November 10, 2013 Watching the polls in Harlem
After calling Republican headquarters to ask about doing something on election day, I was told to contact the city board of elections, which in turn put me through a three-hour training session and assigned me to a polling site in, of all places, Harlem (at about 126th and Madison). The polling place was the 1775 Homes, which I think is a public housing project. Getting there at 5:30 am in the morning was a bit scary- though at night much less so (at 9 or 10 pm the main streets are still full of people so the scariness quotient was not so high).
Once I got there, everything went moderately smoothly. It was a low-turnout local election; my guess is about 30 percent of registered voters showed up. So there was not a huge problem with long lines, especially since we were overstaffed. We had one coordinator to tell us what to do, four Democrats and four Republicans; we could have gotten by nicely with two of each. Everyone was perfectly nice. The Dems handled one table for persons whose names began A-L, the Reps M-Z. (Ideally, the coordinator should have had some of each party at each table; but since the Republican mayoral nominee got only two votes in the precinct, I don’t think it made any difference). We needed one person to check off the names and another to trouble shoot.
We did have a lot of trouble with one issue: spoiled ballots. About one in four ballots were void, mainly because:
a) people didn’t realize they had to fill in ovals for each candidate, rather than putting an “X” or a “check mark” next to their favored candidates. After voting, they place ballots in a scanning machine which rejected improperly marked ballots (thus reducing the chances of a fiasco like Fla.. in 2000, but also creating more work for voters);
b) because some candidates were endorsed by multiple parties (for example, mayor-Elect Di Blasio by both the Dems and Working Families Parties) some people voted twice for the same office. Our coordinator kept trying to find a way to explain to people how to avoid this, though I worry that her directions may have created confusion as well. I was worried that her first set of directions may have inadvertently encouraged people to vote straight party tickets, and mentioned this to her (my one useful act of the day, other than letting my coworkers have some leftover churros from Le Churro). She was very accommodating, and then told people to cast only one vote for each office- a much clearer and more useful set of directions for most offices, except for one judicial election where people could actually vote for three judges out of the four on the ballot. (But since the sole Republican judicial candidate in that election only got 17 percent district-wide, I don’t think getting this wrong made a huge amount of difference).