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Electing to serve: Poll workers get ready for election

Poll workers are serious about making elections run smoothly

POSTED: August 31, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Charlotte Sosebee-Hunter, interim elections director for Hall County, shows poll workers a portion of their kit that can easily measure the distance campaigning must be kept from the poll during Tuesday afternoon's training session at the Georgia Mountains Center.

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Back in the 1940s, poll worker Melvin Thomas hand counted votes past midnight in a school house, illuminated by the light of gasoline lanterns.

Fast forward to today, when Thomas, now 78, still works the Hall County polls with wife, Bobbie, but a lot has changed.

Today, each voting precinct is armed with an array of technological devices aimed at making the voting process run more smoothly for both voters and poll workers.

"I think the new generation can pick (the technology) up," Thomas said. "I have young people that can do most of the computer stuff (at my precinct). However, I'm computer illiterate myself. I don't even own a computer, I don't want one."

The same technological skills that evade Thomas are shrugged off as routine by Flowery Branch High School senior Rebecca Staley, 17, who also is a poll worker.

"I think the younger generation doesn't have a problem with computers," Staley said. "I think the older generation is slower to pick it up and some people don't like change, so for younger generation, it's going to be easier."

At a recent poll worker training session, Charlotte Sosebee-Hunter, the interim elections director of the Hall County Elections Office, assured the audience at the poll worker training seminar that information technology people would be able to diffuse technological snafus on Election Day.

"We are trying to implement computer-savvy people, at least one, at each precinct," Sosebee-Hunter said, noting that many poll workers who work with the voting machines for the first time tend to "freeze up" at the indication of any error.

Sosebee-Hunter said she had to replace 22 of the 40 poll manager positions that she oversees this year for a variety of reasons, including some people who are retiring and some who are moving. This means a wave of fresh faces are learning about the poll process and technology, while those who have worked the polls for years are encountering a slew of changes as the voting process evolves.

Sosebee-Hunter acknowledged that since the ballot problems that happened in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, the Hall County Elections Office has increasingly incorporated the use of technology in an attempt to make elections run more efficiently and accurately.

Some examples of technology being used to assist in voting include:

  • Voting stations are set up with express electronic voting machines that look like self-checkout machines from the supermarket, only they read votes, not grocery barcodes.
  • On these machines, the press of a single electronic button could cast or cancel a vote.
  • At the end of the day, memory cards filled with votes, rather than boxes filled with paper ballots, will be taken to the central elections office to be processed.
  • A cell phone is distributed to each poll manager so that the elections office can maintain contact with the voting precincts.

But this election, the Hall County Elections Office is trying to crack down on human error, which caused problems during the presidential preferential primaries in February.

A Hall County polling precinct neglected to check the identification of 10 voters, drawing a complaint and then an investigation by the Georgia Secretary of State's Office.

Hall County elections officials, now well aware of the problem, are working to ensure it doesn't happen again.

At training sessions last week, Sosebee-Hunter reminded poll workers to "stay focused. We want to keep a constant flow at the precincts. This is not the time to get caught up on the neighborhood gossip," she said, slapping the index cards against the palm of her hand for emphasis.

Staying focused is easier said than done. The job of a poll worker comes with layers of responsibilities and nuances. In addition to controlling the flow of voters waiting in line, ensuring that each voter is registered to vote in that precinct and handling voting equipment, poll workers must know the ins and outs of polling laws.

And recent updates to other state laws are thrown into the mix. During a recent training session, one attendee asked if the new Georgia gun law would affect their response if someone other than an on-duty police officer came in with a concealed weapon. Sosebee-Hunter said no.

In addition, poll workers try to stay ahead of voters' questions by highlighting important regulations in bright colors. A lime-green string is issued to poll workers so that they can use it to draw a line 150 feet from the voting location, the maximum distance at which people can campaign. A red, kite-shaped sign reminds people in line that they are not allowed to campaign - and that means no political shirts, buttons or stickers while you wait to vote. Bright orange totes are used to seal provisional ballots.

There's a lot to take in when it comes to being a poll worker. The pay starts at only a little more than minimum wage -- from $8 an hour for a clerk to $9 an hour for an assistant manager and $12 an hour for a manager. And technological complications coupled with managing the voter rights of the hundreds or thousands that will stream through the precinct that day can make it stressful.

So why do people want to be poll workers?

For some, like Brenda Leroy Williams, managing a precinct has been a tradition handed down through the generations.

Williams said, "My grandfather, William Couch, used to be the manager of the Whelchel precinct years ago, before they paid people to work. Then when he stepped down, my mother became manager and then when she stepped down, I came in. Now I talked my niece into helping us. I just think that it makes the community better," Williams said.

For others, like the Parris family of Gillsville, managing a poll precinct is becoming a family tradition. Along with their father, David Parris, four of the oldest Parris children -- Elisabeth, 21, David, 20, Jonathan, 19, and Sarah, 16 -- make up a poll team.

"We work well together as a family," Parris said. "When you're doing this, there's a lot to get done and you have to be prompt and accurate and have to know where the strengths and weaknesses are in your group, and who would you know better than your family?"

So for many poll workers, the hours they put in behind the scenes -- dealing with frustrated voters, checking IDs and hauling and repacking polling equipment -- are for something deeper than civic duty. Whether or not they have family involved, they are carrying on the tradition of enabling American citizens to have their say through the voting process.

Parris said: "We want every person to be able to vote, and we want every person's vote to count if they're entitled to vote."



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