I had been thinking about working at a polling place on Election Day ever since 2004, when Ohio was the crucial presidential battleground state -- and the red-hot center of controversy, with voters either turned away from the polls, or exercising their rights on machines that recorded their votes incorrectly, or not being able to get to the few machines at all.
Would this year be 2004 all over again, I wondered?
Then I saw a notice in our church bulletin: "Poll Workers Wanted." It said you could help your community and make money, too. It listed the pay: $95 plus training fees as a regular judge, $105 plus training fees as a presiding judge, or $115 plus training fees as a red bag judge. Figuring I could take a paid vacation day from my job while being paid to work a polling place -- and seeing the bill from my husband's student loans -- I decided I could use an extra hundred bucks, in addition to witnessing our democracy at work. Or not.
I speak with Rebecca at the county Board of Elections and tell her I want to be a presiding judge. This looks like the way to go -- it pays more than a regular judge, and doesn't sound as ominous as a "red bag judge." Rebecca sounds thrilled to have someone who wants to work for her.
A friend who has worked for the Board of Elections tells me that poll workers are not hard to recruit -- but presiding judges are. Presiding judges must stay at the polling location from the time it opens until it closes, and then transport all materials back to the Board of Elections, making for one very long day. During voting, they are also in charge of all the other poll workers, scheduling breaks and lunches, and calling the Board of Elections if there is a problem.
Rebecca explains none of this.
She asks whether I am over 18. I say yes. "A registered voter in this county?" Yep. "Ever done this before?" Uh, no. She assures me I'll receive training and takes down my address so she can make sure that I am, indeed, a registered voter and send me a request for an absentee ballot. As a booth official, I will not be able to actually vote on Election Day, since I will be busy while the polls are open, and I will not be assigned to work at the place where I usually vote.
Rebecca offers me a variety of dates for training. I choose one and show up at the county office at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday.
I am ushered into a classroom with a dozen other potential poll workers. Most of them, like me, are female, and most are African-American, between 20 and 35 years old. One older lady has her hair elaborately braided; one older gentleman desperately needs a bath. I sit on the opposite side of the room from him.
Pam is our leader this evening. She introduces James and Don, both of whom, she says, have worked as poll workers for a long time. She starts up a movie for us to watch, and explains that she'll be back when it's over to answer questions and show us how to set up our voting machines. The Diebold machines are packed up and sitting on the tables in front of us.
The movie, produced by the local Board of Elections, doesn't have the quality of your average YouTube video. The beginning music seems vaguely familiar -- and then I realize: It sounds like the soundtrack to a porn movie. As the director and deputy director of the Board of Elections are introduced, the music stops; they look like deer caught in headlights, their discomfort in being on camera painful to watch.
The film quickly moves on to the Top 10 rules of voting in Ohio, which became state law after the 2004 election. In the film, each rule is printed on a sheet of colored paper, amateurishly taped to a wall and filmed. I can't help thinking that this would have been more effective as a PowerPoint presentation -- something most high school students are adept at doing.
Among the rules are that voters must show identification, that voters on the absentee-voting list may vote provisionally, that "witnesses" are now to be called "observers," and that if there are any observers at the polling place, they have to stay 3 feet away from our table.
Then the movie switches into how-to mode. The first segment shows us how to set up the voting machines the night before the election. The Diebold TSX looks pretty complicated, and I'm starting to eye the machines on the tables before us with more than a little wariness.
Next, we learn how we are to help voters on Election Day. The first scenario the film lays out: what to do if we can't get into the polling place. The director and her deputy, along with Pam, our trainer, and another worker from the Board of Elections, all play poll workers in the film.
In the film, a woman comes to vote, and the poll workers ask her for her address. She mentions an address on Smith Road, and hands her identification to another worker. But then the deputy says: "So, Miss James, you live on Belmar Avenue?" And Miss James says that yes, indeed she does, and is allowed to vote.
Huh? Why was she allowed to vote after she initially provided the wrong address? Later, one of my classmates questions Pam about the error.
"Yeah, they screwed that up," Pam says dismissively.
As the polling place is readied, we're instructed, the workers begin getting the machines ready. They remove the seal from the memory card door on the machine, put in the memory card, and reseal the door. The seals are bright blue, and turn white when removed. The director of the board, still playing a poll worker, points out that she has put up signs directing voters to the precinct locator table.
In the film, a large African-American man is shown coming in, handing over his I.D. and voting. A few other voters come in: one whose address on her I.D. doesn't match the one in the signature book provided by the Board of Elections, and another who doesn't have identification or a Social Security number. They're followed by the same African-American man again. (We're not supposed to recognize him from earlier, because he's wearing a jacket this time. This isn't part of the training, an example of a wily Ohioan trying to vote twice -- the board just doesn't appear to have had enough volunteers for the film.)
The movie then details what we do to close the polls. There are so many procedures that it gets very confusing, and even the people in the video seem a little dazed by it all. There's a red bag, a green bag, a black grip about the size of a carry-on suitcase, a clear plastic box and a blue folder. Each has its own special contents. In fact, the red bag even has its own judge. I can't make heads or tails of what goes where, and am hoping it's all spelled out in the manual.
One of my classmates, who has done this before, leans over and tells me, "Be sure you don't put the blue folder in the grip. If you do, it'll be weeks before you get paid."
Finally, the film is over and Pam and her two helpers return. They show us how to set up the TSX machines, which isn't as hard as it looked in the film. The machines can be repositioned for disabled people, and there are a keypad and headphones for their use.
I ask James how these special adaptations work, but he assures me that I don't need to know that.
"But what if someone who's handicapped comes in and needs to know how to use it?" I ask.
"They'll know," he says. "They've all been trained on it."
I'm not sure how he can be sure that every handicapped person in our county has been trained to use these machines, but it doesn't seem to matter, because we're on to other things.
We insert the memory cards and the voter access cards, and are given a fake ballot to familiarize ourselves with voting on the touch screens. The first screen reads "Favorite Ohio President." They are all Republicans, with the exception of William Henry Harrison, a Whig. I write in my own name. After we've voted and played around with the machine a bit more, it's time to close up shop. I overhear a classmate express some concern to Pam that there is so much to learn.
Pam tells the young woman, "We hope you will all work together as a team. After all, if you know 25 percent, and Tom here knows 25 percent, and James knows 25 percent, and Don knows 25 percent, then that adds up to 100 percent!"
"Yes," the woman persists, "but what happens if we all know the same 25 percent?"
Pam says, "Let's hope that doesn't happen."
The man with the odor asks about observers and the media. Observers must stay back from the precinct table, Pam repeats, and the media may film inside but may not look over people's shoulders as they vote. He begins to get agitated and asks about granting interviews. Pam says that he should refer any members of the media with questions to the Board of Elections.
A woman in front of me looks at the man and whispers, "He must be a Republican."
Finally, the training -- two hours and 15 minutes of it -- is over. We are each handed a poll worker manual, a DVD copy of the training movie and a Dum Dum sucker.
Back at home, I look through the poll worker manual. The Top 10 list that was so important in the film isn't even listed in it.
I call Rebecca and ask if it is possible to attend another training session. She assures me that it is, but sounds a bit disappointed that I think I need more training.
I attend another session, again led by Pam and her cohorts James and Don. We watch the movie, set up and take down the voting machines, and have a long question-and-answer session. Many of the questions have to do with the difference between a red bag judge, a presiding judge, and a poll worker.
From what I can tell, the red bag judge handles the computer memory cards, the presiding judge is responsible for the grip, and everyone else pitches in where they're needed.
Pam affirms this. "When it comes down to the nitty-gritty," she says, "we all do the same thing."
I go home and fill out my absentee ballot, hoping that by Election Day, I'll have watched my copy of the DVD enough and gone over the manual enough times to know what I'm doing. After all, our democracy is at stake.
Next: Our poll worker will report back after Election Day to tell us how it went.