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Not Your Average Tuesday: On Being A Poll Inspector

John Minchillo
A child watches as a polling worker waves over an early voter to an open booth at the Franklin County Board of Elections on Monday in Columbus, Ohio.

On November 8 I’ll be an election inspector at a local firehouse in Springs in East Hampton, NY, where, a fellow inspector reminds me, there’ll always be fire trucks and an ambulance. Not to hype a crisis, but it is possible some people will get frustrated waiting in line, especially hourly workers who can’t take more time off. 

For sure, in this most contentious of elections, there’ll be long lines, and I bet many people will not have read beforehand the proposal that’s also on the New York ballot, even though the local press runs copies.

The co-president of the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons says she supports the League’s recommendation that Election Day be a national holiday, a move that would require an act of Congress, though Congress these days doesn’t seem too keen on enacting anything.

Some people have also suggested changing the day. Tuesday rules because in olden days farmers needed several days to get to the polls in their buggies. In the interests of uniformity and equity, it’s also been suggested that all states offer early voting.

At this juncture a majority of states allow it, but not New York or Connecticut. What’s more, some states permit absentee ballots only when there’s a recognized excuse as to why a voter can’t make it to the polls – severe illness, being out of the country or state or a conflict with work. So voting, at least from an inspector’s point of view, can be complicated. There are early ballots, absentee ballots, spoiled ballots – all of which have to be processed differently. There’s also my favorite for complication – affidavits.

Affidavits are provisional ballots used by those whose names do not appear on the official lists but who insist they are eligible to vote. They may be new voters who need to present proper ID or folks who addresses have changed recently, putting them in a different election district.  Affidavits can be troublesome. In New York City in last spring’s primary, 90,000 out of 121,000 affidavit ballots were tossed out.

A fellow inspector points out potential problems with signatures. Sign-ins are compared to previous signatures, but suppose illness intervenes between the last election and the current one and the signature looks different? Unless ID can resolve the issue, an inspector must administer and record a Preliminary Challenge Oath, then a Qualification Oath. Wait, there’s more. In Springs, with a growing Latino population, there’s also concern that ballots in Spanish are presented fairly. In any case, all this registering, checking, vetting, filling out forms and filing different ballots in different folders takes time. And patience. All around.

And now, what about ballot selfies? Taking a picture of a ballot is not permitted in many states, including New York, though Connecticut says it’s OK. The prohibition dates to old days when votes were bought and ballots were displayed to prove the deal. Selfie supporters say that taking pictures is a great way to encourage younger voters, and they may have a point.  

Meanwhile, The United States are not united on this issue. As an election inspector, I can’t wear partisan buttons or clothing, but I am thinking of pinning on a sheriff’s badge, which I got for Halloween, and bringing along a lot of aspirin.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.