Monday, November 3, 2008

But where the President is never black, female or gay… or: On the eve of my debut as a pollworker

For four years, I’ve been thinking about what I could do to “make a difference” on Election Day 2008. The day that George W. Bush was declared the winner of the 2004 election was a very sad day for me. I had just one month before moved across the country to the “red state” of North Carolina, hadn’t really had a chance to make any friends in my new home, and was still several months away from being let in on the fact that my marriage was failing. Sure Kerry had run a lackluster campaign, was from the liberal homosexual-marrying state of Massachusetts and (worst of all!) looked “French.” But considering all my other life circumstances, his loss still came as quite a blow. I vowed that in 2008, I’d find my political-volunteerism niche, roll up my sleeves, and work hard for democracy.

So as soon as Barack Obama was the official nominee, I contacted the local campaign HQ to let them know that I would love to volunteer – phone calls, canvassing neighborhoods, delivering home cooked “Oba-meals” to the elderly (this was my idea which I couldn’t wait to pitch to them) – whatever they needed! Apparently the Obama campaign needed no additional help, as nobody ever got back with me. I was a little disheartened by this, but then I got an e-mail from Pollworkers For Democracy asking me to consider being a pollworker. I was immediately struck by the notion. Working the polls would allow me to get an insiders view of the process, work hard for my community, AND learn skills that apparently only old people know. If patriotism means anything, it is having the courage to learn the secret abilities of ancient election workers before they perish. Because when they die, they’ll be taking their secret knowledge with them, and leaving as their legacy the nomination of Betty White as president for life forever, the end. Plus being a pollworker meant I could make jokes about working at a strip club (Ha! Get it? It’s funny!).

Unlike the Obama campaign, the City of Ferndale responded to my request, and ultimately hired me as an election worker. Now, I say hired, because being an election worker is a paid position. I was informed via a letter notifying me of my appointment that: “Compensation for Election workers is $7.40 per hour.” In other words, the outcome of every election rests on the shoulders of (mostly very old) people making less than a Shift Manager at Taco Bell. God Bless America.

In addition to my hours spent at the polls on Election Day, I was also informed that I would need to attend a four-hour training session dubbed “Election School” prior to the big day. The importance of said session was explained thusly: “Because the training class is very important for the success of this election, if you do not attend Election School, you will not be able to work.” The letter went on to say that I would be paid $5.00 for attendance at Election School. Considering all the sessions were scheduled for 9am to 12pm or 1pm to 4pm, those willing and able to work the polls had to either be unemployed or stupid enough to miss half a day of work to make five dollars. (I hope I’m not the only one who feels uneasy about this situation.)

After notifying my boss that I would need to take half a day off, I started to wonder what Election School would be like. The cynic in me expected it to take place in a cafeteria-like room, led by a frazzled, overworked city employee, and populated by a sea of sexa, septa, and octogenarians in holiday themed sweaters, orthopedic walk-for-life footwear and the strained facial expression of somebody who can only hear every third word or so clearly. Also knitting. Somebody would be knitting. But on the other hand, I was just being stereotypical, right?

The day of Election School I walked into a cafeteria-like room at the local community center and was greeted by a frazzled city worker who was trying to get photocopied Election Day information into the hands of about 18 people. By the most conservative of estimates, at least 11 of those people were sexa, septa, or octogenarians – three of which had on Halloween themed sweaters (one was a vest), most wore orthopedic walk-for-life footwear and all wore the strained facial expression of somebody who can only hear every third word or so clearly. And yes, a lady was knitting. I never knew my inner cynic could be so eerily, prophetically correct.

As a newbie, I grabbed a seat, dutifully opened my notebook and poised my pencil to start taking notes. After all, I had never done this before and there was a lot of information to parse in the course of four hours! I must keep up and learn the Election Day secret powers! Not only will I need to learn the whole darn process, but what about challengers, protesters, new voting equipment, ID requirements… so much to learn! But I was ready. As I waited for something of substance to be stated so I could write it down, I started to read over the “Opening and Closing the Polls” checklist we had been handed. Automarks… stubbs… tabulators… PCMCIA card slot seals… so much new and totally confusing terminology! What in the hell does this all mean? How do old people understand these words and I don’t?

Over the course of our four hour training, I never got much in the way of definitions or explanations for these odd sounding whosits and whatsits. The one thing I did learn was (and I quote) “The automark will take ballots of any orientation, but bottom end first is best because the bottom is smooth.” (Democracy is kinky!) By listening closely to the woman leading the training, and subsequently to the questions and concerns voiced by the seasoned veterans amongst my group, I did learn some very valuable tips and got to better understand the priorities of the average election worker. For instance, we were told to “dress nice” and that we were “not to wear sandals.” Should an illiterate person be bold enough to attempt voting, “illiteracy counts as a disability, so that person would be allowed to bring their own help as long as said helper isn’t their employer or labor union leader.” Challengers were allowed into the polling place, but with stipulations – they can only challenge with “good reason, not all willy-nilly.” On several occasions, complicated questions were answered with some version of, “I don’t think we need to get into that,” or “That’ll just confuse the voters.”

The training ended with our facilitator saying, “I’m sure it’s all clear as mud at this point” and then asking if we had any final questions. Yes, I thought, I have several, but let’s start with, “Can we have an Election School do over please?” I decided this question wouldn’t go over too well with a woman who had already jokingly asked one of the more vocal Election School participants if she could “go ahead and teach the next session so I can have a three martini lunch.” So I remained silent. Two other hands shot up though – the first question coming from somebody concerned about how busy we’d be and if we’d “be allowed to have snacks at the table.” Apparently her only concern about the expected record voter turn out related to how many granola bars she should pack. Yes, she was told, you can have snacks – just be discrete. The second question came from one of the appointed Chairs. Surely this would be a worthwhile question that would give me a bit of needed insight before I headed out the door. “Since we’re using the voter name stickers this year instead of writing them in the voter log, will we still be using highlighters?” I didn’t even bother to wait around for the answer – after all, I needed to run to the grocery store to stock up on granola bars so I would be ready for Democracy-In-Action. Look out Election Day – here I come!


Elle said...

oh my fucking god, i could not stop laughing. and then i was crying, and then i was laughing again.

good luck tomorrow!!! :-)

Lori-Lu said...

Go get em tiger!

Anonymous said...

Shame on you for taking an old person's job. You're no better than an illegal Mexican immigrant.

D'Anne Witkowski said...

I'm pretty sure I saw you leave this morning wearing sandals. :) Stacy and I will see you at the polls soon! We expect preferential treatment (you'd better be ready to share your granola bars).

Mom said...

Your wit never ceases to amaze me.
Hope your day goes well and you don't get sore feet from wear sandals.

Seth Boulton said...

You don't know what you're doing getting involved with these people, Laura. This is some straight up Da Vinci Code BS with old people and voting and you will have to go on a long, boring journey with Tom Hanks to find the secret of where it all began in some temple in the basement of a volunteer fire department before it's all over with. And Tom Hanks will have weird hair...I'm just saying.

Laura said...

Thank you all for the feedback - I appreciate it - especially since only one of the comments is from my mom! I just got back from workin' a 15 hour shift at the polls (believe it!) and as soon as my brain starts to function again, will get to writing about that part of the experience. Hold on to your hats (or sandals)!

Mom said...

I am waiting with bated breath to read of how election day went for you. For me, the old folks at PKE had an amazing assembly line system set up that moved folks through the process with surprising speed and efficiency. It took me just under an hour to vote and that included leaving the house and getting home.

Love you--Mom

D'Anne Witkowski said...

Where's the next installment, already? Stop leaving us in suspense. Write it! Or are you too tired from wear sandals?

Laura said...

Why is my family pressuring me? I have written the title (oh yes!)and will work on the contents this weekend. Jeez.

Captian Desctruction said...

Demcrittcat here. cool post.

Blog Archive