Shipping Out the Vote: A Tribute to Poll Workers: By EDITH HALLBERG

Friday November 05, 2004

Some people do it for civic duty. The pay certainly doesn’t attract any but the most desperate or the most dedicated. Retired seniors accept the $80 for a 14-hour day (minus a one-hour break) as pin money for being useful. 

I was asked by the Registrar Of Voters (ROV) in 1996 if I would be willing to work at the polls. My memory of working a long day in a damp dark basement in 1972 wasn’t appealing and I hesitated. When I was told that there was a short version of helping on election day, I leapt at the chance. 

The position was precinct center captain, and involved supervising one of four such centers where the votes and equipment for 19 precincts would be processed and sent on to ROV headquarters. It started at 8 p.m. and ended around 11 or 12, or as s oon as all of the precincts came in. Even with a class and some preparation and set up, at $34 the pay was tolerable. 

My site at the Corporation Yard was a five-minute walk from my home. I took the class and took home the Return Center box with the equip ment needed to set up the operation. I followed directions, and for several elections worked the job like a pro. 

I set up the room like an assembly line. There were at least two burly men to unload the cars of flags, booths and heavy ballot boxes. Two or three teens had clipboards, one with a list of the precinct numbers to check off, the other with triplicate forms for each precinct (signed by me in advance) for the judge and inspector of each precinct to sign. 

The ballot boxes with locks contained the precious cargo—the blue register bag with all of the signs and registers and unused ballots, and the red box with the actual voted ballots. These had been counted at the precincts and sealed. My job was to put the red boxes into boxes and label them and to do the same with the blue bags. When the teens weren’t doing the clipboards, they helped me with the boxes, and when the men weren’t unloading cars they were loading a U-Haul truck with the booths and other equipment. The boxes went in at the end of a load. We had a driver who would pitch in, and a troubleshooter with radio contact between ROV and all of precinct centers. I packed the boxes, but floated where needed. 

The building had many advantages. It had bathrooms, a pay phone, and vending machines. There was a sink and a microwave. I carried several dollars worth of change for the workers to get snacks or to make calls for rides home. 

There was a driveway from the gate with an overhang at the entrance where the vehicles lined up to be unloaded. Everything worked according to plan under my charge for years until March 2000, the day of the first March California primary. 

I’d left home with my Return Center box at 7:45 well prepared. There was a light rain and as I unpacked and greeted my crew, it became a steady rain. 

In the box there were four heavy duty flashlights, and several forest green plastic ponchos. I passed these out, along with the W-2 forms to the crew. Amongst them was my neighbor, Fred, who the ROV said that I could recruit to insu re enough help. 

Everyone was at their stations as the first of cars came it. The most experienced crews came in within the hour. 

What had been a steady rain turned into torrents. Precinct lists and forms were getting wet. Pens wouldn’t write, sticker la bels wouldn’t peel, and permanent markers were smearing. Tempers, were getting short, but incredibly, the crew was avoiding back ups. I was getting tired with damage control, and we had half the shift to go. 

One of the men complained about the weather. H e was wearing a Teamster jacket under his poncho, and he had half boots to match those ones with the steel toes. He complained that his boots had a slow leak and that his socks were soaked and he was getting chilled. He took a quick break and, removing hi s socks, wrung them out and wadded them in paper towels and dried them in the microwave. I pretended not to notice....After all, if they were well wrapped...... 

Cardboards were put on the floor while most of the precincts came in. I flew around filling a nd labeling boxes, checking the tally of the precincts left to come in. Occasionally there was a “lost” precinct, one that went somewhere else, or one that was dumped on us. That’s what the troubleshooter was for. 

Suddenly Fred called out “Hey, Edie, loo k at what that guy is doing! He’s putting his boots into the microwave!” I looked up, and started across the room. Too Late! The timer dinged and the guy had his shoes on and was back outside. 

Somehow the night ended and everything was cleaned up by 11:3 0. Most of the crew was released to rides home. I got a ride home with the troubleshooter. At midnight I put myself in bed only to get a call from ROV saying that they couldn’t find the Return Center box. (They found it the next day). 

I decided to stop d oing that job. Fred still teases me about that day, and I decided that doing the day shift would allow me to go to those victory parties that I’d been missing.. 

In November 2000 I worked at North Berkeley Senior Center. The 51 bus went close by. I quickl y learned the job. It was more comfortable than the site was in 1972. I did get little over an hour because I voted at Strawberry Creek Lodge and still got Lunch. We all took turns on the registers and counted ballots against the register pretty fast. The inspector drove me to Outback to the victory party for BCA. I didn’t stay long, and went to bed for a fretful night of listening to the election returns. 

I worked the March 2002 primary at the Corporation Yard. I had the advantage of voting and getting lunch in an hour. It was relaxed and even social, as friends and neighbors came in that I hadn’t seen in years. Jokes were cracked about “hanging chads,” and the day moved smoothly. There were a few snafus, like lost registrations or confusion about polli ng places. Those registered Peace and Freedom, which was not on the ballot, could vote any party but Green. Bummer. 

In November, I returned. Despite the efforts of the wonderful couple who set up the computer voting machines, there were snags with registered voters. There was the white register, a green one, and a pink one. There were many voters who were on none of them. While in a line going out the door, voters whipped out their cell phones to call ROV. We had several visits from ROV, as well as from community volunteers who checked the white registers. We had a lot of backups as we traded jobs working the voting cards and the registers. 

I really like computerized voting. When the machines came to City Hall, it was a joy. No waiting, helpful clerks, you could sit down. Best of all, the user friendly screen was easily read and you could review your vote. The paper trail and the tampering issue gives one pause , but frankly, we should be like other countries and vote on Sunday or solely by mail. There should be REAL inspectors at the headquarters to see that the counts are valid. 

I worked the recall election. I didn’t favor the recall and hesitated about working it, but decided at the last minute that I would. 

I had to go to Friends Church at Cedar a nd Sacramento at 4 am for a ride with the inspector because the busses didn’t go there at six am. (They are worse now). So, I brought coffee and lots of food. There was a full kitchen there. 

It was a long and tiring day. Precincts were combined because i t was expected to be a low turnout with a short ballot. There was confusion about polling places but that was nothing compared to the use of the computerized voting machines. 

We were given a script to use in assisting the voters to use the machines. I me morized it; the only things that we couldn’t do were to 1) influence the voter, and 2) touch the screen. Many voters were confused by the number of candidates (134?) and by the process of going back and forth on the touchscreen to review, cancel, or re-se lect. I would review the instructions according to the script, but one senior just got so frustrated that he left the screen without completing his vote! 

When I voted at City Hall, my method was to memorize the number of my candidate. This might not have worked in all parts of Alameda County as the lists were scrambled on different Sample Ballots. 

We had some computer malfunctions, including at the one that my senior voter had abandoned. This happened during our inspector’s break, so we had to put an “o ut of order” sign on that computer and call ROV. They did send out troubleshooters and observers other than at times that we called them. 

At last the day was done, that whirlwind of assisting voters at the machines, working the cards and the registers. W e cleaned up in record time. I counted the Absentee and Provisional ballots and comparing them against the registers, and by helping to disconnect the computers with their scrolls of recorded votes. Each scroll showed how many had voted at each machine, a nd it was a matter of adding up the numbers along with the ballots counted and recorded against the register. Everything tallied right away, and the inspector packed it up dropped it at the Corporation Yard. I was dropped at home and had some evening left to enjoy.  

This year, I opted out. I voted absentee. Maybe next time...... 


Edith Monk Hallberg is a Berkeley resident.ª