Confessions of a poll worker

Ellen Slezak is the author of the novel "All These Girls" and "Last Year's Jesus," a collection of stories.

I have been trained for 90 minutes. I know the names of the four jobs at the polling place: roster clerk, street index clerk, demo clerk and ballot box clerk. The following rules have been impressed on me, repeatedly: One voter, one signature. Don't ever lock the polling place doors. Insert all nine header cards into the InkaVote Plus machine before the polls open. A provisional voter does not sign the roster. VBM means voted by mail. VAP means voted at polls.

I can do this. At least that's what I'm telling myself.

On Super Tuesday, I will join thousands of other volunteers across the state and serve as an election clerk for the primary. I've been assigned to work at the Women's Club of Hollywood, which is not my polling place but is close enough to home that I can ride my bike there.

Or maybe not. My bike -- it has a basket. My basket -- it has two bumper stickers. They read: "Peace Out Bush" and "Defend America: Fire the Republicans." Another rule comes to mind: No electioneering within 100 feet of the polls. I will lock my bike to something that is 101 feet away.

Here's how this all came to pass. I signed a volunteer list to work as an election clerk many years ago, and nothing came of it until Jan. 21 at 8:30 a.m. That's when the phone rang. "Is Mary there?" a woman asked. I was noncommittal -- my default position when somebody asks for me by my legal name, not my true name, Ellen. "Maybe," I said. I warmed up when she said she was calling to see if "Mary" wanted to be an election clerk.

Lakesha, an efficient and helpful woman from the county registrar's office, told me about the 90-minute training class, for which I'd be paid $25. She explained that on election day, I'd work from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and be paid $80. That's 16 hours of work and $105 of pay or $6.56 per hour. I was not dissuaded. I make a modest living writing stories and novels, and I understand that the market is not the best place to measure the value of literary fiction or civic duty.

Lakesha told me that to start work at the polling place, I'd have to sign a loyalty oath. The sound of that made me nervous. "Loyalty to what?" I asked. "It's just so you'll get paid," she told me. OK, loyalty to a paycheck. She also told me to phone my election inspector. His name, she said, was "Peter ... wait, no, it's Michael." I crossed out Peter in my notes, wrote Michael instead. When I called an hour later to tell Michael that I was part of his crew, he said, "My name is Peter, and you're Mary?" "No, Ellen." Democracy is so messy.

I'll be honest here -- my primary feeling walking out of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration after my training class was this: How in the hell does the right man or woman ever get elected? And by "right," I simply mean the one who got the most votes from the voters. This election stuff is a big undertaking.


I've never not voted, by the way. Usually I go to the polls and punch my card in person, but occasionally I VBM. I'm a political junkie. I'm addicted to C-SPAN 1 and 2. I listen to Air America radio. I even sputter and grumble through 30 minutes a day of Rush Limbaugh, just to hear another point of view. I've volunteered in many ways over the years. For instance, in October 2004, I drove from my "safe" state of California to campaign for John Kerry in up-for-grabs Nevada.

The first night of that trip, I checked into the room I'd booked at the Tropicana hotel in Las Vegas. It was about 7 p.m., and I was dragging. My day had started at 4 a.m. with the four-hour drive from Los Angeles, and it stretched through another 10 hours of walking through neighborhoods and knocking on doors and trying to convince growling dogs that I came in peace. The hotel clerk who checked me in didn't even look up as she clicked and clacked away on her keyboard. But it turns out she saw me after all. She said, very quietly, "You've booked a room in the really cheap seats, and I have to tell you, Ms. Slezak, I want healthcare. I want my Social Security to stay secure. I want the right to form a union. And I see by those campaign buttons you're wearing that you're here to help us in Nevada get those things, so let's just give you a free triple upgrade to the Island Tower Suite." At that, she looked up and asked, "Would that suit you, Ms. Slezak?" She was offering me a hand -- one person to another -- and it suited me on many levels.

When I think of politics and elections, I think of all of us who are trying to make our way in the world. We the people. We the people who vote, volunteer, fight for our rights, kindle dreams and offer triple upgrades when we're able. We the people who do all this not because we hope that one candidate or another does or does not get the vote. We the people who do it because it's yet another way to show we care. For each other. What is a country if not its citizens?

So, please, on Tuesday, and then again in November, don't forget to vote. And, please, be patient with your election clerk when you do -- she means well, but she's only had 90 minutes of training.

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