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A culture blog by Lauren Girardin, a San Francisco-based city girl who eats out and kicks about.

October 14, 2003

Diary of a Recall Poll Worker

Statewide Special Election (a.k.a. California’s Gubernatorial Recall)
San Francisco, California

4:48 a.m.
Tired of my snooze-button smacking, my boyfriend pushes me out of bed. I somehow shower, dress, eat some bread (Toast? No, I can’t handle toasting anything right now), and get myself ready all without completely waking up. Do some people really do this every day?

5:30 a.m.
I’m not supposed to take the ballots in a cab, but without a car it’s the only way I can get myself to the polling place at this unreasonable hour

Along for the ride is my precinct’s plaid-patterned heavy “rice bag.” Inside are six hundred official ballots that have been in my possession – in my apartment, in my living room, behind my couch – for four entire days. It was a profound temptation to erase Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name from the long list of candidates to replace Governor Gray Davis. Yet somehow, I behaved.

As the cab heads north out of the Mission District, the cabbie asks, “You gonna work at one of those polls today?” He takes my mumbled affirmation as leave to sing the praises of the body building front-runner: “Now, that Arnold. He’s gonna make one good politician once we elect him.” Unable to suffer a Mr. Olympia fan before coffee, I tell the driver that, as a poll inspector, “I’m not allowed to discuss the merits of anything on the ballot.”

Which is a complete lie when it’s just me and him in a cab.

5:50 a.m.
Damn, I’m early – I could have slept a little more.

I cozy up on the cold cement steps outside the locked community center that will serve as my precinct’s polling place. After a five minute wait in the desolate dark, I’m let into a cluttered, small arts and crafts room. Since I’ll spend the next 16 hours here, I’m thankful there are windows – even if they are dirty.

6 a.m.
As a newborn poll inspector, I’m hesitant and somewhat anxious, constantly referring to my opening procedures check-list to know what needs doing so I don’t screw up.

Only one of my clerks is punctual. Mikhail is an older Russian man and, as I suspected from our difficult check-in call yesterday, speaks and comprehends little English. We manage communicate through gestures; he helps arrange the voting booths, tables and chairs.

Rita appears at about ten after six, hunched over a cane, each movement careful and slow. She’s been a clerk a number of times, so I hope she’s at least competent if not efficient. She gets to work organizing ballots and supplies as best she can.

With one clerk elderly and fragile and the other practically voiceless, we’re not getting the room set-up fast enough.

Finally, at 6:30, my high school student clerk arrives. Holding tight to a vat of coffee, Lisa hangs signs, marks off the electioneering border, and powers up the Eagle (the computerized ballot reader used in San Francisco) without difficulty. She’s quick to learn, she’s nimble, and she speaks my language.

It’s nearly time to open the polling place, and several voters are already waiting. As required, I show the first voter in line the empty ballot bins.

7 a.m.
It worked: it’s time and we’re ready. I’m inanely pleased by my official aptitude when I announce: “The polls are now open.”

People arrive at a steady but tolerable pace, and my clerks and I get by.

Mikhail hands out ballots, which is about the only thing he feels comfortable doing because of the language barrier. Unable to describe the ballot or understand most questions, he’s a model of mute monotony. He can only shrug when I try to explain the other jobs.

8 a.m.
Only two hours in and already it’s a long day.

Rita dodders through the roster job, usually forgetting the voter’s name by the time she looks up the first letter. To be fair, at least she isn’t illegally asking for IDs or social security numbers. Though it might seem strangely inadequate, all we need is a registered voter’s signature in exchange for a ballot.

Elections are very much based on trust – and I need to trust that Rita will eventually find what she’s forgotten she’s looking for.

9 a.m.
“Ok, you’re not on our list of voters, so you’re probably at the wrong polling place. Let’s look at the map and find out where you’re supposed to be.”

“But, I’ve been voting here for years. I only live a block away. Right on Chestnut Street.”

“Yeah, it’s not your fault. A lot of people are voting somewhere new this time. They just redrew all the precincts…let’s see, are you on the north or south side of the street?”

“It’s the south side, I think. Right at the corner.”

“Oh, well, which corner of the intersection then? Yeah, really. It matters.”

“That one.”

“Riiight. You should vote at this other polling place. Here’s the address.”

I take a 15-minute break for a sucky coffee and a suckier bagel.

10 a.m.
Eventually the morning rush ends. Everyone else has gone to work so most of our elderly, retired voters make their way in.

Lisa tells me that she lives up in Marin County, a suburban area on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Lots of students in her class work on election day; the money they earn is donated to the school. To get to our polling place, she took a commuter bus into San Francisco at 4:30, and then got a cab the rest of the way. But, she gave the wrong address to the driver and wound up in North Beach, twenty minutes and a $10 fare from here. That’s why she was so late, the poor thing.

11 a.m.
Mikhail whispers, “Are there no blacks in this place?” Even he realizes our precinct is abnormally monochromatic compared to most of San Francisco.

Our mid-morning voters are a steady dribble of young women that sip Starbucks, wear designer jogging outfits, tote shopping bags and yoga mats, chirp on cell phones, and push baby strollers. I’ve heard rumors that if you spend enough time in the Marina you’ll see a dog in one of those strollers. I’m out of my element and my price range.

12 p.m.
When Mikhail returns from his lunch break, he slowly declares, “I like you. Very organized and nice. I vork with you again.” Oh good.

1 p.m.
Rita's a half an hour late returning from lunch. Sometimes clerks don’t bother to come back from meal breaks, and I suspect she’s off napping somewhere. I resign myself to calling the Department of Elections to replace her. Shuffling in just as I find the phone number, she lamely explains, “But I didn’t know the time – I don’t wear a watch!”

Laying on the guilt, I decide there will be no dinner break for the old lady. I hope I’m not being mean.

2 p.m.
Most voters are calm, patient, ordinary people. They come in, they sign, they vote, they leave. Since the recall election is unusually popular, we’re seeing newbie voters as well as those that don’t usually bother.

We were told to expect as much. No one thought we’d get tourists.

One visitor from Singapore politely asks permission to take a picture of us sitting behind our table. He lingers a while, just watching.

Soon after, a couple arrives. Having explained that they’re sightseers from Oregon, they snap a couple of photos and leave content, a souvenir sample ballot in hand.

I should be charging admission.

3 p.m.
Though Lisa's literate, and actually quite bright, her alphabetizing skills reek of auto-spelling correction, public school, and text messaging. Combine this with Rita's short-term non-memory and voters are asked their name a half-dozen times before we find them in the roster. It’s a painfully plodding process.

Some voters’ impatience begets bratty theatrics: raised voices, dramatic sighs and rolled eyes. Instead of showing frustration at slow-going polls, they should become a poll worker. But only well-intentioned students, immigrants, the elderly and the under-employed want this job. And ‘want’ is such a strong word.

4 p.m.
Bored, bored, bored. I want to take a crack at running the roster, so I ask Rita to monitor the Eagle for a while. All she has to do is tell people to put their ballot in the machine without compromising the voters’ privacy. No looking, no touching, just helping.

So, of course, there she is – leaning over the machine, reaching out, nosing the ballot slot.

Calmly and quietly, I say, “Rita, please sit behind the machine where you can’t see the ballots.” She immediately argues with indignation: “But I can’t read anything – my eyesight’s bad!” I explain that it’s the appearance that matters, and again ask her to sit. Miffed, Rita shuffles back to the roster clerk spot, grumbling, “Well, I’d rather work the roster anyway.”

Okay then.

5 p.m.
Our polling place is a disappointment to the few journalists and TV personalities that stop by. They seem to expect long lines of fanatical voters and a setting more glamorous than an art classroom.

6 p.m.
As the workday ends, more people come to vote, mostly young, cute men in nice suits. A couple of sheriffs stop by to make sure we’re okay, and especially that no one’s been electioneering.

I make frequent announcements explaining the ballot format and voting process. The repetition soothes the electorate herd, and gets them out faster. With a big smile, Mikhail turns to me and says, “You should make CD of you so you can rest.”

How long did it take him to think that one up?

7 p.m.
The last hour brings the desperate and harried voters. Residents of nearby cities like Oakland and Berkeley come in, as do people registered somewhere far away like Santa Monica or even Arizona. We explain over and over that only registered San Francisco residents can vote here. How can anyone be this uneducated about their right to vote?

A thick-brick of a man actually insists on voting even though he admits that he is, and has never been, a registered voter. I explain the law. Groping frantically, he counters, “Hey, I have a driver’s license!” I explain it’s not the same. “But I need to vote for Arnold!” he whines.

After he leaves, another Conan-connoisseur soon enters and we repeat.

8 p.m.
“The polls are now closed.” Go away.

Though my clerks and I have been at it for fourteen hours now, we still have to close up. There’s nothing more laborious than simple math once you’re dead on your feet.

Four hundred sixty-two people voted in our precinct. The recall lost and Bustamante got more votes than Arnold, at least in our small section of the Marina.

9 p.m.
Once all the counting, packing and cleaning is finished, at least two people have to hang around until a sheriff picks up the ballots. That’d be me and one unfortunate clerk, so I send Mikhail and Lisa home, keeping Rita with me.

If any precincts ahead of us on the sheriff’s route are overwhelmed or inept, it could be hours before we get out of here. We’re lucky though, we don’t wait long.

10 p.m.
Rita and I finally get to go to our respective homes. I wait endlessly in the foggy dark for my bus. Once on board, twenty minutes of the coach’s jolting, swaying and sudden stopping reminds me how exhausted I am and what a poor choice cheap coffee is for a long day of work.

After dumping my stuff on the couch, I listen to my messages. My friends are at a bar downtown, but I only have enough energy to shower and check the news.

It looks like the recall will easily pass, and that an accused groper with no political experience will be California’s replacement governor. Disgusted, I turn off the image of Arnold and Maria’s confettied celebration and crumple into the comfort of bed. It’s 11 p.m.