October 31, 2012
Courtney Isaacs, who is 18 and will cast her first vote for president this year, says, "I always thought voting sort of happened magically. I didn't realize so much stuff happens behind the scenes."
Now that she's behind the scenes at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office, Isaacs knows there is no magic – no wizard behind the curtain, just Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles directing a small army of mostly temporary workers at the office on Kaley Street, 10 early-voting sites, and 227 precincts around the county.
The deploying of extra troops began with the January and August primaries. By the time the 2012 election is history, Cowles says, the county will have spent more than $3 million on some 400 temporary workers, all procured through companies such as Kelly Services. Many are back for a third or fourth time for jobs that pay between $9 and $12 an hour.
Isaacs, a Winter Park High grad, is among the temps who have ballooned the workforce at the Kaley office from 42 full-time employees to about 150, including parking attendants, the private security guard in the lobby, and the clerks who hand voters ballots.
But voters never see the great bulk of temp workers like Isaacs who labor off-stage in the service of democracy's ultimate show time – Election Day.
In a room beyond the lobby, Isaacs works on the "supply packing team" shipping the myriad items – from phones and extension cords to signs and pads of paper – necessary to transform a church or an Elks Club into a polling place. She was recruited by another temp, her grandmother, Lynne Isaacs, 70, who has worked several elections as a precinct services clerk, training workers for their polling-place duties.
In other rooms, rows of phone bank operators answer every imaginable voter question (more than 3,000 calls just on Monday); technicians test voting machines, ballots printers and laptop computers; workers prepare absentee ballots for mailing while a computer reads signatures on returned ballots to be cross-checked with voter ID rolls in yet another room.
The "accepted" ballots are sent across the hall in plastic tubs to what looks like company mail room. This is where the ballots are opened and tabulated. You can tell it's important because a sheriff's deputy is posted at the door.
Temp workers at tables remove the ballots from envelopes, smooth them out and put them in piles. At one table were three workers, all between jobs: Claudette Kelly, 57 (administrative assistant); Richard Freeze, 54 (engineer); and Karen Plaza, 50 (property management). None expected to end up counting ballots when they registered with temp agencies.
"Not knowing what goes on behind the scenes, I was kind of flabbergasted," Kelly says.
Sometimes they find a "surprise" in the envelope, she says. One voter slipped in a child's spelling test written in crayon. Some ballots have coffee or food stains. There is the occasional blank ballot.
"There was one with lipstick – like someone kissed it," Kelly laughed. "That made my day."
Behind the building with the maze of work rooms and offices is a 90,000-square-foot warehouse where the familiar "hardware" of elections is stored: vote machines, voting booths, tables, chairs, signs, orange cones for traffic control. There's also a records vault where Cowles is required to keep ballots for 22 months after each election.
Sunday morning, 25 trucks will arrive to take the show on the road, temp workers loading the "sets" for transport to the 227 precincts. Many of the 300 temps who manned the early voting sites will work Election Day.
By Friday everything will be returned to Kaley Street and 400 temporary workers will be looking for their next gig.
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