Today, I went to one of Los Angeles’ 2020 re-invented voting centers. Up until this election, we’d always been sent to the same place, as instructed on the back of our sample ballot. My husband and I usually went to the Jobs Center on Hill Street in South Park. We would also be directed to a specific table – the orange table, or the green table. It was a ritual that was familiar and comforting. Today’s experience was new and disconcertingly futuristic.
Almost two decades ago, I decided that I would do my civic duty and become a poll worker. I dragged my husband along under the auspices of his getting to spend a sixteen-hour day unfettered with me. What an enticement!
We got ourselves trained (I feel like it was at the Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City) about the finer points of being a poll worker. We would greet each voter respectfully, then check them in first using the alphabetical listing, a huge 22″ x 34″ book with tidy lettered tabs to help you find the first letter of their last name. You’d have them sign the roster upside down next to their street address. Meanwhile, another poll worker checked for their name in the street index, running a little red pencil along the ruler through each voter’s name. We checked them off on a second street address roster which on the hour we would take outside and post so that poll checkers could see who had voted and who had not. We learned how to hand the voters their long slender pristine ballots full of promise, and watched as they walked away to the Votomatic booth. Over the few years we worked the polls, they changed from these briefcase style contraptions to more easily assembled cardboard booths.
There, they inserted their narrow paper ballot into the voting machine, fitting the holes at the ballot’s top over little red spindles. Next they would perforate the ballot with the pointed stylus. After 2000, and the hanging chad debacle, we were re-trained how to ink our selections on the ballots using the same stylus, now flattened with a tiny stamp on it.
Invariably, a voter would make a mistake, and we would take back their spoiled ballot and give them a fresh one. Once completed, they would uncouple the ballot from the spindles, then walk it over to the poll worker who’s job it was to tear off their receipt and hand it to them then have them insert the ballot into the machine where it would stay until the end of the day.
Then, and only then, the voter received the coveted “I voted” sticker.
Being a poll worker is monotonous and thankless work. Especially if you are the polling place supervisor, or Poll Inspector, responsible for picking up the materials from the distribution center. Jimmie and I would get in the car and drive to the high school parking lot on the Saturday before the Tuesday election, to pick up the ballots, zip tied in their container, along with all the signs, and voting machines, and would take them home and load them into the garage until the morning of the election. Waiting in the parking lot in a long snake of cars filled with other civically minded poll workers made us both feel proud to be important cogs in the democratic voting system.
The day of the election, we rose really early, because the polls opened at 7:00AM. This was always the hardest part; I would stop and get coffee and donuts for my co-volunteers. It felt inhumane to not have something to offer them, and I don’t think I could have gotten my husband there without some enticement. (other than the aforementioned time with Els). Frequently we would drag our middle school aged son along with us and then Jimmie would drop him at school while I got the polls open.
There is a No Exit feel to being a poll worker. You’re there from 6:30AM until the polls close at 8:00PM. Breakdown usually takes until about 9:30PM. You can get away for a break every five hours, but sometimes you don’t have enough poll workers to leave, or those who were there had not demonstrated a level of self- confidence that made you comfortable leaving them there to deal with complicated things like the dreaded provisional ballots.
Provisional ballots, or pink ballots, were offered to those people whose names did not appear in the alphabetical list of names for whatever reason- they’d recently moved, or they hadn’t voted in a while, or were voting out of their regular precinct. Filling out the provisional ballot was lengthy and frustrating for the voter, who may already have felt resentful that they were not included on the regular list, and were told that their provisional vote would be counted after the fact, so didn’t feel really invested in the lengthy process.
You had to have your eagle eyes on those people with outstanding pink sleeves around their ballots so they wouldn’t slip them into the regular machine, but instead inserted them into the big pink envelopes with so much information to be counted later. There was a special box for collecting those provisional ballots at the end of the day.
At the end of the night, in this long-ago poll process, you would have some of your team of pollworkers break down the votomatic booths, and stack them to be picked up the next day, while others would open the seal on the ballot box and stack the ballots neatly before putting them back into the container and zip tying the container with the official marker to certify that the box had not been tampered with. Then Jimmie and I, exhausted after 16 hours of out unfettered time together would get back into the car and snake our way through the parking lot to watch as our trunk was unloaded and the ballot box was put into the back of a truck and taken away to be counted. It felt similar to how you feel at the end of a 10 out of 12 technical rehearsal. It was grueling, but very satisfying.
However, after about five years of civic duty, we were done. I did miss our fellow poll workers; the same neighbors frequently participated, and we’d grown into a community. They weren’t people I would ever see anywhere besides the polls, but the stultifying periods of time between voters in a non-presidential primary afforded us with a lot of time to get to know each other. I’ve always been effusive in my praise for poll workers when I go to vote, because I know what a thankless job it is and how difficult those long days can be.
Cut to this Presidential primary of 2020. I first knew that something was different when I received my sample ballot which was a much larger size, and a pamphlet about Voting Centers. Instead of instructions about going to the Jobs Center and looking for a green tablecloth, there were listed about eight different locations where for a period of 11 days, I could go and vote. Unheard of! I decided this morning that I would go to the voting center at the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall, on Figueroa and Washington Blvd.
I’d been curious about the hall, which had been closed for several years while being renovated, so used this time to check out the lobby as well as the dining room in the basement, where the voting center was set up. As I entered the room, the same friendly cast of poll workers were there, but there was entirely new equipment everywhere. I handed them my sample ballot, and they scanned the bar code on the back. Instead of the bulky alphabetical listing of all the voters in the neighborhood, and the awkward voter-by-street directory, these poll workers had ipads with styluses up on stands so they were at eye level. Clearly, I was one of their first customers, because the Poll inspector talked the workers through how to scan my booklet, then have me verify my address, before turning the ipad to me and handing me the stylus to sign my name. Once I’d done that, they inserted a large blank 8 1/2″ x 11″ ballot with the upper right hand corner missing to print my ballot. Once it was printed, they handed it to me and pointed at the very futuristic voting booths in front of the table. There were banks and banks of them with cheery mustard colored walls around them, a far cry from the cheesy cardboard flag stands of an earlier day. Or, for that matter, from the curtained booths where I voted for the first time in 1982 for soon-to-be-elected President Jimmy Carter.
After I’d voted the twenty items on the ballot, the printer printed out a beautiful copy of my ballot. Used to the former protocol, I turned and said to the room at large,
Who takes this now?
No, no, no! The polling inspector rushed over to me. You put it back into the printer and submit it.
And so I did. Feeling enormously accomplished, I turned and crossed to the familiar parting table, where a poll worker beamed at me and encouraged me to come back in November! Which I know is poll worker speak for:
I see you, you Democrat! We need you! Be sure and come back!
But of course, one would never say that or even hint at that because that wouldn’t be appropriate.
Back out in the sun, I marched to my bus stop to continue onto work, wearing my sticker and feeling a little nostalgic for my long ago days as a Poll Inspector with my loving husband.
I guess it would be ridiculous to say “Don’t forget to vote.” With this beautiful new system, you can go before the polls get crowded and you can learn early how to work the new voting machines. Take your sample ballot. Vote early. Vote with your heart.