Election 2012, As Seen From a Poll Worker's Seat

voting booth polling station
voting booth polling station

Election day has barely begun, yet both parties are already laying the groundwork to challenge the outcome. From the Democratic side, analysts have already raised questions about voter intimidation and the degree to which voting machines can be hacked. The Republicans, on the other hand, are more concerned about voter fraud, and have spearheaded efforts to enact voter identification laws.

I usually cover these sorts of struggles from a journalistic distance, but on Tuesday, I'll be a bit more hands-on. At 5:00 a.m., I will report to a polling place near my home, where I will spend the next eighteen hours handing people their ballots and helping them to use the marking machines. While I have never done this before, the New York City Board of Elections has made it clear to me that a large part of my job will involve balancing the Democratic and Republican agendas: Making sure that everybody who wants to vote is able to do so, and making sure that every vote is legitimate.

An Even-Handed System

The poll workers manual for the city of New York is the size of a small telephone book and covers everything from unpacking a voting privacy screen to helping a paralyzed voter to use the state's incredibly expensive ballot-marking device. But most of the book is concerned with preserving the legitimacy of the vote. There are dozens of pages devoted to -- among other things -- breaking the seals on the voting machines, assisting voters without influencing them, and providing multiple, independent readouts of the voting machine to several people, including a policeman and a voting coordinator.

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Every poll worker is paired with another worker from the opposing party, so every Democrat's work is overseen by a Republican, every Republican's work is overseen by a Democrat, and all of it happens under the watchful eye of the NYPD.

Along with ensuring the legitimacy of the vote, New York's biggest concern is ensuring that every voter gets a chance to cast his or her vote. The poll worker's manual contains instructions on how to procure an affadavit to vote, how to procure a court order to vote, how to challenge a voting report, and other ways to help people to cast votes, even if those votes may later be challenged.

The Opportunity

Two years ago, I was on jury duty for a criminal case. At the time, I was struck by the fact that a person's ability to take part in the justice system was closely tied to the amount of money they made. As a full-time, salaried worker, I had the luxury of taking several days off from work without worrying that the lost time would put me in financial straits or endanger my job.

But for many of my fellow prospective jurors, the situation was a bit more dire, and I watched as several people fudged, stretched the truth or acted insane in order to get out of jury duty. And even then, some of the ones who weren't rejected faced financial problems: Among those of us in the jury box, it was clear that we needed to render a judgment quickly, as several jurors couldn't afford to take another day off.

For jurors who weren't salaried, New York State offered $40 per day, a sum that didn't even begin to cover their lost wages. By comparison, the $200 that the state pays out for working at a polling station is downright princely: Counting the six hours of poll-worker class and the hours spent in setup and take-down at the polling station, it will probably come out to somewhere around $8 per hour, a little bit more than minimum wage. The comparatively hefty paycheck goes a long way toward explaining the collection of college students and retirees who filled my poll worker classroom. But, as Charlie, a grizzled veteran poll worker, pointed out to me, "You don't do this for the money. You do it to be part of the country, a part of history."

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.