I did not make it to many of the big events leading up to last week’s Democratic presidential primary. Out of all the dinners, town hall meetings, the CBS debate, Trump’s rally, etc., I went and held a sign outside the debate promoting my family’s restaurant to have a little fun in the middle of it all. But after that, I did spend all day Saturday as a first-time poll worker on election day.
A few months ago a friend posted information for anyone who had interest in becoming a poll manager, one of the people who helps people vote at local precincts. A few email correspondences and a short class later, I was on my way to viewing elections from a new perspective.
What quickly became very apparent to me was how naïve I was about the enormous operation required to have an election. When President Donald Trump called on states to cancel their Republican primaries, I think most election commissioners were secretly elated. On Feb. 29, Charleston County alone had 182 precincts and 95 different polling locations. That means 95 boxes meticulously filled with supplies. Some 519 voting machines, 110 scanners, and 166 laptops must be distributed. Enough workers must be hired for every single polling place. And that is just the set-up. At closing time, dozens more people are back at the county election headquarters unloading cars, sorting papers, and checking numbers. It is a huge undertaking.
Poll workers are required to show up at 6 a.m. the morning of election day and are not allowed to leave the premises for the entire day — in our case, that was until 7:45 p.m. This is a long commitment that very few people can make, especially considering most elections are held on Tuesdays. (All the more reason to make election day an official holiday.)
I ended up becoming a precinct clerk. This means I was in charge of the entire polling location. The job entails picking up the signs, laptops, and supply box the day before from the Election Commission office, setting up the night before, then dropping everything off back at the office after the polls close. The work of poll managers and clerks is not strenuous work, but it is detail-oriented and the hours are long. The number of heartfelt thank yous throughout the day were appreciated and noticed.
Due to Saturday’s election being a single-party primary, the day was mostly slow and without incident. But a few issues did crop up at check-in. The most common issue occurred among younger people who either weren’t registered at all or registered too late, which meant they weren’t in the system — a rule set by the state legislature that could be a column by itself. They were still able to cast provisional ballots, the fates of which would later be decided by the Board of Elections.
Other incidents that have the potential of causing catastrophically long lines would be voting equipment or computer malfunction. Thankfully all our machines worked properly all day. But in the event that something out of our control happens and check-in laptops go down or voting machines malfunction, workers must resort to pen and paper, so it is easy to see how long wait times can result.
I have a couple takeaways from the experience: If you are fortunate enough to have the ability to work a precinct on election day, you should consider it. There is no such thing as too many hands, and November’s general election is going to need them all.
Finally, have a good time voting. It never occurred to me before how communal election day is. The internet has taken away many of our opportunities to mingle with each other. Voting is a perfect time to see and talk to that neighbor you haven’t seen in a few years.
Ben D’Allesandro lives with his family in Charleston and is the co-owner of D’Allesandro’s Pizza, which has downtown, Summerville, and Greenville locations.