By Judith Kampfner
From Our Own Correspondent
BBC Radio 4 & BBC World Service
When you fill out a voter registration form in New York, you can tick a box to say you’re also willing to become a poll worker. I was so happy to be a newly-minted American citizen, that I ticked it, without expecting any follow-up. But months later, a postcard arrived telling me to report for a mandatory three-hour training session to become a PW for the BOE – NY. That’s Poll Worker for the New York Board of Elections.
In August, I duly went to class, and was herded into a line with about forty other PW’s in training – feeling anxious, because I knew we’d have to take a test and I panic in tests. The learning environment was chaotic, lined with boxes from floor to ceiling. Josh, our 70 year old, ex-Marine instructor, was at pains to tell us what not to wear. ‘No low-rise pants, no hats unless for religious reasons, no halter tops or tank tops, no cleavage.’ But what about what we did have to do?
The primary vote would be a practice run for later this year: with such a tight Presidential race, crowds of voters are expected on November 6th. So I had to be ready. Apparently New York State is short of 30,000 poll workers, so each would take on a lot of responsibility.
‘Don’t show up even 1 minute after 5am’, Josh had yelled. So at 4.30 on Primary Day, I was on an almost-deserted subway train, bound for my polling station at an elementary school.
Essentially, I went because I was curious. Which is a less noble reason than the ones offered by my co-workers. Without exception they spoke of a wish to take part and give something back. They didn’t have the typically entitled New York attitude. All were either African American or immigrants. In fact I was the only Non Hispanic White – as designated on the census form – among them. But as a recent immigrant I fitted in. And no one remarked on my accent.
No-one was there for the money. An information clerk’s pay is a grand $200, for what would be a 17-hour day – as it will be at the general election.
The set-up was crazy. The coordinator seemed at a loss and we workers started to munity, declaring that unless she made up her mind, we would take charge ourselves. There were no chairs, so we scrounged some tiny ones from the classrooms.
As we rolled out the new sleek voting cubicles on wheels, emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes, we joked that only 25 voters would turn up for the primary. Unpacking the materials and equipment was a major operation. Was it worth it if only a handful appeared?
It was unusual to have an election on a Thursday. Tuesday is the traditional day – but that week, Tuesday fell on September the 11th. Yet despite the change of day, and despite the fact that at my polling station only registered Democrats could vote because Republican positions were uncontested, I estimated there were 400 voters. In fact local papers reported a good turnout across the state.
So why did people bother to show up, just to choose one of two Democratic state senators and one of two local Democratic judges? It’s good practice, for one thing. People were nervous about the new scanning machines and curtainless voting booths. Many complained that the lettering on the ballot paper was now too small and they needed help putting the document in the scanner.
Before long, the school principal – dressed like a pop diva in a tight slit dress and towering high heels – descended on us and seized all our chairs, yelling that we were depriving her pupils. So I ended up standing … for 17 hours.
The officers on shift from the New York Police Department did have chairs. But there was nothing for them to do until 9pm, when the portable memory cards from the scanners went into a yellow pouch and on to No 1 Police Plaza.
I was shattered. There are supposed to be two information clerks at each station but I was alone. All day I’d been looking up addresses, and turning people away who’d come to the wrong place. Since the census of 2010, state assembly and senate district lines have been redrawn. And it seems many voters hadn’t been told where to go.
Several people, not unreasonably, pointed out that if Democrats really cared about their flock, they would give out reliable information. ‘I don’t have time to go elsewhere, so you idiots have lost a vote.’ And ‘You people, you people make me sick,’ were typical reactions.
Actually I was proud to do the job, and like to think I took the abuse gallantly. The poll workers’ camaraderie had rubbed off.