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'Bubble' least of poll workers' troubles  (CA)
Kitty Felde     Pasadena Star-News   12 February 2008

"THE bubble" is the voting controversy du jour. Many "Decline to State" voters declined to ink in a little circle on their ballot that told the county's election machine to count their votes in the Feb. 5 Democratic presidential primary. Apparently many pollworkers declined to inform these voters that they had to fill in the "Democrat" bubble.

But I've got news for you. That was only one of a host of things that went wrong last week. I know. I was a pollworker. And I was responsible for some of those mistakes myself.

It's kind of like starting up a Starbucks from scratch, except that you've never made coffee before. You only got 90 minutes of training in a class with 500 other people, and they didn't even tell you how to make a double macchiato.

Then on your first day, more than half of your fellow workers don't show up on time. When they do, they bring a couple of kids along, who will create a most un-Starbucks-like ambience throughout much of the day.

You begin trying to set up all the coffeemaking equipment yourself. But as the hour of reckoning approaches, you discover that more than half of it doesn't work.

At 7 a.m., when the doors of our Starbucks - er, polling place - officially opened, we weren't close to being ready. And we made mistakes.

At first, we could find only Democratic ballots. Later, there was confusion about which ballots we were allowed to give to those Decline to State voters. We couldn't get the
fancy "Inkavote Plus" machine, intended to check ballots for problems, to work for a good couple of hours. So voters simply stuck their unchecked ballots directly into our ballot box.

The multilingual voting booth never worked at all. One voter begged me to translate the ballot propositions into Spanish. I took a shot, but warned that I could hardly translate them into English.

I was assigned to the provisional voter table, to assist voters whose names didn't appear on our official roster. Some had moved. Others had the wrong party affiliation. Some just wanted to cast their ballot near their work, rather than roll the dice on L.A. traffic and risk getting to their polling station too late. My job was to ask them to fill out a pink provisional envelope, then send them off with a ballot and specific instructions to come back to me so I could seal it inside.

I failed at this job, too. Before I could blink, several provisional voters simply stuck their naked ballots into the box without the required pink envelope, and headed out the door.

Not all the problems were our fault. In this predominantly African American precinct, a lot of registered Republicans wanted to vote for Barack Obama, who of course wasn't on their ballot. Some requested pens to scribble in Obama's name as a write in candidate ... for the Republican nomination. Several simply stomped out, saying they would not vote at all if they could not vote for the man of their choice.

By the time we closed our doors after 13 long hours, the kids were tired, cranky and hungry. Just like us. But we had many more chores to do: break down equipment and voting booths, reconcile four different lists of voters, account for every single ballot. One of my intrepid coworkers, in the middle of reading off names and addresses, fell asleep and started snoring.

If you were to evaluate our little startup, you'd likely say customer service was cheerful and enthusiastic. But the coffee wasn't all that great.

But our democratic process isn't a cookie-cutter operation. It is, instead, very human. Its success or failure depends on good people getting up before dawn, breaking fingernails trying to plug in voting booth lights, skipping meals because it is always too busy to take a break. It's ordinary people, who get tired and flustered, and who make honest mistakes.

I've acquired a new admiration for those pollworkers who do this every election. And I urge anyone who has ever uttered a complaint about butterfly ballots, or disenfranchised voters, or the dreaded bubble, to spend next Election Day in my shoes. Become a pollworker. Because this democracy of ours is only as good as the people on the ground who make it happen. That means you.

Kitty Felde is a longtime public radio journalist with KPCC 89.3-FM from Pasadena City College, National Public Radio for Southern California. Her play, "Journalist of the Year" is at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood through March 1.

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