Cher Gilmore | Reflections from a Poll Worker in the 2020 Primary

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Working the polls this year was decidedly different from working them in previous years. The main reason was the new computerized voting system that premiered in the primary election just completed, but there were other changes as well: having 10 days for early voting, consolidating many of the old polling places into fewer voting centers, permitting same-day voter registration, and allowing voters to vote at any center in Los Angeles County. 

I worked all 11 days at two different voting centers— eight days at the Newhall Community Center on Market Street and four at the Valencia Library. The Community Center had 80 voting machines (Ballot Marking Devices, or BMDs as they’re called) and was open all 11 days for voting, but it had very few voters until around 4 p.m. on the last day. That center processed about 700 voters altogether. 

The library was open only four days for voting, had only 10 BMDs, and processed more than 1,200 voters during that time. On the last day, the line of people waiting to vote stretched out of the library and almost to the parking lot, and the wait time toward the end of the day was from one and a half to two hours. Two things were clear: People tend to vote at places that are most familiar to them (many were unaware that the Community Center existed), and most people wait until the last minute to vote. Some weren’t aware that they could have voted during the previous 10 days, but others said they chose not to vote early because they didn’t want to waste their vote if their presidential candidate dropped out of the race before the final day. 

For those of you who voted by mail and didn’t get to experience the new voting process, it went like this: Voters were checked in by one of several clerks, who found their record by either scanning the bar code on their sample ballot or entering their name and other identifying information manually into an e-pollbook. 

The e-pollbooks are mini-computers (like an iPad) connected to the central database, which made it possible for new voters to register on the spot and others to make address corrections or change their party preference before they voted. 

From the voter’s record, the clerk printed a ballot for the voter to take to a Ballot Marking Device, where another clerk was stationed to explain how to insert his or her ballot, make selections, confirm all choices, and finally cast the ballot into a sealed box at the back of the BMD. Voters who were computer-savvy found the process quick and simple; others took a little more time to get used to it, but almost everybody said they liked using it. 

As a check-in clerk greeting voters and using one of the e-pollbooks to find their records, I found most people patient and pretty good-humored when there were delays while the e-pollbooks were syncing with the central database, when I was having a hard time finding their record, when they were waiting for a BMD to become available — and even when they had been waiting in line for two hours to vote. 

That certainly made my job less stressful than it could have been. 

I liked using the e-pollbook, too, and being able to make corrections in voter records immediately, even though that required more time for the check-in. 

Did the system work perfectly? I’d have to say no, but for its “maiden voyage,” it did the job reasonably well. For the next election, I’d like to see voting machines better placed according to where people are likely to vote (e.g., more at the library and fewer at the Community Center), and I think poll workers using the system for the first time need much more hands-on training with the equipment — including all the various anomalies they may encounter — before they face voters. 

Actually, I was rather glad I had several days of on-the-job training at the Community Center with a trickle of voters (no pressure!) before I had to handle the rush at the library!

As for early voting, 10 days seems a bit excessive to me. I think four or five days would be plenty, provided some are on weekdays and some on weekends — especially when so few people take advantage. 

But overall, my experience with the new system — once I got through the learning curve — was positive, and I believe when adjustments are made based on feedback from this first trial that both the county and voters will find it an improvement.

I do wonder, though, when I’ll stop waking up from dreams of trying to solve a voter’s knotty check-in problem…

Cher Gilmore has worked the polls for several years, and lives in Newhall.

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