Behind the Curtain

Day 9

The government shutdown is well under way as I write, though by the time this item “goes to press” the Congressional shennangins will hopefully be history. Even if you are not a particular fan of politics, you are unlikely to have missed hearing all about the drama in Washington on the news. You may not be directly affected by it—yet—but you’re still probably completely annoyed by what is essentially a grown up temper tantrum on the part of… well, I won’t get into the partisan finger-pointing. That’s not what I was interested in discovering anyway. The big media guys have all the high-falutin’, photo-op, sound-bite folks well in hand. So I figured it was pointless for me to even bother to try to nab one of them. Besides, I’m probably more likely to get a personal audience with the Pope than I am to track down a big player.

Instead I thought about the people in my neighborhood, as Mister Rogers might say. It occurred to me that I didn’t really know too much about the volunteer poll workers who turn out every season. That was the very first thing I learned. They aren’t volunteers at all. The men and women who staff your polling place are actually paid. Many are seniors who are no longer working. Some take a vacation day from their regular job, getting paid twice for the day. (Who couldn’t use a little bonus right before the Christmas season? Yes, I hear you groaning, however December does follow November after all.) It’s not a difficult day’s work as you might guess. It is a long one. Polls open at 6 a.m. Staff arrives by 5 to set up. Polls close at 8 p.m. Once it’s all over, the voting booths need to be put to bed. Ours fold down on themselves into big metal boxes. These are then secured with their digital records tucked inside on CD, and brought to storage at the Board of Elections where their important contents can be carefully tallied.

Additionally, I had no idea how the poll workers ended up on this gig in the first place. Terry (not her real name –ed.) who was supervising the proceedings told me that some people answer newspaper ads placed by County Election Boards. For others with family members who took on the task for generations, working elections is slightly hereditary. There are four staff members to a district. Two are required to be Republicans and two Democrats. Terry herself has been involved with elections for a number of years. She answered an ad after college, and has been working on Election Days more or less ever since. She ended up supervising because she works in the local government and someone suggested she take the role. She says she’d love to see more younger people come out to help man the polls. Come to think of it, I’d say she may be on to something. I can’t help wonder if it would get more young people out to vote.

Speaking of turnout, I asked Terry what had been the craziest day she’d ever seen at the polls. This particular day, as she noted was a very quiet day. It was quiet here in New Jersey because this was a special election a few weeks ahead of the usual November date. It’s purpose was only regarding single matter: filling the Senate seat left vacant upon the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg. The regular November election is still to come. It came as no surprise to me when Terry promptly replied that the last Presidential election was one of the biggest she could recall. I too remember it for the remarkable size of the crowd. It was literally a crowd. The place was packed, which was kind of fun. I live in a pretty small town where most people know each other by sight, if not by name. This meant there were loads of friends and neighbors all gathered together in one place for the same purpose. Remember, when you go to your polling place everything is organized by districts. That means the people in the queue with you really are your neighbors. If you don’t see them for more than a passing wave from day to day, on a big election day you may get to do some surprise socializing while you wait. In fact, I recall there was a somewhat festive air to the place that day. If waiting on a long line could be said to be fun, this was it. It’s entirely possible that the sheer anticipation of the Presidential race in 2012 was enough to put a sense of excitement in the air. All over the country news reports were coming in of record turnouts.

I also wondered—in the spirit of Halloween—if anything weird had ever happened. I suggested with a grin that maybe a haunted voting booth or polling place might have turned up. She gently declined to answer that one, saying only that there have been some odd incidents from time to time. She told me I’d have to check with the County Board of Elections if I really wanted that information. She was gracious enough to provide me with the contact information, but cautioned me to wait until a few days after the election. Naturally it’s a very busy time.

Busy it may be, but it was interesting to get a tiny look behind the scenes of election day in small town American. I’m glad I spoke to Terry.


Kathleen Ronan is a writer and a specialist in meditation for medical applications, a harpist, a bookworm, and a renaissance woman. She is the Assistant Editor at Magnificent Nose.

Photo by Bastian, via Flickr

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