Working at the polls: California Primary – June 3rd

By Vidya Pradhan

What is the sound of ballot papers rustling if no one’s around at the polls? Caught up in the rapidly evolving drama of the Democratic primaries, even the most die-hard political junkies in California apparently were oblivious to the fact that an election was conducted this Tuesday. It so happened that I was at the polls as a “Judge”, electing to spend the day at my polling place observing democracy in action.

I became a citizen last year, and with the fanaticism of the convert, plunged happily into the world of political news and gossip. Avoiding the mainstream media, variously termed MSM and TM( traditional media), I opted for the blogosphere, home of netizens and conspiracy theories.

It has always been somewhat of a joke that a country that has been a superpower for the last 50 years cannot conduct its elections without the specter of missing ballots and hacked voting machines. A new HBO movie, “Recount” rehashes the national anguish of the Floridian mangled ballots and hanging chads and, in the face of a never-ending war and American casualties in the thousands, the increasingly bitter lament of “It might have been Gore.” Another theory propounds a Dieboldian reason for John Kerry’s loss in Ohio in 2004.

So when I got a postcard in the mail asking if I would like to become a poll worker, I thought I would see for myself the innards of the political process at work. What I ended up with was a great deal of respect for the system and reassurance that, in California at least, there is no room for shenanigans. Once I was selected, I was asked to show up for a 3 hour training session at a local library. With me were perhaps a couple of dozen other “Inspectors” and “Judges.” Not withstanding these high-falutin’ titles, inspectors are the primary authority at polling places with judges assisting. “Clerks” form the third arm of the process, though all jobs are interchangeable on the day. I expected a sea of blue-haired ladies, but the crowd represented the diversity of California – every race and gender was represented.

The training was meticulous and thorough. All Election Day procedures were demonstrated and trouble shooting tips were circulated for further study. We were all trained on the electronic machines (Sequoia in Alameda County) and much to my relief, these have a paper trail that is protected like Fort Knox.

On June 3rd, we showed up early at our precinct to set up. Multiple seals are present on the scanning machines and touch screen voting machines and each is removed and tabulated by at least 2 poll workers. With me were not just the trained workers, but also a couple of high school students looking to make some money for prom and graduation parties. Each of us was at least bilingual, perhaps a criterion in the selection process and between the 5 of us, we could have tackled about 15 languages (we still got stumped when a large Afghani family showed up!)

By 7 a.m. we were set up and raring to go. Alas, nobody had bothered to alert the voters. With a dismally low turnout, we were woefully underutilized. Our precinct has about 1400 voters, of who about 45% vote by mail. The actual number who showed up to vote? 59.

The day ended up being spent getting to know each other and discovering, in some cases, that we lived practically next door. It had taken electioneering for neighbors to make contact and we shared our life stories and our world views with each other over the course of a long, boring day. Politics as a topic was carefully avoided, though somehow we managed to figure out by the end of the day who everyone else was rooting for!

Once polls closed at 8 p.m., it took us an hour to carefully tabulate the results and close the machines. The touch screen electronic voting machine never got used. Inertia and a perfectly functional scanning system suggest that it will be used only if mandated. A pity, since it could make the process so much faster and the results declared so much sooner.

We hauled our precious 59 ballots (now sealed and secured) to a central depository and were home 16 hours after we began that morning. Would I do it again? Hopefully, there will be a little more excitement in the air in November. Don’t forget to vote.

For those interested, there were 2 propositions in the ballot on June 3rd, both dealing with eminent domain( the right of the government to take private property for public use). Proposition 98 was defeated and Proposition 99 passed.

2 thoughts on “Working at the polls: California Primary – June 3rd

  1. Geeta Padmanabhan

    Great! If the electronic voting machine never got used, how did everyone vote? What was the alternative system? Why is there a choice?

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  2. vpdot Post author

    The older system is to mark your ballot with a pen and scan it into a scanning machine. It appeared pretty reliable when we tested it. The poll workers are used to this system and are very uncomfortable with the electronic voting machines since those are newer and have a poor reputation.

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