. I think maybe a third of the people who came in were looking around and asking “hey, I need to get in the ‘H’ line.” We joked around a little saying “well if you’re ‘A’ through ‘H’ go to this computer, and if you’re ‘R’ through ‘Z’ go to that one. If you’re anywhere in-between you don’t vote this year.” We didn’t actually tell anyone that. That’s some of the comic relief that made the day go by faster. That and coffee. As I recall, there were also a couple of people who needed to be redirected to another precinct; but those were few and far between. I would guess no more than 30 to 40 people, out of over 600, came into our precinct but needed to be in the precinct across the street instead. I do recall one particularly interesting situation, where we had a University of Richmond Student come in to vote. I guess the way the voting laws are set up you can maintain your home state address and vote where you are a student. He had a New York state license but said he was registered to vote in Virginia. I remember Evan had to call the registrar about that. I’m not quite sure what the outcome was. I think we concluded there was an individual precinct at U of R for out of state students to vote at.

GABRIELA: We did have some people who had to sign the voter affirmation because they didn’t have ID. And a lot of people who had their district changed on them. It was sort of annoying because they had gotten their new voter cards, but a lot of them hadn’t looked at it. We had another precinct not more than 5 minutes from us. A good number of people were supposed to go to precinct number 408 and we were 409. Some of them were really upset because they had been going to that precinct for so long. One person actually told us that she had moved to her current house so she could still vote in our precinct.

Like you said, this year was a slow year when it comes to elections. What do you imagine it would be like working when there is a big presidential race on the ballot?

TEREZA: We were actually talking about that with Floyd and Charles. They worked the election in 08’ and they said there were lines out the door with people really excited to vote. They were on their feet the whole day. That must have been crazy to experience.

DAVID: A couple of the poll workers did mention that things would get a lot busier during the primary coming up in March and then the presidential election in November. But we didn’t really go too much into it. I would imagine things would be a lot more stressful with so many more people coming in. Introducing the electronic pollbooks during an off year election was definitely a great idea. Had they been introduced for the primaries or the presidential I think it would have just been mayhem in all the polling places.

GABRIELA: I think it would be even more fun. That’s when voters actually feel excited, like they’re doing something. Not that voting this year wasn’t important but I think the energy will be so much greater. If we got this many people during an election that most people think is basically worthless, imagine how many people will come for something as big as the presidential. I definitely don’t think it would operate as smoothly as it did though. I’m not even going to hope, I know it wouldn’t. For instance, everyone was coming up to us and telling us their last name first which, with the electronic poll books, is kind of useless. But that’s what they were used to. Toward the end that started to irritate people. Of course it’s not their fault, but you have to repeat over and over again “I’m sorry but we’re not doing it that way this year. You can check in at ANY computer, we just need your ID.” It took a while for people to get what was going on with the new set up. That’s going to take up too much time during the presidential election. O yea.

Did the day feel long because it was slow or do you think it went by pretty easily because there was good conversation?

TEREZA: It definitely was moving slowly at points because nothing was going on. Don’t get me wrong it could have been a lot worse. But I preferred it when we were a little busy because it would take my mind of watching the clock. When nothing was going on it was like: look at the clock…4:20, then when you look at the clock again…4:22. Seriously, no matter how long you thought you were sitting, every time you looked it was never more 2 minutes later.

DAVID: Within an hour of us getting to the church the sexton came in and made coffee, so I was highly caffeinated the entire day. The day flew by for me.

GABRIELA: I think you just had to know what to do with the extra time. When things got really slow I would just read my book. But the people that were there; Mr. Oliver, Mr. Floyd, Mrs. Caroline, and Tereza definitely, they made it pretty awesome. Me and Tereza actually ended up seeing each other around VCU.

So would you be interested in working again next year during the Republican primary in March or the general election in November?

TEREZA: I did really enjoy this a lot, though my experience was marred by the fact that I got the flu the very next day after the election. The long day and the lack of sleep didn’t help. That said I wouldn’t mind giving it another try. I definitely think I would prefer to work next year’s election when it’s going to be really busy.

DAVID: Absolutely. At the end of the night I talked to Evan about working the Primary at that same precinct. I got his information and plan on contacting him next year to make sure I’m on the list.

GABRIELA: Are you kidding me? That would be awesome! It would be so exciting to see all of those people there so fired up to vote. Although, while my precinct was pretty great, I can’t help but wonder now how other precincts run things. So maybe I would like to change precincts.

So what was your overall impression of the poll worker experience?

TEREZA: I would say that while it might not be an experience that everyone would enjoy, it definitely shows you how the actual process works. And I really liked being a part of it because, sometimes you feel like a little cog in a big machine, but this made me feel like I was actually doing something that was going to have an effect on how this election works. It made me feel special. I had a lot of fun.

DAVID: When I first heard about it I thought it was going to be something like jury duty; where you take the day off and basically do nothing but sit around. But it turned out to be much more interesting. I got along with everyone there and it was a really enjoyable experience. Long, but enjoyable. I’m looking forward to working the primary in March and, if I’m around, next year’s presidential election. I like the idea of not only being involved in the political side of democracy but also being able to see how it works from the other end; the mechanics of the process.

GABRIELA: My personal experience was amazing. It was a break from my every day routine. I got to see this really great small community come together to vote for what they believe in, which is amazing to me. Maybe I’m just weird like that, but I’m really fascinated by the whole process. The program is good because if you can get a student like me to try this out for a day then more of them may really grow to love their electoral process, which supports all these freedoms that they have. Something they’re kind of throwing away because they don’t feel like waking up or driving 5 minutes down to their voting precinct. It’s a really great program, I just wish it was easier to get kids to do it. I’m not saying that it’s hard at all, but I was talking to Cortez Anderson, who signed up with you but didn’t end up working. And the reason he said he didn’t do it was because he forgot about your email and he didn’t have someone egging him on to do it over and over again. It’s sad that it takes that much to get a teenager to get involved, but if this program continues I think that you’ll be able to effect a lot of kids and make them realize “hey, you can do more.” I mean, teenagers are so opinionated. They have all of these opinions that they whine to you about and then they don’t do anything about them. If you can get them interested in the behind the scenes, and convince them that it’s really easy. You’ll have a whole new generation to help with the voting. This program is great and you should really try to keep on doing it.


Brooks Braun is a third-year law student at William & Mary.

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