What is working at a polling place on election day actually like?
October 15, 2016 1:51 PM   Subscribe

I've been reading what seems like an increasing number of articles that discuss the threat of voter intimidation and I'm like, yikes! I also work at a university that takes election day as an academic holiday. I'm considering volunteering to be a precinct election officer, and I'd like to hear from people who have done it before to see if it's something I actually want to do.

I've already found the online materials relevant to volunteers in my state (Kentucky), and I realize experiences probably vary significantly depending on location, but I'd like more of an idea of what I'd actually be getting into. Specific things I'm curious about:

- They list a lot of duties for each kind of precinct officer. What did you actually spend your time doing? Were you busy for the entire time you were working?

- Did things get contentious at the polling place? What level of decorum can I expect from people coming in (or for that matter, from my fellow officers)? For context, I've only ever voted in a politically homogeneous New England suburb, and I now live in the downtown area of a city of ~300,000 that's had pretty close voting outcomes in the past two presidential elections.

- Do you feel like your work was valuable, that you had enough agency to make things fair & efficient? Do you feel like it was worth it? Or were you just doing unpleasant chores for the state for like thirteen hours?
posted by nvvd to Law & Government (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think most accounts of voter tension/threats are overstated, and sensationalized in the USA. I've yet to work a presidential election, but most of the strife I saw was 'the coffee's stale' 'Delilah is telling that story for the 14th time' 'Sir, I'm sorry but you can't park here/put that sign up inside the gates/ask that question inside the boundary lines- followed by a prompt "I'm sorry ma'am" and instant compliance.

If the election is important/contentious, there will be a steady stream of voters through the day. I suspect a presidential election will be quite busy. Voters were polite, shuffled through the line to get in, vote, and get on with their lives.

The main issue that came up was 'where am I actually registered to vote?' cause apparently my city has confusing rules about that. I've never worked in an particularly scary or angry locations. Most volunteers were elderly, and from a church of one kind or another. Education levels varied, from doctorates down to high school GED. I did see some cranky staff, but, working many hours in close proximity. *shrug* Nobody discussed politics when I was around... granted, my specific type of employment EXPRESSLY FORBID political discussions, and I think most of the staff knew that, but I also got the feeling most of them were there to work.

Really, from my small sample pool, everyone wanted things to go smoothly and for voting to happen. And they did, it voting happened.
posted by Jacen at 2:34 PM on October 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

In my experience doing this in Oakland and Baltimore, it was kind of a hot mess. No issues with voters themselves or people trying to interfere, but it's a very long day (6am-9pm if everything goes correctly, and sometimes it doesn't), a lot of fellow poll workers kinda didn't give a shit or didn't know what they should have been doing (like, we had 1-page laminated cards telling us what to do and I was the only one who read mine), and I didn't have much agency in terms of making things better other than reading my coworkers' job cards and trying to politely suggest that they do what was stated on them.
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:41 PM on October 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am an election judge! So far i have just judged one primary and two school board elections...nothing as exciting as the upcoming general election.

In my precinct (in MN) we divide up the tasks into 7 or 8 different ones, and my head judge was keen on is switching spots every hour or so so that we felt we could do any job of needed. The only one I was nervous about was registering new people. When I did that task, I had a buddy nearby in case I had any questions.

The most stressful parts of the day were the hour of setup (making sure the building was accessible, all the equipment was working, etc) and closing down with the official count.

Nothing got contentious, but it was just the school board and primary elections. I know that school board elections can get heated but ours was pretty mellow!

I love being an election judge. I think its a great way to support the democratic process, especially in this season where it's otherwise been a circus. My job is to keep things cool. My years of being a librarian at a large urban library have been great training...I'm not scared of anything.

Also: at 38, I'm the youngest judge by, like, 25 years. Everyone else has been doing it for decades and know what they are doing. ..and they take it very seriously. Super friendly and welcoming and encouraging. We all bring crock pots and bars and share treats throughout the day.
posted by Elly Vortex at 3:31 PM on October 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was a "supervising judge" in Kansas for our most recent primary and am gearing up to do the same for the general. My experience closely mirrored Elly Vortex's (plus I'm also a younger librarian). We were the first to use this polling site and got a lot of complaints about the location, which was frustrating, but generally everyone was pleasant. There was a steady trickle of people throughout the day, but it was slow enough that everyone had a chance to take a break. We were all beat by the end of the day. It was my first time as a poll worker, so I was really stressed about getting everything right since I was in charge. I really enjoyed the experience and felt like I was making a difference. Next time, though, I'm taking two days off so I can rest and de-stress the day after.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 3:59 PM on October 15, 2016

I have done this thing! I also used to write about elections so I spent several election days wandering around from polling place to polling place asking poll workers how things were going. I think it's really great that you're considering doing this. I think it's something that everyone should do. Poll workers make democracy work and I have a lot of respect for them.

I'll try to answer this from my time as a poll worker. In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit that I did not love my experience. I happened to be working for a jerk (more below) which is unfortunate and it happens. But I have been to a lot of polling places and met some truly lovely poll workers. It was not unusual for them to offer me cookies (!!!). The stereotypes are not untrue that they skew older and female but in my professional experience, that meant they were pretty warm and happy to see a young person with an interest in their work. I went to a polling place in NYC where the poll worker literally told me about her colleagues, "We are like a family. We all love each other." Some of them serve as poll workers election after election in the same precinct and will basically have potluck meals on election day. That was not my experience as a poll worker but it was something I saw repeatedly as a person writing about elections.

When I was a poll worker, I spent most of my time checking in voters. The process for this varies but in DC where I live, voter ID is not required to vote and the poll workers sometimes make a big deal about this (when I vote, I have been told not to show ID but I hand it to them so they can see how my name is spelled). I asked people how they wanted to vote (paper or electronic ballot). I actually got to help a voter with disabilities cast a ballot. That made me a little nervous because I didn't want to give the appearance that I was influencing his vote in any way but he just wanted to vote and was less concerned with my hang-ups. Also, I didn't realize that as a poll worker, I was expected to help with set-up the day before and I had to stay the night of the election until our vote totals were picked up by the board of elections so it was a long day.

I also answered questions about things like provisional ballots which are admittedly complicated. Provisional ballots are kind of a mixed blessing. Again, this depends on your area but in general, anyone can cast a provisional ballot. It's supposed to be a last-resort type of thing if poll workers can't find your name in the registration but you think you are registered. However, I think that people get the wrong idea about them. In some places, if you vote provisionally in the wrong precinct, your ballot doesn't count. If you know that you're not registered and you cast a provisional ballot, it won't count. So it was and is a pet peeve of mine when people would show up and ask for a provisional ballot when it wouldn't count. It's their right but I couldn't tell whether they were confused or just didn't care that their votes wouldn't count.

I was a poll worker during the 2008 primary which was busy. That said, poll workers are busy at the times when people vote which are mostly times when people are generally free - early morning before work, lunch hour and after work. There was a line outside the door before the polls opened. It was dead at 10:00 a.m. It was busy again late afternoon/early evening until the polls closed. FYI - if you're in line before the polls close, you are allowed to cast a ballot. When I wrote about elections, I was at the polling place closest to Virginia Tech when the polls closed. It was crazy. There were easily 200 people in line to vote when the polls closed. I wouldn't be surprised if something like that happened at polling places this year (though I don't know about yours specifically).

Regarding your question about things getting contentious - remember how I mentioned that I worked with a jerk? The person who was in charge of our polling place overslept on election day. It was an icy February day and maybe 10 minutes before the polls opened, I called him and he said he was in a cab on his way. There were maybe 20 people standing outside in line to vote and since it was cold, they were getting a little cranky. I told them, I'm sorry, I can't do anything until this guy gets here, he has the keys and all of the things we need to get started. People got a little jumpy (!!DISENFRANCHISEMENT!!) and when I was writing about elections, I would absolutely write about polling places not opening on time. It's a big deal if people plan to vote before they go to work and have to leave before voting because the poll workers don't have their act together - that could be the difference between that person voting and not voting. But I think the fact that I was honest with people made it better. They sarcastically cheered a little when the guy I was working with showed up and we got started pretty quickly.

The other things that can happen in a polling place are that people might wear t-shirts or buttons for their preferred candidates. In general, that's considered electioneering and can be problematic. There are rules about how close to a polling place you can campaign so you can't be perceived to be attempting to influence people's votes. Once in a while, I'd walk around the voting booths and make sure that there wasn't campaign literature left behind. It wasn't a malicious thing though. Also, as a campaign volunteer a long time ago, I could actually get a list of people who had cast ballots from the precincts throughout the day. Those were helpful on campaigns because then I knew who I still needed to call to make sure they vote. I never dealt with voter challenges or anything like that fortunately but there are very specific rules about who can and cannot challenge a voter (in fact, who can and cannot be in the polling place on election day).

I think voting is super important so yes, I absolutely thought my work was valuable. That doesn't mean it was fun or exciting or sexy but totally important. Helping people vote was rewarding. I also felt like I was a part of something bigger. So while it was a long day and a lot of work, I thought it was absolutely worth it and I hope you do too.
posted by kat518 at 3:59 PM on October 15, 2016

I volunteered for the Democratic party on election day in 2008, so I was staffing a table outside of the building (since we were partisan, we had to be a certain number of feet away). Probably the most useful thing I did was helping people who didn't know where they were supposed to vote - we had a number to call to get them the information. We also had a list of judges that the Democratic party supported, which some people wanted - and one of the judges up for reelection was pretty blatantly racist - he ended not being reelected - so I think we did some good there as well. One man thought it was hilarious to tell me they tried to stop him from voting, though he admitted it was a joke pretty quickly. One of the men working there told me that at a previous election people had been told they couldn't bring their lists of who to vote for into the voting booth - so he definitely did some good by being there that time, since that was in violation of the law (he was also a lawyer - I think that lawyers have a better chance of being useful in this situation). There were reports of attempted voter intimidation by an anti-immigration group at other polling places in the same city, specifically taking pictures of voters, but I did not see it where I was.

The thing is, there's no way to know in advance if you're going to do some good by being there. But if I were not undergoing chemo right now, I would definitely volunteer again this year, especially as Trump is claiming that certain communities are going to try to steal the election.
posted by FencingGal at 4:00 PM on October 15, 2016

You should check with your jurisdiction to make sure they still need people. There's been such an overwhelming response this year many jurisdictions are turning away good folk.

This shouldn't dissuade you from serving in future elections, when it's much more difficult to find qualified people. Every election is important.

Your commitment begins long before election day. You will need to schedule and go to training. In my jurisdiction you need to be approved by your political party, but this is different for every location. We just happen to be under the political parties' thumb in my area. You may not be assigned to the precinct of your choice, so you will have to vote absentee or whatever the equivalent is in your state.

If you are assigned as chief (or precinct captain, or chief judge - titles vary) there is more training involved. Also, you need to prep the precinct location, confer with facilities administrators, and reach out to all of your election officers on your roster pre-election to confirm their assignments and participation.

On the day of the election, depending on what time your polls open, you usually need to be at the location an hour ahead of the polls opening. For my jurisdiction this is 5 a.m.

For presidential elections you will have very little interaction with your Chief or Assistant Chief. They will be extremely busy dealing with voter and voting issues, as well as poll watchers, outside observers, the registrar....

Some of your duties as an officer may involve crowd control, greeting people and directing lines , pointing out sample ballots and other materials, checking in voters on the poll book, (which may be paper or electronic), directing voters to the voting booths, and being available to offer assistance when needed.

Someone needs to stand discreetly by the tabulating equipment to make sure there are no issues. ( Here we vote on paper ballots which the voter feeds into the scanner themselves. Officers are standing by in case of a problem.)

Often there are forms voters needs to complete, such as an assistance form or change of address etc.

If you are bilingual this could prove very helpful to your precinct. Make sure you bring it up when you apply.

In my jurisdiction once you are sworn in you cannot leave and come back. This means you need to bring everything you would want for the day with you. Drinks, snacks, meals, medications, change of shoes, literally anything you could think that you would need during the day. (I used to tell people that they could count on family members to bring them something when they came to vote, but you'd be surprised how often family members wouldn't turn up to vote leaving the officer hungry and cranky.)

At the end of the day while the chief and assistant chief are responsible for tabulating the votes and calling in the results, you will be very busy dismantling the precinct and packing all the materials away. In my experience, for presidential election, getting out before 10 p.m. would be miraculous. We have new equipment this year that hopefully will keep us on track with better closings, but I would never tell somebody that they could expect to leave before 10 p.m.

Again, depending on your location, as a chief you may be responsible for bringing the ballots and other voting materials to your government center at the end of the night. This could bump your night into the midnight range or, in my experience, much later.

In 2012 the last chief to come rolling up with their materials was at 2:45 a.m.

I apologize if this isn't a very coherent answer. My brain's a bit fried from thinking about this stuff for 2 years straight but if you have any other questions or need clarification please feel free to reach out.
posted by ezust at 4:01 PM on October 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Side note: having worked in various capacities in and around polling places during many elections, I should mention that *in general* people are actually pretty cheerful when it's time to vote. When I was in Blacksburg standing outside a polling place, I met a local government official who invited me to her house to watch the results come in. Seriously, she emailed me later and said I could come over. Things got a little heated at the polling place with the really long line on election night but still, I thought it was an incredible sight to see. Sure, there was a crazy long line because two polling places had gotten smooshed together in a way that arguably was not appropriate but still, there were all of those people there because they cared about democracy and their country and thought it was important. I'm a sap but I think that's kind of beautiful. Despite all of the cynicism about how your vote doesn't count and this thing is rigged anyway, everyone who is there is taking time out of their day because they think voting is important.

Also, if you live in a place where there's early voting, they may need your help sooner than later. I hope you'll do it!
posted by kat518 at 4:07 PM on October 15, 2016

Absolutely exhausting, but very educational.

I've only ever volunteered in Ohio, but I've also accompanied my dad to a bunch of California elections. Observations:
  • My day started at 5am and ended at 10pm, which is incredibly awful. In I think 2008, my mom was a chief judge so we had to actually pick up the voting machines the night before and then set them up at the polling place before anyone else got there, which meant we left the house at 3am and got home long after midnight, after having been out past 9pm the previous day.
  • Almost everyone was either in the "I've never done this before and I am 17 and I am extremely enthusiastic but I have no idea what I'm doing please let me just point people where to go" camp or the "I've been doing this since your grandpa was in diapers and yet somehow I still can't find things in a book that is literally printed in alphabetical order" camp. You kind of need to have the capacity to be Zen about other people not being very good at this.
  • Every single election year the equipment or rules change, and as a result most conflict is due to people disagreeing about how things are actually done and by 5pm the county elections board people are kind of suicidal and stop answering their phones. Or the phone batteries are all dead, which is why you should have everyone put the election board landline number on their personal phones and also bring extra chargers. There have been two times where we actually sent someone out in a car to physically find an elections board official, which I find outrageous.
  • There is always someone who definitely isn't in the book, usually because they changed their address or failed to do so, who makes a royal stink about having to vote a provisional ballot. There is nothing you can do except follow the rules, which for me was very stressful because I hate conflict and have always been a big fan of giving angry customers a free desert or a 10% off coupon or something.
  • Every single year there's at least an hour where nothing happens and people want to go to lunch even though it's not when they're supposed to, or where you find yourself desperate for anything to do and there's just nothing, and it's just miserable.
  • There's also usually a three-hour period where no one can leave the desk because it's too busy, and you're starving and desperately need to pee and there's no hope; this always happens after the dead period.
  • I've never worked an election where everyone who said they'd work would show up, which is weird because they pay like $100 a day. This is the main reason why you end up being starving and desperate for the bathroom - there's no way to call in additional troops. Smart elections boards recruit floaters, but I've never seen that happen in person in a way that resulted in floaters being available.
  • The only people who've ever really caused a fuss have been paid exit-polling types, plus the people who are extremely upset about casting a provisional ballot. I've never felt unsafe except with the provisional ballot people; the exit-polling people were just sort of stupid about staying out of the way. There have been observers (usually from PACs, not the campaigns themselves,) but they've always been extremely well-informed about where they could stand, how they aren't allowed to bother people in line, etc. The ACLU and other people who do that kind of thing seem to be really good about training their folks.
  • The only really sketchy thing that's ever happened was when we hosted those stupid voting machines in our house overnight. Which we checked like five times to be sure it was legal, and still kind of bothers me to be honest. I don't know if they still do that.
  • One thing I was sure would happen but never has: people wearing partisan shirts/buttons and refusing to cover them up while inside the polling place.
  • I have never been in a situation where a judge has ordered a polling place to stay open late, but I have had to stay open for a long line of people - they are generally pretty understanding about this, as they typically waited until after work and sort of suspected that wasn't going to work out very well. If I worked in an urban area, I would be expecting at least one organization to have sent someone specifically to watch what happens at the closing point, because that came up a bunch at the primaries earlier this year and in the most-recent general election.
  • By the end of the process you will wish that we used paper ballots and purple dye on fingers. You will also be astonished by the poor quality of the ID-scanning machines that they are trying to replace the books with, especially if you have people who've moved or who don't have a regular driver's license. Elections boards are just really bad at IT stuff, in my experience. You have to remember that they mostly do nothing for 363 days out of the year, and virtually everyone is a part-time employee who doesn't know their supervisor or have any external incentive like avoiding getting fired.

posted by SMPA at 7:54 PM on October 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh, and if you're lucky, you'll be working in a church or some other place where people make you treats and bring the workers coffee and stuff. That's the worst part for the town I live in now: almost everyone votes at the county fairgrounds, so no one has that sense of needing to be hospitable. Also, as far as I can tell that building isn't even heated.

Basically, you should be ready to provide yourself snacks, and dress in layers.
posted by SMPA at 8:03 PM on October 15, 2016

I've been a poll worker three times and site inspector once in California. I'm kind of sad that WA is pretty much all mail-in or else I'd volunteer again!

I got into for similar reasons as you: wanting to make sure everyone who could vote DID. That bring said, my experience was in suburban neighborhoods in Orange County and San Diego, so my experiences tended towards fighting off boredom instead of disenfranchisment.

As a poll worker, we started out with assigned roles: street index clerk, signature clerk, e-booth clerk that handed out codes for the electronic booths, and sometimes a floater to hand out stickers and help out where ever. We usually rotated through these roles throughout the day.

Fellow poll workers were usually high school students who sent millions of Snapchats during downtime, retirees, and/or stay at home parents.

Upsides: doing your best to ensure the voting process went as smoothly as possible, meeting first time voters who were often new citizens and hearing their stories, seeing neighbors come together and reconnect in someone's cramped garage.

Downsides: explaining to people that they were in the wrong precinct or wrong county to vote (in the case of one guy from LA), an insane amount of married women who had to vote provisionally because the Registrar didn't process the name change, and boredom. The last hour is mildly stressful in breaking down machines and reconciling votes cast, counting ballots, etc.

If they still need your help, go for it! Especially if you speak another language. That's a HUGE need at the polls.
posted by book 'em dano at 10:26 AM on October 16, 2016

I've worked every MI election since 2004 bar one, so I guess I'd be considered experienced. I work in a rural-ish precinct with 1800 registered voters, and hardly any opportunity for intimidation.

It's almost certainly too late to get trained for this election, much less work it, but check with your local clerk/election committee -- they may still need help. And if they don't need it now, there's another election in two years, and probably one next year.

Working an election, especially if you are there for the full day, is exhausting. You will be there for at least 15 hours, if you can close the polls on time (everyone in line at 8pm local time gets to vote) and all the numbers (registered voters through the door-ballots issued-votes cast) match. If all the numbers match, it takes about 90 minutes to close the election -- securing all ballots & the poll books, putting the correct records in the correct envelopes, and submitting results electronically (the clerk and chair get to take the paper records to the county clerk after the site is closed). You have to be precise and accurate, and polite to voters and co-workers.

I've done every job, from greeting voters to checking them against the list of registered voters to handing out ballots to help desk to writing names in the poll book to being site chair. Everyone can do almost all of the jobs (there is some computer work which not everyone does). We have an established pool of workers, mostly retirees or stay-at-home parents (they are usually the ones who have time, although we've been getting more work-from-home people), from which the clerk pulls however many she needs. Less-than-competent workers, or those who don't work well with others, usually do not return for a second election. We have potluck meals, because most of us will be there all day -- the clerk will schedule people part of the day if asked.

The hardest part is dealing with the (very few) voters who are determined to make a stink about something, anything (we had one who bitched at length about some issue not being on his ballot -- because it was for two precincts over!). And managing voter flow, but that's because we're working in an undersized venue with no really good way to do it. We have to use this space because it's the only one in the precinct other than the rod-and-gun club down about four miles of unmarked dirt roads.
posted by jlkr at 5:16 PM on October 16, 2016

I worked elections from the 2006 primary through the 2015 consolidated election in Illinois. Every jurisdiction has different equipment and a different process, so my experiences may not predict what you would encounter in Kentucky.

Training is a must; in my area, training classes are held up through a month or so before the election so it may be too late for you to get started for this election. But you could be a pollwatcher for your local party, instead.

Working as an election judge is a very long day. In Illinois, I showed up at the polling place at 5am and was usually home by 8pm. The voters are generally very gracious and appreciative; I don't recall ever having a truly difficult voter show up. Candidates are a different story, though. You would think that everyone, especially people running for office, would fully understand the rules about electioneering but apparently not. It was fun calling the sheriff's office on a candidate who refused to stop introducing himself to voters at the check-in table!

In Illinois, pollwatchers must check in with the election officials and follow very strict rules while in the polling place. IME that has been sufficient to preclude any voter intimidation. In fact, I've rarely had any pollwatchers in the voting site although I expect that will be far different for November's election.

The actual work in support of the election process is very precise and detailed. Everything must be perfect. Spoiled ballots (i.e., when a voter makes a mistake) must be scrupulously accounted for, procedures are intentionally redundant, and so forth. Because everything you do is carefully prescribed, with forms and checklists governing each procedure, the work is repetitious and a little boring. For some elections, there's quite a bit of downtime available to read, chat, or whatever. In the 2012 general election, though, I was able to sit down a total of five minutes over the course of 15 hours on-site.

While I've now turned my attention to other aspects of politics, I found being an election judge to be very rewarding. It's an opportunity to fully understand and support how people get elected.
posted by DrGail at 5:34 PM on October 16, 2016

I was an election judge for the 2016 primary and 2016 general election in Chicago.

Best case, we have 5 election judges, and 1 election coordinator at each polling place. Our election judges do things like
* hand out a form to get basic ID information, address, year of birth, signature
* receive those forms back from voters, and verify they are registered to vote, and there's no issues with them voting (they're at the right location, they haven't already voted).
* hand out the relevent ballots to the voter
* program the touch screen voter ballot if they prefer that over the paper ballot
* help the voters turn in their paper ballots to the counting machine, and help them determine if they want to fix any issues the machine identifies (overvotes, undervotes)
* In Illinois we have same day voter registration, so an election judge, or the coordinator will man a station asking for the correct ID to register a voter, or update a voter's registration.

The Election Coordinator goes through slightly more training on the electronics in the precinct, and does a first pass troubleshooting on anything that's going wrong.

Voters trickle in during the midday, so we weren't busy all the time. However, on the occasion where a voter needs help voting (due to visual impairment or the like) 2 judges, a republican and democratic judge, must help, and that puts a strain on the rest of them if it's busy.

There was very little contention at my polling place, mostly about electioneering. Technically you can't have buttons or tshirts, or pamphlets out while you're waiting, and their was some disagreement about enforcement of that. However, this mostly just confused the voters since the pamphlets were given to them legally outside the polling place and they just hadn't gotten rid of them yet. I also got in a small argument with someone who had been passing out election materials talking with a friend 10 feet from where it's ok to be passing out the materials, but again, it wasn't a big deal.

I enjoy it, and it's definitely valuable to be ready to help people vote, and help the gears of democracy turn. It's a very long day though, from 5am to 10pm (with setup and closing) and can be hard on a person. Election judges have quite a bit of agency in making the polling place run as smoothly as possible, and can call for backup if they need it, but other than some questions about procedure, I've never needed to call.
posted by garlic at 4:29 PM on November 14, 2016

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