Poll workers can help keep elections fair

  • Posted on 30 September 2004
  • By Danila Oder

The total votes cast in a precinct may not seem like much: 350-800 people. But the cliché 'every vote counts' is true. In November 2003, a Culver City school board race ended in a tie. (The winner was chosen by drawing colored marbles from a bag.) In March 2004, Sierra Club member Lynne Plambeck won her election to the board of the Newhall County Water District by 127 votes. Another incumbent won by 11 votes.

Though most voters overlook these local elections, they matter. Plambeck's 3-2 environment-friendly majority now has clout in planning urban water management in the Santa Clarita Valley. Environmental decisions about which pesticides can be used on school grounds and whether schools use renewable energy can be affected by school board members. Such small steps at the local level make conservation legitimate and move it into the mainstream.

Poll workers play a critical role in making every vote count. As a voter, I've seen poll workers who were unable or unwilling to help voters resolve their problems. Some voters have gone home in disgust. Others have cast ballots that I knew wouldn't be counted.

That's why alert, educated poll workers are so important. Here are a few of the problems we encounter with paper ballots. (Marked paper ballots will be used in L.A. County until at least 2006.) Poll workers are supposed to show all voters how to vote. In the March election, I made sure to give every voter in my precinct a demonstration of the new optical-scan ballots. They look like punch cards, but if you press hard on the marking pen, the resulting black dot can smear if you touch it right away. I made sure every voter knew to let the ballot dry before handing it over. Do you think every voter in the county was properly instructed? I'd bet votes on hundreds of smeared ballots were later invalidated.

Here's another problem: someone comes into the wrong polling place. Poll workers should go out of their way to help the voter find the right polling place. We have maps and some information that can help. But often poll workers say only 'call the Registrar-Recorder' and hand over the phone number. Too bad: the phone is busy most of the day.

Sometimes, poll workers don't offer a demonstration to a voter whose English is weak or to an obviously youthful voter, both of whom may be voting for the first time. On their own, these people may figure out how to cast a valid ballot. But they won't know that if they make a mistake or change their mind, they're allowed to request and receive a new, clean ballot card.

Poll workers' jobs are always changing. Electronic voting will require voters to learn another method of voting, and consolidated precincts will mean many voters will get lost and need accurate directions to their new polls. Poll workers who know their jobs, who thoroughly educate their voters, and who are committed to giving every person in the polling place the full information s/he needs, can ensure that every legitimate vote in their precinct is counted.

It's a small action, but it can have big results.

Take action - Work the polls

(State law allows high school seniors to serve as poll workers.)

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