Yesterday was my fourth time volunteering in a polling place, and my second time as an Assistant Chief. Unsurprisingly, it was quite a day. Our precinct consists of 2,460 registered voters, and we processed over 700 of them (28%) in the first two hours. Those first couple of hours were just insane. Lines filled the 40 x 80 gymnasium, then stretched a quarter-mile outside (in a light rain).
About an hour into this, while constantly being pulled in a dozen different directions, I asked myself, “Is it going to be like this all day? What if we lost power right now?”, then threw up in my mouth a little.
The touch screen machines, which I despise (previously) held up fine, but didn’t help us move voters through as quickly as we would have liked. Some voters fly right through the electronic ballots, but all it takes to slow the line to a crawl is for a few confused voters to stand there gaping at the machines like tapeworms attempting neurosurgery. I don’t blame the voters, I blame the machines. They need to go, and happily, they are.
Another complication was the fact that we ran four registration tables this election (A-C, D-K, L-R and S-Z). D-K consistently ran double to triple the length of the other lines and, naturally, people in that line got pissed as they saw people who came in after them get through other lines and out the door before the D-K folks had even reached their registration table. We couldn’t break up the distribution differently for complicated reasons, so we just had to roll with it. If it is not immediately apparent, the reason that we do not simply run four A-Z lines is because we wish to prevent people from voting four separate times over the course of the day (I believe there is some sort of rule against this).
I had a chance to talk with a representative from the registrar’s office later in the day, and asked what method they used to choose the alphabet distribution. It turns out they go by the thickness of the poll books. Not the most precise method, but not a terrible one either. The problem is that even if we divided up the poll books perfectly, one cannot predict how many people with surnames starting with “B” versus those starting with “G” are going to show up on election day. Some voters complained that we should have gone with a “first come, first served” rule to be “fair”. I held back from sharing the observation (given the overall reduction in throughput that individual “fairness” would have caused) that if they were standing a quarter mile back, outside, in the rain, their perception of fairness might differ.
I don’t really blame people for being cranky, although I would love for them to get a taste of an election from my point of view. After all, they just wanted to cast their ballots, then get on with their lives. And lots of people went out of their way to thank us (17 of us, and four student pages) for volunteering, which is always swell. The volunteers and pages were indeed fantastic. I am grateful to and proud of each and every one of them.
A little after 8:00am the line died down. For the rest of the day we enjoyed a sane flow of voters, and closed the polls promptly at 7:00pm. All told (including absentee ballots) 85% of our voters turned out. And I’m proud as hell of them, too.