One November when I didn't have anything else to do, I was lucky enough to get hired as an election day poll worker. I say "lucky" not because of anything special about the job -- it was not particularly easy and the pay was not very good -- but since I had been seriously and futilely looking for employment for more that a couple of weeks, finding something that would keep me busy and give me a few extra dollars to spend was like finding a glass of cool water in the desert.
The pay was one lump sum for the entire day -- something close to $70, as I recall. I had to be at the voting site well before dawn to help get everything set up on time. We had about an hour to transform the room from a community center into a polling station. There was some confusion and some consternation -- there were some supplies missing, and the high school student who had signed up to work as a volunteer had gone to some other location by mistake; she wouldn't be able to make it here until well after the voting had started. But we made do, and somehow managed to open on time and with everything in place.
We all sat behind two long tables on the opposite side of the room from where the people came in. The two poll workers closest to the door -- the supervisor and his assistant -- had spread out on the table in front of them huge, flat books listing the names and addresses of all the registered voters in the district. Some of the people who came in just told them who they were, but most brought little voter's handbooks with them that had their names and addresses on the front. In that case, a poll worker would ask to look at their booklet, and then try to match the name on the booklet with something in one of the big address books. When they found a match, they would cross out the entry in the big book and hand the booklet back to the person wanting to vote.
They went through a similar procedure when the person didn't have a handbook, but then it sometimes took longer -- they occasionally had to ask them to spell out their name, or describe the details of their address (for example, was there an apartment number; and was it a street or avenue, or something else). Either way, after they found the person's name in the book they sent them down to me, and I would give them their voting materials and direct them to a booth.
There was a special kind of pen I had to give to each voter; regular pens and pencils wouldn't work on the voting forms -- though they might leave a mark, the vote counting machines wouldn't be able to read it. There was also something called a "privacy screen" that I was supposed to hand to each voter before sending them to a booth. The privacy screen was kind of like a big folder that would fit over the voting form, so that nobody could see what was marked on it. Someone in an office somewhere had decided that it was a good idea for voters to have those to hide their forms in as they walked from the cardboard voting booths to the big box a few feet away where the forms were deposited.
For a while I was sitting closest to the ballot box, so I had to keep an eye on that in addition to explaining things to people and keeping track of the supplies. But that was only for a short time. Sometime during the first hour of voting our volunteer showed up. She sat in the empty chair next to me, on the end of the table closest to the voting, and began handing out little stickers that said "I voted" and talking to people as they came back from the voting booths. So I no longer had to pay much attention to what happened after the people went to the booths.
We were really busy at first, with the line occasionally extending out the door, but by mid-morning things had quieted down a lot, and we got to relax for a little while. My voice was getting tired from giving voting instructions so many times, so I tried not to speak any more than necessary. Fortunately I was sitting next to someone whose voice remained clear enough to say anything that needed to be said, and to converse with anyone who wanted to talk.
Most of the people were pleasant, and seemed appreciative of the job we were doing as poll workers. Some even thanked us for being there. However, I remember one notable exception. There was a well-dressed, middle-aged man who came in pushing a very thin woman in a wheelchair. The woman looked to be about the same age as the man, but she didn't seem to speak at all. While he was waiting in line, I could hear the man complaining loudly about "bureaucrats".
The woman was holding one of those little voter handbooks, and when she got to the front of the line our supervisor asked to see it. She started to give him the book, but the man with her grabbed it from her hand and said: "She doesn't have to give that to you!" Then he tore the little book in half.
The supervisor just looked at him and said: "We weren't going to keep the book, sir." He asked the woman her name and address, and found an entry for her in one of the big books.
When that guy made it over to me a few moments later, I gave him the marking pen and privacy shield, told him how to use them, and pointed him towards the voting booths. I was surprised that he didn't say much of anything to me, as he had been so vocal just a minute ago. Then I kind of forgot about him for a moment and waited for the next person in line to come my way. A couple of minutes later I heard him shouting that his ballot wouldn't fit in the box. I looked over and saw that he was trying to jam the privacy shield with the ballot inside it into the little slot on top of the ballot box, instead of just putting the ballot in the box by itself.
Our volunteer told him he had to take the ballot out of the folder first and then put it in the box. "Thank you;" he told her, "thank you for your intelligence."
The rest of the day after that seemed to go relatively smoothly. When it came time to close that evening, we had to take down the voting signs out front and put up one that said voting was closed. Then we had to wait for everyone who was already in line to vote. After that we locked the door and began taking things down and packing them up. A little while into that, the courier drove up out front, and someone unlocked the door and let him in so that he could pick up the ballot box. When everything was packed up and I finally got to go home, it was something like thirteen or fourteen hours since I had arrived that morning. It had been a long day, but probably more worthwhile than anything else I would've been doing otherwise.