Commentary

Primary Day observations from a first-time poll worker

May 13, 2022 3:20 am

COLUMBUS, OH — MAY 03: Roster Judge Don English, a first time poll worker hands the ballot to a voter on the auditorium stage that serves as the voting location during the Ohio primary election, May 3, 2022, at the Worthington Kilbourne High School, Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes)

Conspiracy theorists need to know something: Election day poll workers aren’t part of some vast secret cabal dedicated to tilting elections.

They are just like us.

No, more than that. They are us. I should know — because during the May 3 primary I became one of them.

In past years the phrase “working the polls” meant that, as a journalist, I would possibly have to interview voters, candidates or election officials and contribute to ongoing coverage of the day’s events.

But this year I had nothing on my plate, and I knew that Franklin County’s Board of Elections was in need of poll workers, especially those who are registered Democrats.

It was only logical. After all, the country had endured two years of pandemic dangers; and two years of bizarre “voter fraud” lies, including nonsensical stories about Italian satellites throwing the election from outer space. That kind of stress — on top of the normal rigors of working from well before dawn and then well into the evening — surely had an impact on the willingness of longtime poll workers to once again step up to the plate.

So when my wife and I visited the board’s Morse Road headquarters to cast our ballots more than a week before Election Day, we weren’t surprised that some workers asked us in a rather pleading tone to volunteer. Indeed, the board employee who later called to confirm that I was volunteering was, well, practically in tears. Tears of gratitude and relief, but tears nevertheless. The board needed a Democrat to ensure that a voting location in Dublin would provide fair, accurate and, importantly, bipartisan oversight to the process.

The days that followed were something of a blur. The three-hour Saturday morning instructional meeting — held only a few days before the election — was akin to sipping from a firehose as I struggled to learn and remember all the duties I might be asked to perform.

Adding to my brain fog was the plethora of acronyms in use by the board.

Like many government, military and business organizations, the board endeavors to build its culture by using a lot of acronyms. Thus, the mission statement on the training manual says in part that the board aims to “train and place the best PEOs.” You know — Precinct Election Officials.

So I knew I was officially part of the team when, on the day of the election, I could easily remember that a VLM is a Voting Location Manager, and that I was going to be a VLD, or Voting Location Deputy. Luckily, the acronyms didn’t include any VPLs, because in my sleep-deprived state I would have laughed myself silly.

The day before the election I went to the polling place to help set up the various machines, such as the computer tablets, er, EPBs (that’s Electronic Poll Books) and meet my VLM and PEOs. With a total of six people we were actually short by one person, and could have called the board to send another worker. But since the election was likely to have a light turnout, and our six workers were all serious and energetic, we were confident that we had enough staff.

The next day, in the pre-dawn gloom, I drove in to the parking lot at the polling site — a historic church in Dublin that is next door to an old graveyard. I kept my fingers crossed that the graveyard wasn’t an omen about the election.

Moments after we were sworn in — with an oath that included “lots of semi-colons,” the voting site manager quipped — we opened the doors promptly at 6:30 a.m. and waited for voters to show up. Ten minutes or so later the first voter arrived and everything went smoothly.

And then things slowed to a crawl. By 10 a.m., out of boredom, the six of us were discussing anything we could think of, including heart attacks and other health-related issues. Yeah, we were mostly of retirement age.

But wait! At 10:40 we hit a snag — a voting machine stopped working! — and the excitement began. Well, for a few minutes, anyway. Our manager, oops, our VLM, called the board, eh, BOE, and found that a voter had probably pushed a wrong button on the touch screen. So we would have to be a little more explicit in our directions as we brought voters to the machines.

Not that it was much of a big deal. After all, the touch screen machines are really glorified typewriters that print out voter selections on a ballot card. If the machines don’t work, we simply have voters use a paper ballot. The ballots — either marked by the machine or hand written — are then inserted into an electronic reader that enables the board to count votes more quickly than by hand.

By the time we closed the doors at 7:30 p.m., 212 voters had cast their ballots at our location. We broke down the various machines, folding tables and chairs, and around 9 o’clock bid each other farewell. My VLM and I rode together down to the BOE — again, to have a Republican and Democrat working in a bipartisan way — to bring the box of ballots and other important material.

A long wait in a long line of cars awaited us, but eventually we made the drop and I drove home, a little bleary but satisfied that everything had worked well. The next day, my 94-year-old mother, a cable news junkie, asked if my 19-hour day as an election worker had been worth it and if I would ever sign up again.

Thinking back to my mother’s father, an Italian immigrant who was a naturalized American citizen and intensely proud of having the right to vote, I already knew the answer.

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Tim Feran
Tim Feran

Tim Feran is a native of Cleveland and a graduate of Harvard University. For more than 40 years he has been a professional journalist, first at the Lorain Journal, then for 30 years at The Columbus Dispatch, and currently as a freelance writer. He lives in Columbus with his wife, Maryellen O’Shaughnessy, Franklin County Clerk of Courts.

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