It’s a few minutes before 10 p.m. on Election Night in an airless gymnasium in Brooklyn. News has been leaking in about the results – Donald Trump is leading in battleground states North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio – and everyone working the polls is a little on edge. We’re dissembling all the polling equipment and tallying ballots when, suddenly, my fellow poll worker shouts, “We’re missing 60 ballots! I’ve done the numbers and we’re 60 ballots short.”
I’m stunned. At this point, we’ve all been working since 5 a.m. — a 17-hour shift. Frustrated, exhausted, and anxious about the election results, I offer to use my phone’s calculator. The poll worker refuses, insisting that they can do this all by hand. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and try to recall why I wanted to work the polls in the first place.
I think it was because I wanted to see democracy in action. Or help elect the first female president. Or, maybe a small part of me wanted confirmation that our country’s elections aren’t rigged, as President-Elect Donald Trump has been insisting for months, most recently last night.
Based on our required training, which was led by a woman in skintight gold leggings who breezed through hundreds of slides in three hours, I imagined the Board of Elections to be a well-oiled machine.
As she explained it, a Coordinator runs each polling site and four to five workers are assigned an Election District (ED). Each ED worker is assigned a specific task, ranging from signing in voters to helping run the scanners or Ballot Marking Device. Workers followed simple protocols to open and close the polls and there was a manual to answer any questions that might arise.
In hindsight, there were warning signs that operations might not go as smoothly as I hoped. [Ed: The author of this story requested anonymity because they are a city employee and fear reprisal.] The trainer quickly dismissed a classmate’s request to review the mechanics of setting up an ED table or practice operating the scanner, reiterating that, “all we needed to do was review the manual before showing up on Election Day.”
There were also few incentives to keep trainees engaged: poll workers only make $200 an election cycle for a shift of 16 hours or more of chaotic work, and the final “test” was open book (going so far as to direct you to the page in the manual where you could find the right answer).
An hour before the polls opened, and with a line of voters waiting patiently in the cold darkness outside the building, the gym where we were assigned was already in chaos. Unlike smaller sites, this polling location had around 8 EDs and 40 workers. The scene reminded me of arriving at an airport the first day of a transit strike years ago.
I looked around the room, catching the eye of one of the many retired women who dutifully serve the BOE year after year. She showed me to my ED and kindly explained that we were waiting for the NYPD to bring the keys necessary to begin setting up.
The police showed up 30 minutes late even though the precinct was literally next door. We worked as fast as possible to open the polls and sat down just as the first voters walked in.
They were the lucky ones: No lines, no technical malfunctions, and no workers discouraged by hours of monotonous work for less than minimum wage. As the morning rush continued, the lines became longer (two EDs experienced waits of over an hour) and one out of the three scanners broke down. Voters snaked around the gym to sign in, use a privacy booth, and scan ballots.
To their credit, the BOE maintenance team arrived before the morning rush ended (an hour, give or take, after the break down) to fix the scanner. That said, a worker assigned to the scanners muttered that had we been trained in basic scanner maintenance, it might have been fixable in minutes.
The day wore on, punctuated by staggered hour-long breaks where you could vote and eat. Workers were either stressed or bored, depending on their Election Districts; certain districts had long lines throughout the day, while others never experienced a surge bigger than five or six voters. Officials draw districts in the city without consideration to population density. At my location, for example, some districts encompass a few blocks of one to four family homes while others cover multiple college dorms and large co-op buildings. In addition, the BOE provides a single registration book to some of these large election districts, effectively blocking any triage by last name and further slowing the voting process.
The overwhelming use of Affidavit ballots, provided to voters who could not be found in the BOE registration book, also slowed down the voting process.
Affidavit voters had to fill out an information form and ballot and return both back to their ED so the Affidavit ballot could be verified and sealed. Many of these voters were justifiably upset – one man explained, after waiting an hour in line, his voice quavering, that he had voted in the past five elections in this very gym and couldn’t fathom why he wasn’t on the rolls.
On average, these ballots took 5-10 extra minutes of a worker’s time. By mid-afternoon, one ED had so many that they ran out of the pages in their registration book used to track Affidavit ballots.
Despite my fellow poll worker’s claim, a calculator proved we didn’t lose 60 ballots. The Great Panic over almost as quickly as it began, the Coordinator released my ED into the uncertain and increasingly terrifying night.
The voting process in New York needs serious reform – including designating Election Day as a holiday, early voting, electronic voter registration tablets, centralized polling centers (so poll workers can be deployed in shifts), and more rigorous worker training and testing.
At a conference on voting sponsored by the Citizens Union two weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the process in New York City “backwards,” and voiced his supported for some of these reforms, including early voting and electronic check-in. The mayor also repeated his offer of giving $20 million in funding to the BOE if it makes substantive reforms.
But the BOE refuses to take the mayor up on the offer, and larger reforms — like same-day registration — would require a recalcitrant state legislature to act. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attempts to substantively change the system have largely failed.
Long lines, confusing registration deadlines, and faulty equipment may seem like minor inconveniences, but they are all forms of what the mayor has called “passive” disenfranchisement, which has real consequences. The United States Election Project estimates that 52.4% of New York’s eligible voters participated in November’s general election, a rate lower than all but five states — Hawaii, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.
Until our elected officials make voting reform a priority, New Yorkers can continue to expect disorganized, inefficient, and disenfranchising elections.