Yesterday I rose at the crack of OMG to head the short distance to my polling place — where I served as a poll worker, starting at 5 a.m. With the exception of a few bathroom breaks, a lunch hour and a dinner hour, I was in that elementary school gym until about 10 p.m., working as a scanner inspector.
And what happened?
So glad you asked.
A scanner inspector is the job I was assigned after taking a four-hour training class and an open book quiz about the process of tallying votes. When I first came to New York City we still used a mechanical arm to manually log our votes – which was very satisfying, but creaky and old-fashioned, and those were phased out in recent years. These days, it’s all about computer pads and scanners. You walk in, verify your address at the table assigned to your Election District and Assembly District, get a ballot and head to a privacy table where you’re meant to bubble in your choices. After that, you head to the scanner to insert that ballot and ensure it’s counted.
That’s where you would meet me, or my fellow scanner inspector, R (she probably wouldn’t mind if I used her name, but just in case). We were there to show you how to fit the ballot into the scanner (“feed it in until it stops, and the machine will take it from there” I hopefully helpfully instructed folks) and then to assist if there’s a glitch.
There weren’t many glitches, but – more about those in a minute.
I had imagined that the site coordinator would direct us to get started, but from the moment we appeared in the gym it was clear there would be no such direction – so R and I set about opening up the two scanners and getting them street legal. There’s a list of about 40 steps to opening and closing each of them – including taking off security tags and putting new ones on and recording numbers and signing everything – so if you ever get to a polling place first thing in the morning and can’t figure out why everything isn’t ready for you, trust me, we’re working on it. But it’s nerve-wracking: You feel like the election police are going to get you, or you’re going to screw something up, if you miss a step. And while the instructions are … clear … they’re not always entirely on point. (We were told to look for colored labels that simply didn’t exist, and the coordinator finally told us to forget about it.)
In any case, we’d only managed to get one scanner up and fully functional by 6, which was when doors opened and people were actually there, getting in line. The second one went much faster, and without more delay we were finally ready to go.
Thus began the next 16 hours. We beckoned those who’d finished with their ballots – each long white ballot gets a Manilla folder to keep things private – over to the scanners, where we helped them with the next step, all while avoiding looking at the ballot. You’re not supposed to do that. I can’t say it never happened accidentally, and I can’t say no one ever simply showed it to us by saying “not sure what’s wrong here” but the intention is that we’re not supposed to see it. Frankly, neither is anyone else – but among family members that’s apparently not an issue, as we noted.
Mostly, the day was a slow trickle with small, predictable bumps in attendance (early morning, lunch, dinner, after dinner). I don’t think we ever had more than 10 people voting at a time. Everyone was unfailingly nice, and I only witnessed one justifiably angry voter whose son had to vote by affidavit after someone else with the same name as him – who lived nearby – voted in his stead. Every time I saw a young person voting who didn’t know what to do I helped, then congratulated them on it being their first-time voting.
But I was surprised at the number of people who:
- didn’t know that the bubbles next to candidates’ names needed to be filled in (and so instead used check marks or X’es or, in one case, circled the names)
- accidentally voted more than once — or tried to. The scanner catches that and then we can step in. On our ballots the same candidates can appear under multiple party names and there were several people who loved their candidate so much they bubbled him in on ALL parties he was named under
- walked over with two ballots – which can happen if two of them stick together; that’s not such a big deal – that were both filled out. Again, that’s where the inspecting comes out, and you send them back with the duplicate
I’m sure none of those glitches were intentional; that’s just human error and you fix it and that’s why we have people keeping an eagle eye on the process. That said, it was long. We sat when we could but mostly had to stand, and had been instructed not to be on cell phones. I brought some crossword puzzles and worked through them during the truly empty periods, but mostly it was about trying to chat with my fellow scanner inspector through masks at a social distance. We hit it off, and both agreed at the end of the night what a pleasure that was.
But did I mention it was long? It was long. I lived close enough to go home both for lunch and dinner breaks, which was a godsend, but by 7:30 I was counting down, feeling fried. As I’m sure everyone was. It’s both incredibly important to do a good job in that room, but it also stretches the limits of patience.
And yet, it was heartening. There were so many people there ranging in ages and walks of life and gender and everything that it makes you feel good about the system, battered and denigrated as it can be. I saw women using canes, men leaning on their children, children attending with their parents (they all got “Future Voter” stickers), non-native speakers (we had translators for the many Chinese that make up part of our neighborhood), young folks, middle-aged folks, couples, singles. Everyone in that room was a person of good will, and there was no arguing or snarking or shouts of “MY CANDIDATE” or anything like that, despite how contentious this election has been.
And then, with three minutes to go before 9 – the law is if someone is in line at 9pm, he or she gets to vote – our last voter walked in the room. (Note to y’all out there: We know there are probably good reasons to stroll in with less than five minutes to close, but unless you’re limping in with a limb half-severed, we are not looking fondly upon you for your tardiness.) He finished, he went out the door and only then could we start packing up, which was another multi-dozen-step process to close up the machines, seal them up (and the ballots) legally, and get everything signed off. And boy, if we thought we were fried at 7:30, by 10 we were done done done.
Fortunately, we were in fact done. There were some nice touches throughout the day: the coordinator brought in coffee and biscotti and pretzels for the workers; our assemblyman came in to vote and brought apples. Nobody sent pizza, but – fine. We’re kind of not supposed to be eating in there anyway, though I made sure to wear a dress with pockets to hold some nuts and Werther’s candies.
And then I walked home, head spinning. I slept hard and long, and had one dream I could remember, in which 45 and his entourage strolled into my home. I whisked them out as fast as I could, explaining to everyone that I didn’t want “that piece of rotten meat” in my living space.
I still don’t. But I’ll defend utterly the right of anyone to vote for that piece of meat.
Here’s hoping I won’t ever have to again.