Friday, November 06, 2020

Election day as a poll worker


I spent election day as a St Louis County poll worker, in a mostly white working-class district of what people call “South County.” There are many aspects of this election that depress me, but the kindness and civility of everyone involved gives me hope.

Because of the pandemic, I was not initially eager to serve (I’m close the age category considered at high risk but don’t have any other medical issues), but when Trump called for 50,000 poll watchers, I felt the need to respond. 

In the US, only poll officials are allowed to stay in the voting area, so Trump’s call seemed ridiculous, but since there was a shortage of poll workers this year (which led to the number of county polling places being reduced from almost 400 to about 230), I decided to volunteer. I say “volunteer,” but I should note that I will get paid $225 for my work. But no one in my polling place did it for the money. We were seven election officials who worked in three bipartisan teams of two (with one extra Democrat rotating in other positions as people rested) and four nonpartisan “safety coordinators” helping with lines and disinfecting.

Polling place before opening
The day was very long; I had to report at the polling place, which was an elementary school gym, at 5:00 am, and the polls opened at 6:00 am. We were there until 7:00 pm. We were supposed to have an hour lunch-break, but that was impossible; it would have put too much of a burden on the colleagues left to work. I took a 30 minute lunch break in my car, and that was the only time I was seated all day.

My job was “Safety Coordinator II,” which meant that I was responsible for wiping down the voting areas after each voter left. I did that for 13 hours. It was exhausting. We were given only two containers of 300 wipes, so we had to use the wipes on multiple voting areas before getting a new one. The containers claimed the wipes “kill 99.9% of bacteria” but did not say anything about viruses, nor did it say it had over 70% alcohol. The ingredients did list many types of alcohol, but it also listed “aqua,” which is just a fancy (Italian) word for “water,” so I’m not so sure that all our wiping was more than theatre.

I was not told what to wipe, so I decided to wipe the desk surface and the parts of the chair that people likely touched, especially the top of the backrest and front of the seat. The other Safety Coordinator II was a young woman, and she wiped seats, but I stopped doing that when I realized it took too much of the wipe’s moisture. Many people seemed reassured that we wiped the voting area and thanked us for doing it. But a small number of people refused to sit down; some just leaned over the table and filled out their ballot, and one woman just stood next to a table we had set up as extra voting space. When I said to her “You can sit at that table,” she replied angrily, “I’m not sitting down! No one should be sitting down.” I’m not quite sure what their theory of infection was, but I assumed people’s clothes and underwear served as masks of sorts that would prevent any virus from infecting them from below.

One awkward detail I learned is that some people sweat when they sit, and leave a wet mark on metal chairs. This is especially common with heavier people, but not the heaviest people.

I wore a surgical mask all day (and changed mask at my lunch break), and wore nitrile gloves all day as well. The gloves were bright orange, which was convenient because they helped me motion to voters to help them find empty seats. But I do wonder if, as I leaned over to wipe the seats and the desks, did I inhale virus being spread by an asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic Covid-19 patient? I guess I’ll know within 14 days.

Poster on face covering
Everyone was required to wear a mask in line and in the voting area. It was the job of “Safety Coordinator I” (not me) to make sure everyone wore a mask and stayed 6 ft apart in line. They also handed out the pens to voters. The pens had a stylus at one end to sign for a ballot on an iPad, and a black ballpoint at the other end for filling out the ballot. We told voters they could “keep the pen as a souvenir” but the pen did not have any writing on it. This was an improvement on the August primary, because it meant we did not have to wipe and reuse pens.

The voting process is interestingly baroque. There are three stations that operate simultaneously to process each voter. Each station has two poll workers, one Democrat and one Republican, and their equipment includes an iPad, which displays the voter’s address and allows him/her to sign for the ballot, and a printer that prints out the double-sided ballot on 14-inch paper. Each voter needs to produce an ID or the sample ballot flyer mailed to their address, and this gets scanned. Both officials need to approve on the iPad and actually initial the printed ballot. These two officials have to work right next to each other; even wearing a mask, there is no “social distancing,” and after 13 hours together, I would be surprised if an infected person did not pass the infection to their partner.

The voter then takes their ballot and finds a space to fill it out. The spaces are just tables with cardboard partitions for privacy. The process of filling out the ballot would be much faster if voters were given wide markers, but they have to fill a box with a normal pen, and since there are around 25 items to vote on, it will take 6 minutes even if the voter only takes 15 seconds to fill in each box. (As an aside: one voter did not understand me when I said “fill in the box”; she insisted she had done so with an X, and then corrected me, saying, “Oh, you mean I have to shade in the box.” She made me feel like English was not my native language! I see now that “to darken some bounded area” is the second meaning of “shade in.”) If a voter needs to look up information, it will take longer. Missouri does not have a box that allows one to vote the straight party ticket; one man commented to me that it would be better if we did. And they do not provide or allow markers. It Taiwan and Hong Kong, voters have an ink-stamp in the voting booth and the just stamp a check mark in a large square. That makes voting a lot faster. It is interesting, though, because ballots there are much shorter; they do not vote on the vast number of offices, judges, and propositions that we vote for in Missouri.

After the voter has finished making their selections, they take the ballot to a machine they call “the Verity,” which refers to a company that makes the ballot machines. It can scan the ballot no matter what side you insert first. After about 6 seconds, it either confirms the ballot was read correctly, or spits it back out and tells you that there is some error. Sometimes voters accidentally mark a second candidate, or they fail to notice the choices on the back side of the ballot (this happens to a surprising number, maybe 10 percent). Since the back side of the ballot includes only questions about retaining judges and constitutional amendments, many voters have no opinion and so either purposely left it blank or decided to approve the ballot in the Verity machine even though leaving it blank was actually an oversight. (You can see a video from the manufacturer here or below) 

One big advantage of the voting system in St Louis County is that if the voter makes a mistake filling out the ballot, they can be issued a new ballot. The ballot with the mistake is taken back and marked “SPOILED,” and the voter can try again. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, if your stamp mark is outside the box, the ballot is spoiled, and they cannot give you a new ballot because the ballots come pre-printed and are limited to the number of registered voters (to prevent ballot stuffing). One family must have spent about 40 minutes in the polling place, as one member made repeated mistakes and had to get a new ballot twice, for a total of three ballots.

In the past, voters put the ballot in a folder, and the folder was presented to the machine to preserve secrecy. Now, the poll workers who run the Verity machines can see who you voted for as you put the ballot into the feeder. Most people held the top and bottom of the ballot together so other people could not see who they voted for. But as a poll worker, and one who was near the voters as they filled out their ballots and put them in the Verity machine, I noticed that it is very difficult to see the ballot and identify who they voted for. It is still quite private, even if voters flash their ballot around.

All the ballots are collected in boxes under the Verity machine, and at the end of the night, they were removed, put into a neat stack, and put in an orange bag for a supervisor to deliver to a drop-off point, along with the disk drives in the Verity machines that include the totals for each race. These totals can be easily uploaded, which is why the results of the election were known just hours later. I was a bit surprised that we had all the ballots scattered across two tables as six of us created a neat pile, but with bi-partisan judges present, there could not be any hanky-panky. Plus, the paper ballots were only back up in case of a recount or technical malfunction.

The Verity is next to the exit, and voters left at that point, with their stylus/pen as a souvenir (though many chose to leave it next to the Verity machine). All voters got an “I voted today” sticker.

Everything went smoothly, but there were a few issues. In the morning, I suddenly saw an attractive woman in line; I was so tired, it did not immediately occur to me that she seemed “attractive” because I could actually see her face. She had apparently worn a mask on in line outside the building, where the Safety Coordinator I was checking, but later took it off. A supervisor went over to talk to her, and then a Republican poll worker escorted her out of the gym without incident. I’m not sure what he told her, but the rule is very clear that voters were not allowed in the polling area unless they were wearing a mask. Alternative arrangements had been made at the Board of Elections office in Saint Ann; persons not wearing a mask could vote in an outdoor tent. The woman had waited close to an hour in line, but still preferred to leave rather than wear a mask. Another woman came in with only a clear face shield; that should not have been allowed, but no one said anything to her. I estimate that about a quarter of voters were not wearing the mask properly, either leaking too much around the nose or not tucked under the chin, and one person wore a mask that looked more like a screen because I could see his mouth through it. None of this was commented upon.

As soon as the polls closed at 7:00 pm, two of the four Republican poll workers took off their masks; not only were they putting all their fellow workers at risk, but I’m pretty sure that was against the county mask mandate. Everyone else kept their masks on, so that I will never recognize my fellow workers because I did not see them without a mask. It is also interesting that a few years ago, Republicans passed a “Voter ID Law” that requires voters to produce a photo ID, but no one checked the photograph, and no one had to take off their mask to prove who they were. A Middle Eastern woman all dressed in black, with her hair covered in a black chador and wearing a black mask, almost looked like she was wearing a burqa.

I was probably overly cautious, but I made sure I did not wear any red or blue clothing; I wore a yellow oxford shirt and grey sweater. Voters were not allowed to wear any partisan clothing or other items, like a “Make America Great Again” hat. I did get the impression some people may have worn Cardinals hats because they were red like MAGA hats, because they also often wore a T-shirt with an American flag on it, but not everyone with a Cardinals hat voted Republican. One woman wore a T-shirt that said “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic when you could just be quiet.” Another had a T-shirt with an American flag on it and the words, “Just honor it.” Not much doubt about their politics. One Black woman had a mask with the words “Black Lives Matter” stitched on the side, and a supervisor—herself a person of color—told the woman to lower the mask a bit so the writing would not be visible. The supervisor told me later she was not sure if BLM was allowed, but did not want any controversy or complaints. This same supervisor had told me earlier that other people in line had said they were uncomfortable with the woman not wearing a mask, though I did not see anyone complain or make comments.

Part of the line outside the school at 1:00 pm
Our line was 150 persons long at the start of the day, and shortened to about 75 over lunchtime, but got longer again after lunch, to almost 200. We processed about 150 voters per hour. Finally, at 6:10 pm, there was no line. We continued to process a few people who came in, but they did not have to wait in line. This year, voters could vote at any polling station, and did not have to go to the one in their district. There was also a new app this year that told voters how long the lines were at each polling place, and some late voters were coming from a nearby library, where the line was still very long. One woman told me she had been in our line in the morning but realized she did not have time to wait because she had to go to work, so she came back after 6:00 when she got off work.

I have two final take-aways from the experience. First is the realization that a huge number of voters have no idea what they are doing. They probably know how they want to vote for president, but are increasingly unsure as they go down the ballot. The district I was in had some immigrants and non-native English speakers. Some were like an Arab man who sheepishly told me that this was his first election and he wanted to know what to do. He was well-dressed, seemed educated, and spoke fairly good English, though he had to translate for his wife who seemed to know no English. They seemed to know how they wanted to vote but were not familiar with the ballot layout and voting system. A family of four Asians, perhaps Burmese, had to have their ballots re-printed multiple times because they made mistakes. One man had chosen multiple candidates for each office, and we had trouble explaining to him that he had to choose one for each office. Several immigrants had trouble with this. While immigrants were more likely to have major errors and require help, plenty of native-born people were confused and/or did not fill out the whole ballot. One man in his 30s asked me if the constitutional amendment “to extend the two term restriction that currently applies to the Governor and Treasurer to the Lt. Governor and Secretary of State, Auditor and the Attorney General” meant that they would also have a limit or if it removed the limit.

One older lady read the proposal for Constitutional Amendment No. 3 and asked me if I could help her decide, because her note said to vote against it but it seemed to make sense to her. She herself added, “You probably aren’t allowed to tell me, right?” to which I agreed. That Constitutional Amendment passed by 51% to 49%. It was pushed by the Republican Party to undo an anti-gerrymandering reform proposal passed by 63% of voters two years ago. This amendment was purposely phrased in such a manner to be deceptive, because the first clause bans gifts from paid lobbyists to legislators (which is already heavily limited) and “reduces legislative campaign limits” but does so insignificantly. The main clause is the third, which reversed the reforms passed in 2018. In addition, I found out today, the day after the election, that this amendment also removes children and the undocumented population from the population for each district, giving more power to rural areas (where the population is much older than in cities and where there are few undocumented workers). Commentators note that this further cements the Republican Party’s structural advantage in the Missouri legislature.

You might say that this is clever political maneuvering by the Republicans, which is a valid point. But with so many races to vote on, it is hard to focus attention on these propositions and amendments. Americans are used to accepting the results of elections, even when so many of the voters are uninformed. As I mentioned, many people did not even bother to vote on the second page of the ballot, and these important amendments are at the very end of the ballot. In a close vote like this one, 51%-49%, with many voters confused, the result is essentially random. 

This reminds me of E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s discussion of how the Azande made important decisions. When they needed to schedule an important trip or venture, they would consult an oracle. Their most famous oracle is called a poison oracle, because benge, a poison made from plants, was force-fed to a young chicken, and a question is posed to the oracle: “If this is a good time for the venture, kill the chicken” or “...spare the chicken.” The result told them what to do. Evans-Pritchard is famous for arguing that as a way of deciding things, it is as good as any other. We, as modern Westerners, see this as absurd because whether or not the chicken dies is random, affected by the amount of poison fed to the chicken, the poison’s concentration, the health and strength of the chicken, etc. But I’m sure that many in China are looking at our elections and thinking our results are just as irrational and random as the “poison oracle.” All we can say in our defense is to quote Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

The level of ignorance among voters is a bit depressing, but another aspect of the experience is more uplifting. Quite a few people thanked us for volunteering, and one woman told us that she would order six pizzas for us, and sure enough, 30 minutes later, a Domino’s deliveryman brought us six pizzas. I was struck by how uniformly polite everyone was, with nearly everyone saying “Thank you,” as we pointed to empty seats for them or wiped areas. The Democrats and Republicans checking IDs and printing ballots and running the Verity machines never had any arguments or disagreements. Even late in the day, they were cheerful and polite to all voters. We knew who was of what party because we needed to make sure there was someone from each party at each machine, but someone coming in and watching would not have known who belonged to what party. No politics was discussed at all, even obliquely. No one said anything about the outcomes, or even that this election was close or nerve-wracking. I had two conversations with workers where the topic of what we would do the day after came up, and no one talked about staying up late to following the results. The civility and courtesy of the whole process made recent talk of possible violence and even civil war seem ludicrous. This was not only “Midwest nice”; it was also democracy in action.

1 comment:

huby said...

thank you for serving! I very much enjoyed your observations on this - I voted by mail to avoid the risk and the process is much easier.