Democracy in Action

Inspired by the exhibition Creating the United States, I worked at the polls last week on Election Day. It’s taken me a week to recover from the tiring but important work.The first time I was eligible to vote in a presidential election was in 1972, when I cast an absentee ballot for George McGovern in Tennessee while I was a college student in Missouri. Despite studying political science, I knew little about presidential politics and was shocked that my candidate lost. I had even gone to see him at a campaign rally in suburban St. Louis where he appeared with Warren Beatty—who, I admit, was the much bigger attraction for me. [Just last week, Vanity Fair revisited that 1972 campaign through this fortieth anniversary “oral history.”]

I have voted in every election since, whether for a primary race, an off-year election, or a major presidential competition. Since 1977, I have voted here in Los Angeles, at a variety of polling places in my neighborhood—at a private residence, in the local floor covering store, at an elementary school, at a church, and at a skilled nursing facility. During all those elections, I gave little thought to the hapless poll workers who toiled to keep the lines short and the election running smoothly. I was frequently annoyed at how slow and cumbersome the process seemed…

…until this year, when spurred by our “Democracy Matters at the Skirball” initiative, I decided to volunteer to be a poll worker. Here was an opportunity for me to see democracy up close and from the other side of the table. Little did I know it would be one of the most challenging and exhausting jobs I have ever undertaken. I now have greater appreciation for the work of union activists who demand limited hours, mandated breaks, and safe working conditions!

The process began with a mandatory training session. The county workers crammed about eight hours of information into a scant two hours. My head was reeling when I left. Would I remember what goes in the white box or the green striped envelope? Would I figure out how to assemble the voting booths? What if I did something wrong that invalidated a vote? Luckily there are several safeguards built into the system to prevent my worst nightmare.

For poll workers, Election Day begins at 6:00 a.m., reporting for duty to assemble the voting booths, hang all of the directional signs, place all of the voting rosters on the table, and prepare the ballots. Last Tuesday, the first voters showed up at 6:30, even though the polls didn’t open until 7:00. When our poll inspector formally announced, “The polls are now open,” I took my seat at the table and didn’t budge until after noon—the first break of the day. That break lasted less than five minutes as I hurried to the restroom and tried to stretch my legs. My first food/drink break came at 1:30 p.m. as I quickly downed a power bar and drank some of the coffee in my thermos—all while still at my position. After a final short break at about 4:00, we kept working through 8:00. “The polls are now closed,” announced the poll inspector.

Then we began the arduous task of dissembling the polling booths and actually counting every ballot that was cast. My fellow poll workers—two very experienced men who had worked together for countless elections and were great teachers—and I counted and recorded every ballot: those cast on site, vote by mail surrendered, and provisional. Then we repacked every piece of paper and equipment we were given, including the American flag, the leftover “I voted” stickers, and an ancient cell phone in case we needed to call the county registrar’s office. At 10:15 p.m., my fellow poll workers and I left the polling place to deliver the ballots to the local Check-In Center for the count.

I trudged to my car, too tired to think straight, and headed home. While driving, I began to consider all I saw and learned on Election Day, and was proud of how well the system works despite the inevitable goofs. So, what did I learn from this civic experience that I didn’t know before?

1. First, poll workers in Los Angeles County are paid $105 for their time, which works out to about minimum wage.

2. Second, many voters have no idea how the process works. Questions I was asked: “Do I have to vote for everything on the ballot?” “What time will we really know the results?” “Roseanne Barr is running for President?” “I think I’m registered but really not sure—can you check for me?” “Hi, I’m not registered but can I vote anyway?” (Apparently some states have same-day registration but that is not the case in California.) The most frequent question was: “This is not my polling place, but can I cast my vote here anyway since I won’t get home in time?” (The answer is yes, you can cast your vote anywhere, but it will be a provisional vote and won’t be counted for a few weeks as the system checks to make sure you didn’t double vote.)

The most rewarding part of the experience was assisting first-time voters. Many were young voters who were newly eligible, and many were immigrants who were newly naturalized citizens—from Japan, Iran, South Korea, and Ghana. I loved demonstrating how the voting machine and Inkablot ballot work. It was also rewarding to hear a man say he had voted for Franklin Roosevelt!

3. Third, I became acutely aware of the complex issue of asking for photo ID, which is prohibited under California law (first-time voters are the only ones who need to show some type of ID). Even though it is against the law, the vast majority of voters assume they need to show an ID and willingly pull out their driver’s license or even their passports. Although I had previously supported the position that IDs not be required, I am rethinking that stance in light of the ease with which people can claim to be someone they are not. This issue is definitely worth a second look. 4. Fourth, it is fun to work the polls in Los Angeles and get to interact with movie stars and runway models who show up to vote like regular folks. [Perez Hilton’s gallery of celebs at the polls is fun to browse.] And no, I did not peek at their ballots to see how they voted!
Would I sign on to do this job again? I’m not sure. A colleague asked if it was like childbirth—you forget the pain and do it again. I’ll have to see how I feel when the next election cycle rolls around. In the meantime, I am very happy I had this experience and I encourage you to give it a try. Los Angeles County is in desperate need of poll workers. Our next election in the city of Los Angeles will be the mayoral primary election on March 5, 2013. Among the thirteen declared candidates are Frederic Prinz von Anhalt and David “Zuma Dogg” Saltzburg. How fun will that be!

To be a poll worker you must be a US Citizen, 18 years of age, and a registered voter. If you are interested, to learn more, visit

Posted in Democracy Matters and tagged , .

About Adele Lander Burke

Adele Lander Burke is Vice President, Learning for Life, at the Skirball. She creates and manages the Skirball’s adult continuing-education initiative, providing opportunities for adults to learn for learning’s sake, one of the greatest pleasures in life. Her portfolio also includes docent training for adult tours, an extension of the free-choice learning model that she enjoys developing. Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Adele considers herself an honorary Los Angeles native after living here for thirty-six years. And yes, her favorite performer is Adele!

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