I’m fairly diligent about voting. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I missed a major election. Back in September, during New York’s primary, I asked one of the people working at the polls how she got her job. She told me that it was simple; she went to the Board of Elections Web site, downloaded an application and mailed it in.
It sounded easy enough and looked like an interesting way to spend the day, helping my fellow Brooklynites fulfill their civic duty, so I decided to apply. About a month and a half after submitting my application, I received a post card telling me to report for work at a polling place in South Brooklyn. The card told me the location, the time (5:30 a.m.) and instructed me to “wear my badge.”
Badge? What badge? I contacted the Board of Elections and was told not to worry, they’d give me a badge when I reported for work. I asked about training; I was sure that the Web site had said something about going to a class. Don’t worry, they said, someone will show you what to do when you get there.
With that shaky assurance, this morning I grabbed an umbrella, a nutrition bar (it was too early to make breakfast), the postcard and headed out the door just before 5:00. It was still dark. My first surprise occurred when I realized that although there are quite a few delis between home and the polling place, none of them were open at that hour. I’d have to report for duty without any caffeine in my system.
The polling place was located inside an elementary school. Workers (all of whom appeared to know what they were doing) scrambled to have everything in place so that voting could commence promptly at the stroke of six. About a dozen large gray mechanical voting machines, similar to old-fashioned telephone booths, were arranged the length of one wall. In front of each booth was a folding table and two folding chairs; another folding chair stood next to the booth.
Each table was covered in papers as workers arranged them into neat piles of affidavits, voters bills of rights, paper ballots and other important forms. Each booth and table was assigned a number. Large-type sample ballots translated into four languages were taped to the walls.
There weren’t enough pens to go around. There weren’t enough badges. Worst of all, there was no coffee. But promptly at 6:00 the doors swung open and the voters began to come in. Early morning was the busiest time of the day. The rush ended around 9:00, the time that most people were at work.
This was the procedure: Each voter stepped up to a table, told the worker his or her name and waited while it was found in the registry book. The worker assigned a three-digit number to each voter (001, 002, etc.) and wrote it and the number of the booth into the registry. The voter then signed the book and received a small white slip of paper, about the size of a credit card, upon which the worker had copied all the numbers. Holding the bit of paper, the voter took a few steps forward, handed the slip to another poll worker, and stepped into the booth.
The worker sitting next to the booth pulled a large lever. The booth’s long gray curtains closed and a white bulb atop the machine lit up. The voter inside the booth clicked the levers for the candidates of their choice, then moved a large red lever which recorded the vote, turned off the white light and opened the curtains. During the height of the morning rush one of the levers got stuck but the workers grunted and yanked, pushed and pulled. Eventually it came free and the democratic process continued.
Most of the workers were cordial and chatty. Some seemed to misunderstand the rules; one demanded identification from each voter, even though it was not required. Some disappeared for hours at a time, others spent a good portion of the day outside smoking, a few squabbled, one spent all day obsessing about his next feed (he fussed about breakfast, then lunch, then dinner) and several put their heads down on the tables and napped.
At one point during the day a news crew showed up and shot some footage that never made it onto the air. No one notable came in to cast their vote and, much to my surprise, even though there are many students living near the polling place, very, very few showed up.
At 9:00 p.m. the doors were finally locked. My table had served a little over 200 people. The votes were counted and recounted to ensure that they had been properly recorded without discrepancies. All the important papers and register books were signed by the workers, placed in large Manila envelopes that were signed and sealed, and turned over to the NYPD police officers who’d kept us company throughout the day.
By the time I got home the preliminary results were on the news. The system, awkward and cumbersome though it was, had worked. The voters had done their jobs and the poll workers had, too. Now it is up to the winners to do theirs.