When I got a call asking me to be a poll worker for the June 7th Primary Election in California, I thought, what better way to serve Democracy! Of course! I'm a lawyer, I care passionately about the right to vote, and I get to take part in history being made while seeing my neighbors coming out to perform their civic duty. I'm in!
The night before election day, I got a message from a woman identifying herself as my fellow poll worker in shaky voice, and asking me to please call her up at 5 a.m. to wake her. As I live less than 5 minutes from the polling place at our local park, I was hesitant to wake up a full hour before our set up duties were to begin. I called the woman back, and explained as much. She said, "Well, how about 5:30? I can be a little late..." So I began June 7th with a call to Natalie, who sounded well awake and ready to go when I called her. I got dressed hurriedly and drove to the old gymnasium at Palisades Park.
There to greet me was the lovely young Parisa, who uses her Masters from Harvard working at the intersection of public policy and technology in a think tank. Soon after, Natalie arrived in an American flag shirt. I soon learned that she has grandchildren not much younger than Parisa.
We got to know each other a bit as we panicked over the absence of the voting booths, ballots and other materials we were supposed to set up for the public.
Our "supervisor" did not show up until polls were set to open at 7 a.m. She was younger than any of us and had no experience. As voters stood in line outside the gym, we opened boxes in a panic trying our best to catch up with an hour lost.
Finally, we got our table organized and built the booths which are somewhat like an Ikea project, but our supervisor had not run ten test ballots though the ballot box as required so we could not begin to accept ballots. Angry voters complained that they had to vote before work. Parisa and I did our best to placate the voters while our supervisor became more frantic trying to set up the computerized ballot box which only she could, and cheerful Natalie stood by beaming in her American flag shirt.
The day started poorly and we were in for a bumpy ride. There has been some reporting on the chaos of this year's primary voting process, like this article in the LA Times, and I am here to tell you from a poll worker's perspective, it was crazy. If this is the best technology, strategic planning and operations we can muster for the most important foundation of democracy, our right to vote, it is no wonder that more bridges don't collapse daily.
While I saw the best of American Democracy: neighbors cheerfully chatting with each other as they took ballots for different parties, young people celebrating their first vote with selfies, parents bringing awe-struck children into the booths with them to teach the importance of voting, I witnessed so much disfunction that my trust in our election process has been deflated. I will list the top problems I witnessed from my standpoint as a poll worker in my little town of Pacific Palisades, California on June 7, 2016.
1. New Voters were frequently not listed in the rolls. While there was supposed to be a "blue book" of recently registered voters, our supervisor did not have it, and her calls to her supervisor were not returned. Thus, we had to tell many a first time voter that they would have to fill out a Provisional Ballot - a more time intensive process involving filling out information on a pink envelope before completing the ballot - and then the ballot went to our supervisor to turn in separately, not into the ballot box. Not exactly a satisfying experience for these voters who often questioned whether their votes would be counted. While we assured them that provisional ballots are counted, we worried as well. One reason we worried is that the ballots were very confusing for even experienced voters - I had to try twice myself. Especially confusing for many voters was the listing of 34 candidates for Senate over two pages, causing some voters to vote for more than one senatorial candidate - one on each page- and invalidating their ballot. The ballot box spit these ballots back out as in error, but the provisional ballots had no such safety check. And a large percentage of the provisional ballots went to first time voters probably more prone to making mistakes.
2. There were 10 different ballots with differing opportunities to exercise the right to vote. Here is the official explanation of our primary system from The Secretary of State. Here is the official list of political parties that had ballots available. If you were registered as a Republican, you could only vote for the Republican presidential candidates. If you were a Democrat, you could only vote for the Democratic candidates. OK, that may make sense as this is the primary and we are choosing the party candidates, not the president, but I saw people who were registered as Nonpartisans get disenfranchised. If the rolls had a voter listed as NPP, No Party Preference, then they were to be offered a choice to vote NPP (These voters did NOT get to vote for president), OR cross-over and vote on a NPP Crossover to Democrat Ballot, or a NPP Crossover to American Independent Ballot, or NPP Crossover to Libertarian, or ballots just for Libertarian, American Independent or Green or Peace and Freedom Party. Many people complained that the party listed for them on the rolls was not their party. Then we had to give them a provisional ballot causing many to become upset that they were not getting to cast a regular ballot that would be counted immediately. If they were registered as Nonpartisan, some did not cross over and may have unintentionally prohibited themselves from voting for a presidential candidate. And some were registered as American Independent not knowing that this is a far right leaning party with a platform and candidates, not a statement of freedom from political party preference. Some of these voters were upset because they wanted to vote for Hillary or Bernie or Trump, none of whom were on their ballot.
3. Trust in conspiracy to fix the vote was high for many voters who left unsure that their vote would be counted. This could lead to decreased voting in the future. One woman was irate because she was not listed as a Republican and had always voted as a Republican. We had her fill out a provisional ballot so that she could vote for a Republican candidate and her registration would be checked later, but she became furious, demanding that a Republican poll worker handle her provisional ballot. Since we were forbidden by law from discussing candidates or political issues inside the polling station, we assured the irate Republican voter that we had no idea who was a fellow Republican and that the ballots were all handled by us in the same fashion. But I understood her paranoia as I would be upset if I were listed as a Republican for the first time when I have always voted as a Democrat. In fact, we did have some lifelong Democrats who were startled to see that their party was changed to Nonpartisan or Republican. It was a mess.
4. Many voters were fed up as their polling place had been changed, and even within the correct polling place, it was confusing to find the table with their neighborhood. Some not very long streets were broken down into two different polling places!
5. No official ever visited our polling place to make sure that things were running smoothly, and they were NOT. We had no ability to redress problems except through our own ingenuity. We wondered why there was nobody with experience on site to address problems as they occurred, and also wondered why the least qualified person of our group was selected as the "supervisor." She works in a surf shop, I am a lawyer, Parisa is a technology expert with a Harvard Masters, and Natalie had done this many times before and had the most patriotic T-shirt.
I took one short break the entire day between 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. closing to rush over to the local high school to cast my vote. Two older workers were staffing that whole polling place, alone. I made a mistake on my ballot as I quickly rushed to get through it and got another try. Voting completed, I ran back to my polling station. Parisa informed me that my I VOTED sticker was upside down. I was just too exhausted to notice, and righted my sticker right away, but felt that the upside down version was probably more telling about the mixed up nature of the proceedings.
At 8 p.m. my 20 year old daughter ran over to the gym on her daily run to ride home with me. She is a first time voter and was beaming from the experience of casting her vote for Bernie Sanders despite the fact that the news had reported the day before the primary that Hillary had clinched the nomination. My daughter voted her conscience anyway. I hope she votes again.