Election Day from a Poll Worker’s Point-of-View

It was similar in some ways to my experience working for the 2010 U.S. Census. A large group of people of varying skills and abilities were thrown together for a very short time to perform a big, important, and complex job. Most of us were strangers to each other, we had to figure out on the fly who could do what and then just go.

I got there at 5am, and I was immediately told to set up the ballot scanner. This is a very serious task. To avoid fraud and mistakes there was a lot of breaking of seals, recording seal numbers, checking initial ballot counts, making sure there were no ballots already in the ballot box, etc.

No sooner was that done when I was told to sit at a desk and start checking registered voters and handing out ballots. I looked out and there was already a long line of impatient people who wanted to vote and get to work. I didn’t know what to do. I was trained, but that was a month ago and I didn’t remember a damn thing. It’s not rocket science, but I drew a complete blank. Within seconds I had a still growing line of polite but stressed-out people who were looking at me like, what is wrong with you?? Give me my freaking ballot!! But, but, there’s a procedure. If only I could remember what it was.

I don’t know how I pulled it together, but I did. I made a few mistakes, but nothing critical, and they were the kind I could easily fix in the first lull (thank you, Joe). I loved it. It was insane, but I loved it. And that was because people feel so passionate about voting. Many were anxious for one reason or another, and later angry, which I will explain, but they were there to do something they really wanted to do and I was helping them do it. It felt great.

Here’s why people got angry. Because so many people had been displaced due to Hurricane Sandy, Governor Cuomo said any registered voter could vote at any poll site. This was absolutely the right call. But each poll site has only the list of registered voters for that district. So people voting outside their district had to vote using a special ballot called an affidavit ballot. These ballots will be checked later, and, if the person is a registered voter, counted. The problem was, a lot people were just voting wherever it was the most convenient for them when they wanted to vote.

We ran out of affidavit ballots at around 7:30pm. At that point there was still time for people to run to their regular poll site or to look for another site that might have some affidavit ballots left. But as time went on it became too late for some people to reach their regular poll site where they wouldn’t need an affidavit ballot.

From around 8 to 9 we had a small group of determined voters who were angry at us, angry at Cuomo, and angry at the universe. I didn’t blame them at all, and most of them managed their anger well. However, one guy spent that hour getting everyone’s name, the names of every election official the poor coordinator at the site could remember, all so he could write congress. And say what? How dare you have a hurricane that knocked out the power for a half a million or more people, so that they had to vote outside their district and the polling sites didn’t have enough special ballots to accommodate them? Trucks with affidavit ballots were frantically trying to move through NYC traffic to I don’t know how many poll sites, but that effort was doomed (I think they got to our site at 11).

Still, it was an absolutely marvelous experience. One woman had a problem with her ballot and she came over and put it down in front of us in such a way that everyone could see who she voted for, and her vote was for Romney. She saw what she had done and said, “Oh I don’t care, you liberals …” and I wish I could remember what she said, because it was the kind of teasing I love, funny, true, but not unkind. The guy next to me didn’t miss a beat. He immediately started joking right back in the same vein about conservatives and it was a wonderful moment.

The only downside to the experience was we were isolated from the election. We weren’t allowed to talk about it the whole day because our conversations might influence voters.  We also weren’t allowed to have a radio to listen to the news. I didn’t know until after midnight how the election was going. When the polls closed, I knew Obama had won in our district, but knowing he would win in New York was no surprise.  How was he doing out there??

I found out in a particularly fun way. When I got out of the subway in the West Village people in the streets were screaming with joy. I knew my neighbors would only be screaming with joy about Obama.

Update: I totally forgot. I was assigned to a poll site in an area of the city that was still without heat. Not only did I work for nineteen hours straight, I was freezing cold for nineteen hours straight. The building wouldn’t let us bring in space heaters, so people took their ballots from my ice-cold shivering hands.

Whenever I went out to charge up my computer I brought a power strip with me. That’s my power strip sitting on top of my backpack at a Starbucks. I did this so other people could share whatever outlet I managed to find. I wish I had thought of this generous gesture myself, but I got the idea from my neighbor Beth, who clearly is a nicer person than I am!

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

8 thoughts on “Election Day from a Poll Worker’s Point-of-View

  1. I was on line to vote on Long Island and I lost patience after 15 seconds (having to stand behind a Long Island lady who was too busy yakking to respond IMMEDIATELY when she was called “Next!” — gets on my nerves) so I would have killed somebody if I had to work for 19 hours in the damn cold. I don’t know how you did it but you’re my hero.

    Yes, it was a great night…I was so fearful, in spite of Nate Silver. And I have a special love for the voters of Maine, Maryland, and Washington state. In spite of the Republicans, I do believe that we are evolving into better beings.

  2. Except there are plenty of moderate republicans who support same sex marriage, etc. And yeah, the cold was so not fun, but the work was so frantic and distracting I wasn’t always aware of it.

    Nora, yeah, me too. I get all teary about it too.

  3. I saw this in the local paper; If the electorate was just whites, Romney would have won in every state save for MA, NH, CT and Iowa.

  4. Interesting post. And good to know citizens WANT to vote, as I did. I live in Alabama, so my state’s electoral votes went to Romney. However, MY vote got counted for Obama in the popular vote — so I still say every vote counts!

  5. I had a very strange experience in my little
    town on the south shore of LI, NY. I had to park illegaly, because there weren’t any spaces, but fortunately, crowds came out as I entered, so booths were available.
    The person who helped me with my ballot at the computer box, didn’t speak English.
    When I was leaving, another horde arrived.
    I didn’t get a ticket.
    And yes, people want to vote & the popular vote Must count. It’s time to get rid of the electoral college, created as a compromise for slave owners.

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