Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Diary of a Mad Poll-Worker, Part Two

Tonight I attended my poll-worker training at a church school auditorium, with a basketball hoop on one side and giant cross on the other. Our very competent teachers were county employees, who came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation, a number of videos, and the necessary scenery for play acting in the form of ballot boxes and polling booths.

I have to admit that the thought of working for the county again, a decade and a half after turning in my keys, amused me.

"You can party all night and do this job," one of our instructors assured us, although willingness to get up early seemed to be the key job requirement.

The house was packed with a relatively diverse crowd, although elderly white women were certainly overrepresented. Several of them had apparently manned a polling place together in the past.

"Try taking care of everything the afternoon before," one of these sweet senior citizens suggested to the group. "We set up everything in advance, so we can sleep in a little." (Apparently all the poll inspectors had already picked up the voting supplies earlier in the week.)

The teacher was aghast. "No," she said firmly. "The voting materials can't stay in the polling place unattended overnight."

We watched the first video, which was called "The Perfect Polling Place." It was full of reassuring messages about how easy it would all be with so many experienced people around.

"How many of you are new?" one of our teachers asked. Almost all of the hands in the room shot up.

One of the women who didn't raise her hand said, "Last year, we couldn't reach the coordinator."

We were told that that would be impossible this year, as now every polling team would be issued a cell phone to improve communication.

We were made to repeat the phrase "We throw nothing away!" several times in unison. This included small items like tie snaps and stubs.

At one point, my attention drifted during the presentation, as I became absorbed with the question as to why ballots were white (regular), pink (provisional), or lavender (absentee). What does this say about the feminization of voting, I thought.

We watched another video called "Ballot Inspection," which starred a character named "Perky Cul de Sac."

We were given some "life hacking" tips. The registrar would provide red pencils, but colored pencils would make our lives easier.

Perhaps my favorite moment was the display of sample write-in ballots, which showed Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck being suggested for duty in higher office. I couldn't help but wonder if there were any intellectual property lawyers in the room, who were contemplating slapping the county with a trademark violation.

Then, at last it was time for some hands-on experience with the equipment. Although there was a ballot reader and an audio voting system with a directional keypad, the computerized component of voting was de-emphasized.

"It's not a computer," one of the instructors insisted. "You do more with your microwave."

Strangely, we were told never ever to use the "Help" or "Admin" functions on the device.

A big guy with long greasy hair sidled up to me confidentially. "It's going to be a madhouse," he hissed in my ear. "We'll have lines stretching to the next city with these things."

I thought he was probably overstating the case, given that a voter could choose to bypass the reader entirely and have his or her ballot inserted directly into the ballot box. Besides, the ballot reader only spit the ballot back if there was an overvote or a blank ballot inserted.

"To the next state," the hulking presence next to me predicted.

I was more worried about the audio reader, which seemed like it would take a long time, since it read all the choices to the voter, and we were to have a long, unwieldy ballot this year. I asked to try out one of the systems for the disabled, dyslexic, or non-native speaker of English. I began to complete a ballot in Japanese, which was difficult because I was pretty rusty. My choices in the demo were for candidates like "best ice cream flavor."

"A circus," my unlikely Doppelganger said as I was concentrating on the instructions in a foreign language and pushing buttons. I felt like I must have glared at the guy, but perhaps not, because he stayed glued to my side.

The system lapsed into English. I pointed this out to my instructor. "A glitch," she said. "Don't worry. It will be fixed by election time."

"A zoo," my unwanted companion pronounced, as I headed for the door.

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