“I was supposed to get a mail-in ballot. It never came,” a voter said, stepping up to our table at the polling place in Sebastopol.
There is a step-by-step guide to absolutely every situation a poll worker might run across, so we searched through the folders, each one filled with detailed instructions of dazzling technicality.
“Here! No wait, this is if you want to change parties. Do you want to change parties?”
Wendy read from the binder: “If the person is listed as a mail-in ballot, but has no ballot, then the supervisor must call the office to cancel the mail-in ballot, then the voter can vote at the poll.”
Tom took out his phone and got through immediately. The ballot was canceled.
“That was easy,” said Tom, “Now you can vote here.”
“Provisional ballot or regular ballot?” I ask. Our eyes dimmed as we all looked at each other.
“Provisional — since they had a ballot mailed to them,” one suggested.
“Regular — because the mail-in ballot was canceled,” another said.
Wendy looked up their party on the roster. It was listed as “No Party,” which meant they could choose a Democratic, Republican, American Independent or No Party ballot. They chose Democrat.
I wrote down their roster number on my hourly public-voter-update sheet, and Genie handed them a ballot inside a manila “security folder” with instructions taped to the front.
Next up: A voter had filled in their mail-in ballot, but now wanted to change it because their first-choice candidate had quit the race.
Could they do that? Did we have to call someone? Should we give them a provisional or regular ballot? Did they have to be in our precinct? We discussed the options, reading various “Insert flap A into slot B”-type instructions.
Slowly, slowly we came to agreement. This is good, because we had over 100 ballots voided by the end of Election Day.
I want to say that I volunteered to be a poll worker out of civic duty, but really, I did it for the entertainment. Starting at 6 a.m., it was a 16-hour day, juggling hand sanitizer, voting equipment and the public. There was an option to work just one shift, but we all stayed, not wanting to miss anything.
We were three clerks (supposed to be four) and an inspector. We set up for the first hour then opened.
The first voter was asked to witness the empty ballot boxes and the official “Locking of the Boxes,” which had all the formality (if not the pomp) of the changing of the Queen’s Guard. From then on, the ballot boxes had to be guarded by a majority of the poll workers.
Tom and I brought hand sanitizer wipes. We traded virus stories and agreed to use coronavirus handshakes (elbow to elbow). Periodically, we wiped pens, tables and hands. Between waves, we regrouped and sanitized.
A young woman came in, looking around and a bit shy to approach us. It was her first time voting. I took a picture of her in front of a booth with her cellphone. We were all excited. Analy High had a class about voting, so several of the students who live nearby came in to vote.
As the day wore on, there were more dilemmas: We had people who were registered, but wanted to change parties; people who moved to Sonoma County recently and thought they were registered to vote, but never received anything; people who had wrong addresses listed. We had voters who had changed their names, but their names hadn’t been changed in the roster. We had people who didn’t know where their polling place was; didn’t speak English; were legally blind; or needed to register to vote.
By the end we were cranky and a bit slow-witted, following page after page of instructions for maintaining ballot secrecy and integrity.
The last hour was in slow motion. Every time there was problem, each of us had a different opinion on what should be done. We searched for instructions, discussed possibilities and found resources. Slowly, slowly, after discussion and research, we agreed upon solutions.
It reminded me of a time I went backpacking, and three of us had to detour around a mountain ridge where an avalanche of snow had blocked the trail. We came to a place where we disagreed where to go. We each argued our position — no agreement. We separated for a half hour to think and study maps. Reconvening, we still couldn’t agree. Finally, after another half hour, we agreed, with confidence, on the way forward.
We did the same thing at the polls. Four strangers, with respect, discussed and thought it out and found agreement. It was beautiful. Frustration, exasperation and irritation notwithstanding.
By 10 p.m., everything was packed, locked and signed. We lingered, reviewing the long, yet satisfying hours.
We agreed the best moment was after we had run out of “I Voted” stickers, around 6 p.m. Voters were disappointed, especially one woman who wanted one for her daughter. We searched the table, the floor, our pockets and came up with one.
“My daughter has collected these from every election since she was born — she’s saved every one,” she said. “Thank you all for being here.”