Thursday, November 3, 2016

Election workers on front lines of keeping democracy working

Spoiled ballots. Zero tapes. Provisional ballots. Tally bags. Overvotes. Signature rosters.

That's just some of the terminology the county's 48 poll workers and five alternates have to know like the back of their hand on any Election Day.

It's certainly not the pay or glory that has enticed Sonia Guess to work the polls the last 43 years in one of two Frances precincts near her home.

"It can be thankless," said the 75-year-old, who will make next month's election her last. "But I just enjoy working and seeing the people."

She believes the fellowship shared between election officers and the voters is what motivates most people to sign up for the job.

For the men and women who work the county's 12 precincts, the day is not as easy as it may seem. It goes far beyond checking in voters and sending them on their way with an "I voted" sticker. In fact, in America, it may be the most critical job on any given Election Day, for these men and women are the front lines of seeing that democracy is carried out fairly.

The day begins before the sun comes up and ends well after it has sunk below the horizon. Each of the two Democrats and two Republicans at every precinct has a 12-hour day overseeing balloting, but they are asked to arrive an hour before the polls open at 6 a.m. And shutting down and delivering votes can easily take another hour beyond closing time at 6 p.m. ... if all goes as planned.

"Getting up early doesn't bother me," Guess said. "I get up early anyway."

But because this year's presidential election has been so contentious with tempers flaring between political opposites, it could be a difficult day at the polls.

"This is the one election that's going to test you," Ross Roberson, a territory manager with Lexington-based election services company Harp Enterprises, warned poll workers at their election school at the Marion Ed-Tech Center recently. "You're going to have a lot of stuff thrown out at you."

Poll workers in Crittenden County earn $120 on Election Day and $20 for attending last week's class. But when the last vote is delivered to the clerk's office on Tuesday night, they have earned only about $9 an hour.

That's chicken feed for the awesome responsibility and burden they shoulder. Near the middle of a 70-page election guide they are given to study is a list of felonies and misdemeanors with which poll workers can be charged. Their work down to the most minute detail is subject to scrutiny if fraud is suggested or a recount requested.

"Everything you do has to be turned over to the grand jury," Roberson told his students.

And in a presidential election like this year, the white-hot spotlight can extend far beyond the county's borders, as witnessed in 2000 when Florida balloting was taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Workers must follow every tedious, meticulous instruction to a T or risk making headlines.

That's why the third Tuesday in May and the Tuesday after the first Monday in November can be so stressful for County Clerk Carolyn Byford. As the county's top election official, she is ultimately responsible for the work of the precinct officers.

"I get here at 4:45 in the morning," Byford said from her courthouse office of her Election Day routine. "I get here because I know I'm gonna get calls."

Those calls are from the poll workers, who sometimes run into problems like machines not powering up or even catching fire as one did a few years ago. Or maybe they have simply missed one of the many, many steps of instructions for the day and gotten out of sync.

Guess says there is a lot to remember and very strict rules to carry out.

The overwhelming majority of Byford's poll workers are women like Guess – either housewives, retirees or those who can otherwise alter their normal work schedule for the day. But some go well out of their way to oversee the ultimate practice of democracy.

"I have one that takes a vacation day every year," Byford said.

The men who work Election Day are mostly retired. There are couples, too.

Each poll worker carries a title that day. There is a bi-partisan pair of judges and the remaining Democrat and Republican are either a sheriff or clerk.

During the course of the day, the sheriff is in charge of policing the grounds, seeing there is no electioneering or an array of other possible violations. As sheriff of her precinct, Guess has had to tell people to take their political discussions outside and was even forced to expel a belligerent voter who had been hitting the bottle a little too hard.

So if an election official seems like a fuddy-duddy by asking you to do something like put away your smartphone, it's not because they resent the younger generation or technology. Pictures recording the identity of voters is prohibited.

That, Byford said, is to prevent vote buying, where a voter could be paid cash if they prove they cast a lot for a specific candidate or party.

There are also rules for write-ins and ballots spoiled by incorrect marks. There are directions for dealing with overvotes where two candidates for the same race are selected and for voters who need assistance. There are instructions and documentations required for  every possible flub, faux pax and fowl up at an election precinct, and poll workers must get it right.

"When in doubt, fill it out," Roberson urged his students, referring to the forms that could prevent someone from being charged with a crime.

Being a poll worker can be a bit boring, too.

Guess said the busiest election she has worked was when Ronald Reagan was first elected President in 1980. But she has worked primaries with as few as 20 voters all day long.

"That makes it a long day," she said.

Despite all the rancor associated with this year's presidential election, Guess is not overly concerned about what might transpire at her precinct on Nov. 8.

"I think we'll have a good election," she said, adding that her fellow poll workers at Grace Baptist Church will probably be asking everyone to identify themselves with a photo ID.

"In the past, we've been able to identify most people as a personal acquaintance," she explained, but to be safe, "I think we will be asking for a license."

And because being fair and just is part of the oath poll workers take, that goes for family, too.