Saturday, July 21, 2012

Democracy in Action, Part 1

You would have to have been living under a rock to have missed the hanging chad disaster in Florida during the 2000 Presidential election.  Chads, of course, are the little bits of paper that are created when you punch holes in a data card (or, in this case, a ballot).  If the chad didn't totally release, the ballot could not be counted by the tabulating machine.   It's a bit of a problem for some votes to count and others not to (reference the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment), but the Supreme Court decided in Bush v. Gore that no alternative method of counting the ballots could be implemented within the statutorily prescribed timeframe and that Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' certification of George Bush as the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes should stand.   These 25 electoral votes were pretty important because they resulted in Bush eking by Gore in the electoral count and becoming the President of the United States.

I mention this debacle not because it's a nice piece of history to remember in this political season but because I've signed on to work this year's election as a poll worker.  You'll be happy to hear that Florida no longer uses either the infamous punch ballots or touch screen voting (which apparently had its issues as well).   Voters will complete their ballots by hand in a privacy booth and then take them to a scanning machine to be recorded.  (The paper ballots are retained for 22 months after the election in case a question arises.)   I learned about the current method of voting and much more at the training session for poll workers that I attended earlier this week.

The conference facility at the Cultural Center was filled to the brim with volunteer election workers.  (We actually do get paid something for our service but I don't think it's enough to compensate for the long day, which will start at 6 a.m. and run until the polling location has been tidied up after the polls close at 7 p.m.)  My team will be working at the Event Center (one of 35 polling locations).  I was told that the most important thing to remember is to bring lots of layers since the site gets icy cold.  The poll workers at the last election apparently were wearing hoodies and drinking coffee out of a thermos.  You can't leave once you get there so if you don't have what you need with you and there's nobody at home to bring you extra layers (or food!), you just have to tough it out.

The session started with a surprise visit by Ben Franklin (played quite handily by Lou Spacco).   We heard a bit about Ben's life both before and after he "invented" electricity by creating the lightning rod.  Of course we know that he is one of our Founding Fathers and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (which makes him an appropriate historical figure to address a bunch of election workers), but did you know that he also invented bifocals and established the first lending library and volunteer fire department?    Franklin's presentation is part of the Great American Comeback Tour that the Supervisor of Elections Office takes on the road to Charlotte County schools.  Franklin is joined by George Washington, Betsy Ross, Thomas Jefferson, Lady Liberty, and Abraham Lincoln.  If Spacco's role playing was representative, it's a fun way to teach kids a bit about American history.  (Here's a link to a recap of one of the presentations if you're interested.

Supervisor of Elections Paul Stamoulis ran the training session, and he did a nice job of instilling us with civic pride while explaining our responsibilities.  (We also were given a reference manual which outlines the various roles.   The most unexpected poll worker responsibility is to be able to lift 42 pounds with a co-worker.  I was happy to hear that my weight training might come in handy.)  I am going to be handing out ballots after voters have gone through the identification process.  There will be two people distributing ballots for each precinct, one for registered Republicans and one for registered Democrats.  It was suggested that we alternate parties during the course of the day in order to split the workload.  (I think this was code for "there won't be many Democrats voting in this election .")  

Some people will help out with early voting in addition to working the primary.  Three polling places will be set up across the County to accommodate voters who can't make it to the polls on August 14th.   These locations will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on August 4th through August 11th.   Stamoulis estimates that the cost to the County per early voter runs between $10 and $12 (depending upon the number of people who take advantage of this option.)  It's a small price to pay for giving people the ability to exercise their right to vote.   And here's something neat.  If you go to the Supervisor of Elections website (, you can preview what your ballot will look like by clicking on "View Your Sample Primary 2012 Ballot" and inputting a small amount of information.  You can also request an absentee ballot through the website if that's the easiest way for you to vote.  (The favored term these days is "vote by mail.")  

The long day aside, I'm kind of looking forward to serving as one of the "gatekeepers of democracy."   I'll report back on the experience once the day is over.   Don't forget to vote!

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