Upham's Corner Online

Election Workers - Behind the Scenes on Voting Day

Boston's Election Department works quietly to set up a well-oiled voting process - training the workers, distributing equipment, receiving the voting counts after 8 pm and retrieving the equipment the next day.  How the voting public experiences the voting process is key to voters returning to the polls. Thanks go to Marty Kain for ensuring the election workers are thoroughly trained and thanks to the election workers for arriving at 6 am and working a very long day to ensure a smooth and error-free voting day.

I votedBoston's Election Department provides complete information on every aspect of the voting process, including how to register to vote and where the "polling locations" are.  Each polling place represents a ward / precinct combination.  As of 2011, there were 22 wards and over 250 precincts - a lot of equipment and sites for the Election Department to manage. 

A polling location team consists of a warden, a clerk, multiple inspectors and a police officer.  Each team member has a carefully designated job as identified by state law.  Voting day has three phases: set up, voting and breakdown. Poll workers arrive at 6 AM for a 7 AM opening and leave by 9 PM after a poll closing time of 8 PM.

The Warden is in Charge

Two important and overlapping dynamics help to ensure a smooth election process for the voters as well as positively influence the voters to want to vote again.

-    How the pole workers carry out their technical duties
-    How the pole workers relate to the voting community

Election after election, the same people come to vote. If you have worked a polling place for years, and especially if you live in the neighborhood, you will likely know the voters well.

An example is the Vine Street Community Center with two polling locations - Ward 8, Precincts 6 and 7.   Voters begin to arrive at 7 am before heading to work. After work is another popular arrival time.  On April 1 8:01 pm, a pole worker removing signs from the front of the building watched a panic stricken resident bound up the stairs hoping he still had a chance to vote.  No!

The warden is in charge of all proceedings and making decisions on how to handle unusual situations.  An example is Cynthia, warden for (8-6), who gives inspectors their assignments, rotating them across positions over the course of the day. She also makes sure the clerk records the day's notable events in the clerk's record book. 

Following the Rules

The voting process has to be tightly controlled to ensure that no irregularities occur. For example, no one is allowed to enter the polling station unless they are a voter or translator for the voter.  The exceptions are those people who introduce themselves and state their purpose - a specific candidate's poll watcher, a political reporter or Election Department employees.  All of this the clerk, Gregory in (8-6), adds to the clerk's record book.

An inspector checks the voter in by street address and name using the voter registry list specific to that polling place. No identification is required.  After the ballot is marked, a police officer again records voter identification in a second voter registry list.  The voter slips the ballot into the voting machine - voting complete.  On occasion, a voter may become upset because their name is not on the list or they were just sent from another polling site.  With a direct cell phone into Marty and other election officials, Warden Cynthia in (8-6) is able to clear a procedure allowing the voter to vote with a special ballot to be further processed at election headquarters.

Fire Alarm - Evacuate

Sometime after 7 pm on April 1, Vine Street Community Center's fire alarm sounded and everyone had to leave.  The fire department arrived quickly and soon gave the all clear. Apparently a smoke alarm near an elevator had gone off. So it wasn't "the kids" pulling a prank as some people said.  While the group was waiting outside, a woman asked: "Where's the warden?"  She wanted to know how they could still vote if they weren't allowed back into the building.  Based on that incident, Cynthia is now planning to take voting materials with her outside. Just in case.

Staring humbly down at her study book at the back table, the police officer didn't look up when Cynthia offered her praise.  Apparently the two police officers for precincts (8-6) and (8-7) had stayed in the building to guard the polling places. That's how important the voting process is regarded by all of the people involved.

The People Side of Voting

This represents the technical side of the voting process.  Pole workers have come to appreciate the in-depth training provided by Marty Kain annually - a refresher and any updates on the process.  How to relate to the voters is left somewhat to the discretion of each precinct and the personality of the group.  The polling place team needs to convey competency to the voter but they also need to be pleasant and courteous, helping ensure the voting experience is a positive one.

Precinct 8, Ward 6 is an example of a polling station that goes beyond expectations, ensuring the voters feel heartily welcomed. Warden Cynthia knows many of the voters well, as does Maria, who speaks Cape Verdean Creole fluently. Both Judith and Lulu can recall the details of the last time many of the residents came to vote.  As for Nancy, she is a newbie but the memories are growing.  It is standard in (8-6) for team members to greet the voters warmly, often by first name, engaging them in personal chitchat. Hugs and kisses are the rule.

If someone is a first-time voter, they are treated royally. Ready to walk out with their "I voted" sticker in hand, they leave with the pole workers breaking out in a cheer and clapping. "Thank you for voting. See you again."  Big smiles tell you how they feel - surprised at all the attention  and delighted with good memories.  Likely they are thinking to themselves, "I'll be back here again."

The same approach is used when there are kids.  At the checkout table, parents with toddlers in hand get to say if their children helped them in the voting process. Of course! So the parent gets enough stickers to make everyone happy.  Another round of clapping and cheers - with families leaving on a high.

More Information

Working the polls is an eye-opening experience. You will more deeply appreciate the City of Boston's efforts at ensuring the voting process is smooth and technically correct. Except for annual training sessions hosted by Election Department, a poll worker's involvement is strictly on Election Day. Yes, the hours are long but the memories are great. Contact the Election Department at 617.635.3767 if interested in pursuing this work.

Posted: April 6, 2014     Nancy J Conrad

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