Monday, May 14, 2007
6 AM to 8 PM at $6 an hour
What is it really like to work an election?
I thought I might clue my readers in on what working an election and promoting this democracy of ours is all about.
Every one except the presiding judge will get paid $6 an hour. The judge gets $7.50 an hour and also works more hours. In training classes on how to get more people to work the election, we are urged to emphasize civic duty as nobody is in it for the money. Getting away from this country club tea party fantasy everyone I have ever worked with would not do it if they were not paid. How much they need the money varies, but rather they are a retiree looking for a little supplement for a long but usually light if stressful day's work or they are a struggling minimum wage mother the money is important. This has become a more contentious issue recently with some required training being unpaid and no pay being allocated for an hour setting up the booths the day before. Not to worry, your workers aren't in it for the money say the country club election office leadership.
How to become an election judge? Most presiding judges are the party precinct chairs. The majority party of the precinct gets the presiding judgeship, the other party the alternate judgeship. You become a party precinct chair by contacting the party and running in an election in your precinct. You can also volunteer to be a presiding judge in a precinct with no party chair and if you have experience you might be appointed. Some people don't want to be the party precinct chair which does come with a loyalty oath that you won't support an opponent to a party candidate. You may also volunteer to serve as a judge in a precinct that needs one. The presiding judge really runs the election at that precinct and recruits workers and makes the decisions on election day. Many of the clerks working the election are friends and relatives of the judge. Ideally, the alternate judge is from the opposing party to act as insurance for a fair unbiased election in the precinct but that may not be the case depending on the strength of the party in the local area. This is a weakness of the system in areas where one party dominates.
How to work as a clerk or poll worker in an election? Get asked or volunteer. You can ask at a county party HQ or directly to the county clerk's office. If you know a precinct chair or precinct judge they will likely ask you.
Let me get specific for my May 12th election. The normal election judge was not available as she was going to be campaigning and educating voters on city charter amendments that day. She had already knocked on over 1,000 doors and registered more than a 100 new voters despite not being a party chair and despite working for the county in early voting outside of Pasadena. She asked someone in her precinct to be the judge and he said he was willing to be the alternative judge only and then she asked me knowing I had been an election judge in several precincts - an emergency judge. I am the alternate judge in my home precinct. For clerks she had one member of her regular crew picked, another person she worked early voting with, and someone she had registered to vote who she noticed was bright and accurate and had very legible hand writing in filling out her and her husband's voter registration cards. I added my 20-year-old nephew as another clerk. A couple days before the election I called and confirmed everyone and the older lady who normally works the election said her legs were bothering her and she had something else to do and would like to beg off unless I really needed her. I said we had it covered but I might call her in for a few hours if we ran into problems. So I have three clerks, two of whom speak Spanish and I will also assign as translators, an alternate judge and myself and a possible emergency clerk. This is about ideal for a small local election, having my "emergency clerk" actually working the election would have been ideal. Most election workers are older, we have two in their twenties and none over 65.
The day before the election I meet at the school with the alternative judge and the brand new clerk to set up the voting booths. This takes an hour and our election location will be unusual this time in having the college district having a board trustee election with two booths set up before the voters get to our six booths for the city and state election. The college and school districts use the same equipment but do not have Harris County handle their elections. My nephew could have joined us for set-up but he didn't get off work until we were done. Just as well, this is unpaid set-up for just over an hour. Booths and inside signs are set up and decisions about where to place the 100 foot distance markers made. (A 100-foot string should be part of election equipment but instead each judge decides what 100 feet is. This can vary greatly between precincts.) The normal election judge placed a sign directing voters to our location in the normal location for elections in this precinct. One big problem on voting on election day is you must vote in your precinct and the polling locations change often. Vote early when you can vote anywhere in the county. I had screwed up and not noticed I was working all night and had to make arrangements to get off at 6 AM. I marked the voters who had already voted in our poll list books while working.
Election Day. Since I didn't get off till 6 I show up right after 6:15 AM. We had done most of the work the day before so we were ready to go by 6:35 and I went ahead and turned the machines on. Might as well find out early if one of them is not working. I give the oath of office and the two translators oaths, have them sign the payroll sheets, explain about the early voting and mail-in ballot marks, and make sure the sign-in clerks know to write the right sub-precinct on the slip they give the voters. Over 90% of our precinct is in one council member's district but a few are in two others. If we mark the wrong sub-precinct they get the wrong ballot.
The clerks know to ask everyone "is this your correct address?" If someone comes in without their yellow voter certificate I make them swear or affirm that is their correct address and they are a qualified voter and they just do not have their certificate with them. They initial by their name and I sign that page. Having them give a sworn statement is relatively new. I typically say something like: "You may now go forth and vote and sin no more." The voters then proceed to get a code based on their sub-precinct to enable a booth for them.
Two people handle sign up and two people assign booths and I set up a table and chair at a location where I can make sure every voter hits the cast ballot button before leaving. Otherwise I am handling any problems, assisting voters, taking most of the affirmations they just don't have their card, etc. Generally the alternate judge or I assist voters or if someone comes in to assist we get their name and address and have them swear they are assisting and not telling them how to vote.
No Problems and Minor Problems: This is the first election I ran where no one forgot to hit cast ballot - one no problem. Only had one person who mistakenly hit cast ballot before they were done, also pretty good. There is no correction for that - they have voted. There is still no final warning screen that I would like that warns voters that if you hit cast ballot you are done voting. That big red cast ballot button is just too tempting for some people. Some people still are not used to the wheel to make selections but that is fading as they experience more elections. No questions about security of the machines this time, although the college election judge thought that a judge could cancel a vote after someone had cast a mistaken ballot using the code. NO, if you could it would be an extreme security breach as clerks and judges could alter votes after a voter had left. Our machines are very good as far as security. If someone wants to steal an election go to the vote counting software for the state and county where security is extremely weak and changing votes with no trace doesn't involve changing multiple sets of memory cards or adding hundreds or thousands of programs.
As always a fair number of people need to be directed to the right precinct. If they have their card it is easy otherwise I look on the maps of our precincts and ask which direction do they live from here. I didn't have to make one call to the county this time. The county called me to say a number of Pasadena precincts are having problems in that they are giving out the wrong sub-precincts. I explain I instructed everyone this morning about that and we had no problems. We are told by other voters of two people we could mark deceased on the books.
Three people in a group came in and said their candidate wasn't on the ballot. I cancelled two booths to make sure they were given the right sub-precinct. They were. Discovered they wanted to vote for their minister who was running on the other side of town. Sorry, you can only vote for the council member who represents your address. Of course, this occurs during our only busy time, right after noon. Discover a short time later they decided not to vote at all and their codes expire. Our machine count now overstates by five the number of real voters who cast ballots. A couple people have moved within their apartment complex or need a statement of residence.
Discretion of the judge. Some of the problems the judge more or less decides how to handle. How much leeway to give a sixty-year-old son assisting his 90-year-old mother. Yes, you can push the enter button she is pointing at. I agree, I think she means approve. Someone comes in and the list says she has already early voted. No, her husband grabbed the wrong voting certificate and early voting officials let Robert vote as Sharon, and signed the voting certificate and probably the poll list as Robert. She has both cards, his unsigned and hers signed with his name both at same address. I let her sign in her space but with an arrow pointing to Robert's space and add her on the voter list as Robert. She also gets a voter registration card to mail in to get a new voter certificate she can sign. She is also told this is all her husband's fault, and the unobservant Early Voting clerks. This was a judge decision as another judge could have decided this was a ruse by her to vote twice while her husband didn't vote. My other options were to pass the decision to someone else - either the clerk's office or via a provisional ballot.
During times we get busy one of the clerks forgets to write a few names on the voter list. They go through and add the missing names to the lists. Normally once or twice during election day we need to do this to balance the sign-in book lists with our written voter list and with the machine count.
New Voters: I can't find the new voter list, pretty sure it got left out of my packets. There is no marking on the sign-in list for new voters, they should have "Requires ID", but if you find a new voter you should add them to a list. Since we don't have a list I opt to ignore this. Only interesting in that because of a voter registration drive by Pat Van Houte our new voters are one middle-aged and one senior instead of the typical youngsters. According to the other election taking place right down the hall before us there was also a young lady who was a new voter but she didn't tell us. I believe all should have had Require ID on the sign-in lists but there was a glitch at the county clerk's office.
Fraud Prevention: The requiring an ID of new voters was a good fraud prevention measure, I think added in 2002. Now the GOP is trying to put in bad and illegal voter fraud prevention measures. In reality, the biggest place for vote fraud are by election officials at the county, state and precinct level and candidates and individuals using mail-in ballots which the new proposed voter-ID bills don't touch. The new voter-ID bills do put additional burdens on elderly, handicapped and minorities wanting to vote, which is the real GOP plan. One thing we do is if the voter hasn't signed their voting certificate we make them sign it. In the future if someone comes in to vote and we discover someone has already signed in and voted as them we can compare signatures when deciding to issue a provisional ballot.
Provisional ballots. Didn't have any. Technically I could have had the woman who Early Voting let her husband vote using her card as a provisional ballot but judges don't like them. It is a large amount of paperwork and in the end you are not sure if the vote will count. Better to make a decision now or let the County Clerk's office make a decision now then go to a maybe ballot which involves more paperwork. The times judges have to give out provisional ballots would be for people not on the voting roll or for people who are insisting on voting at your precinct who don't live there. Before the final results of the election are posted officials will look at the provisional ballots and throw out the ones in the wrong precinct and the one's who were not really registered. The others will generally count and can decide elections as Pasadena well knows. Mail-in ballots can also get reviewed for problems with signatures or other problems.
Cookies and beer. I bring cookies, pretzels, carrots, ice, cups, a 2-liter diet Dr. Pepper, and regular Dr. Pepper, a gallon of HEB tea and small bags of chocolate and powdered mini-donuts for my crew. In addition to supplying my clerks, I give cookies to kids coming in with their parents. I also give a few mini-donuts to voters but don't make a regular practice of it. Republicans will accuse me of offering inducements to voters in a Democratic precinct if I make a habit of this. The judges for the two elections debate if it would be a good or bad thing if elections were still held in saloons with candidates offering free beer. My nephew says that way he would feel that the candidate was actually doing something for him for voting. HEB needs to learn how to make better tea.
Breaks. Although everyone but me is only getting $6 an hour they do get breaks and may leave to get food or to vote or pick up things which I don't knock time off for. My alternate Judge has to go home for Advil and Claritin for severe sinus - toothache inducing. I also have bad sinus condition but not as bad, that day. My nephew is sent twice on gofer errands and then I cross-train him on sign-in. My nephew bored out of his mind the whole day finally asks to leave early at 5:30 PM to go to the Baytown dirt track races. We hadn't been too busy so I OK it and sign him out. One clerk goes to the Dairy Queen next door. I pick up some Long John Silver's and give a few shrimp away. The other 3-person College Board election team has some nice lemonade cookies and we do a bit of snack trading. Being in a regular city/state election location and positioned first should boost their turnout without hurting ours.
Free time: I read a hard science fiction book - Einstein's Bridge, the new girl reads a religious book Woman, Thou Art Loosed!, the experienced person from early voting works on sewing Christmas Tree ornaments, my nephew brought a computer and plays Prison Tycoon 2, my alternative judge suffers with his sinus. I suffer less.
Turnout We ended up with about 175 voters coming out on election day, a better turn out than I expected. In total a turnout of about 8% in the council district, more than half of those voted early . The council race was uncontested for 90% of our precinct so it was only the City Charter Amendments and the State Amendment that brought out people. Pasadena is known for low turnouts. As someone said to me that day, only elderly whites vote, and North Pasadena is too Hispanic to have many voters. I went to a victory party at another Pasadena Council race after the election and he easily won. His secret was a person contacting each voter over 65 and seeing if they needed a ride or a mail-in ballot and one homemade letter to all the over 65 voters. His opponent, a Latino minister, used his church and church resources as a base and sent several slick glossy Manlove printing mail-outs to all voters and only got 33%, 284 to 181, 10% of registered voters participating.
The End: No problems with closing and no last minute rush of voters. Got to the IBEW Hall to turn in the materials after 8 PM and then was told of a small victory party in Pasadena. Got home at 10 PM after being up over 25 hours. This was an ideal election with a slow but steady stream of voters and no real problems. Informed the regular judge that she had another sucker. The new person she found from voter registration was very good and is even crazy enough she wants to do it again.
Looks like I picked the wrong day to start blogging again. Sunday I meant to post any observations on the election, this post, but had sinus worse than toothache inducing. No real problems with the lack of sleep and long day, only thing bothering me was a worse and worse sinus condition. Finally after a few hours of pain 10+ on a 10-point scale the build-up perforated my right "good ear" and the pain went down. Much better now except for a leaking ear, which you probably didn't need to read about.
This has been updated for clarity.