Doctor Science Knows

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

My Pollworker story: Parts 1 & 2

I signed up to be a pollworker because Robert Menendez (NJ-Sen) voted for Bush's detention bill. Just as I was in the pit of despair, feeling as though all politicians are morals-free authoritarian suckups, I got an email from Pollworkers for Democracy (they probably got my name from Working Assets) asking me to join their non-partisan voter protection movement. "Now *that* I can do with a clear conscience," I said, and so I signed up.

The US election system is an incredible mish-mash of state and county-level procedures -- the Carter Center doesn't consider it up to international standards for consistency & transparency. I'm going to write about my experiences as a pollworker in Hopewell Township, Mercer County, NJ.

I'll get into the details of what it's like being a pollworker in later installments (yes, this looks like a series). First I'll talk about the experience in general.

1. What it's like being a pollworker

Being a pollworker is physically exhausting -- we showed up at 5:15 AM, opened the polls at 6 AM, closed them at 8 PM, and I left for the Township Building with the bag of results at about 8:35. I got there at about 8:45 and had to wait until about 9:15 to deliver my bag to the Township Clerk. So it's a 16-hour workday, with an hour off (if you can arrange it) for lunch sometime in the early afternoon. You spend a lot of your time on your feet: working the voting booths, showing people maps of where they *should* be voting, carrying papers about.

Even more than the physical drain is the emotional exhaustion. You talk to hundreds of different people in the course of the day, many of whom you know (because you're likely to be working in the area you live or work). Many of the people are emotional, not just about political issues (although that's always there in the background, of course), but because they may do things like ask for a deceased parent or spouse's name to be stricken from the voting roll. Or they may be voting despite dealing with an illness or disability.

When voters are happy -- often talking about their children or grandchildren -- it still takes a lot of emotional energy to talk to so many people, one after the other, while paying close attention to administrative minutiae -- sign here, take this, what street did you say you live on.

I have to emphasize that being a pollworker is unfailingly interesting if you're interested in people at all.

Voters come in waves: people headed to work vote early, then during the morning it's mostly the elderly. There's another wave at lunchtime, then as the afternoon wears on there are more people who bring children (who almost always go into the voting booth with their parents). At 3:30 construction workers show up, then between 5 and 7 is the big push as people stop to vote on their way home from work. We had only a few people between 7 and 8, with a few racing in breathless in the final 10 minutes.

By the time I got out of the Township offices I was both wired and exhausted. Fortunately, a local liquor store carries Young's Double Chocolate Stout, two great tastes that taste absolutely smashing together. That, and schadenfreude over Republican losses.

2. The mood of the electorate as I (over)heard it:

People don't actually talk much about politics in the polling place -- we pollworkers have to be strictly nonpartisan, and no direct campaigning is allowed from voters. But a *lot* of people were expressing disgust or rage at (a) robo-calls and (b) voluminous, negative TV ads. As one man said, "Anyone who ran on a 'no more recorded phone calls' platform would win in a walk."

I know political junkies talk about whether certain political ads (or phone calls) "work" or "don't work", but the truth is: voters hate them *ALL*, they really do. Using ads & calls makes politicians not just into marketers (which is bad enough), but into spammers, which is the lowest of the low.

Not to mention that in a democracy politics is about *people*, and ads and robo-calls are attempts to reach voters by machine, which is cheating. If you get enough people on your side to go door-to-door or to make live calls you are not cheating, because democratic politics should be, must be, about people persuading people one-to-one. Everything else falls between demagoguery and spam.

Yes, people can be part of political machines. But they are not themselves machines -- they have human interests, they are voters not just cogs, they are working for themselves as well as their party or candidate. In his book The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, Michael Schudson of UC San Diego notes that under the infamous "spoils system" of New York City's Tammany Hall, up to one-third of Democratic Party voters could expect to see some patronage reward for their votes. It was corrupt, but it was *democratically* corrupt.

Tammany Hall shows that people-powered politics is no panacea -- large numbers of democratically-involved voters can still be selfish bastards. But until we cut out the machinery and force politicians to go back to the human basics, we can't see where the power of the people might be and what it can achieve.

So, fellow pollworkers! What was your general experience like? What did you gather about the mood of the electorate?

Later in this series (probably):

3. Why I liked being a pollworker: visions of people.
4. What I did as a pollworker, in mind-numbing detail.
5. Things that worked, things that didn't.
6. Voting: public and private.

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