Whitney Quesenbery on Poll Work and “Election Culture”

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My friend and colleague Whitney Quesenbery of the Center for Civic Design had a blog post yesterday about her experience as a pollworker in her home state of New Jersey – and (as usual) it’s such a nice, rich examination of the all-important little things (and the impact of big things) that I had to share:

This Election Day, I was in a new polling place in a largely rural township in Central New Jersey. Elections out here are usually sedate affairs, with friends and neighbors chatting, and the same poll workers year after year. Almost boring. Except when a local election heats up. This year, the election hotspot was the 2 seats on the Township Committee.

Here’s the background. The township is the center of a long-running dispute over a general aviation airport which might – or might not – want to expand. It’s probably cost both sides millions in land studies, lawyers, and campaign sign. The election should have been easy: there were only 2 candidates on the ballot from one party. None from the other. No nominations by petition. But there was the usual write-in option. And the losers in the June primary were running a write-in campaign.

Here’s the other twist. We still vote on old full-face electronic voting systems. So “write-in” really means “type-in” on a clunky, modal interface. That makes a write-in campaign doubly daunting.

The candidates need to not only get the word out, but make sure their supporters know how to cast their votes. And, of course, it takes more time than just touching a few buttons for candidates on the ballot.

The election department was ready. We had extra machines to handle any overflow caused by the longer voting times. We were warned to make sure campaign literature was out of sight. And we had more information available about how to use the voting machines. We also had poll watchers in every district, campaigners outside the polling place perimeter, and Township police checking in at every polling place.

For the poll workers this meant figuring out how to make sure people knew how to cast a write-in vote without making our offer of instruction sound like a partisan statement. At my table, we settled on asking if anyone “needed any information about how to use the voting system” and using the Senate race to illustrate the steps to cast a write-in vote. It meant explaining to baffled voters that the postcard they were holding was campaign literature and had to be kept out of sight until they were in the voting booth. The most common reply to our request was “but I need it to vote.”

There is such a thing as “election culture”

From November 2012 to November 2014, the team at the Center for Civic Design observed poll workers in a project that spanned 19 polling places, 12 states, and 7 election days. One of our insights is the degree to which the “election culture” of each jurisdiction affects how the election is run.

In our county, polling places are chatty and food-y. People bring home-made snacks and even whole meals to share. The poll workers don’t have assigned roles, except for the lead poll worker, who coordinates and oversees the polling place. With many long-time poll workers, there’s not a lot of direction, and everyone just settles into their duties.

Voters can have strong expectations for how the polling place will be set up, using this memory to know where to go. The extra voting system re-arranged the room a little. Other voters stopped and looked around the room, puzzled. After a few hours, we realized that they were probably looking for District 2, which had moved from straight ahead to being tucked into a corner, slightly out of sight behind another table.

We had several new faces (including me), filling spots for people who were not working for one reason or another. Dozens of voters entered the polling place, headed towards our table, and then stopped short asking, “Is this the right place? Where’s Julia? Is she OK?”

It was a busy election, for an off-year. We handled 367 voters (out of 904 registered voters in our district). It was a steady stream all day, with 20 to 30 voters per hour. The big rush was from 6pm to 7pm, when we had 60 voters and our only long line waiting to vote after signing in. By long line, I mean 10 people, just to keep this in perspective.

We’ll know the official figures in a few days, but this looks similar to the 42% turnout for our district in the top contest in 2010. We won’t know the results of this election until the write-in votes are counted and all the likely challenges are complete.

The real test of an election is what happens when feelings run high, or when things go wrong. Even in this successful Election Day, you could see the stress lines and where things might go wrong with longer lines or bigger disruptions. In the end, polling places reflect the culture of the community, local and state laws, and how the election department runs elections and trains poll workers.

Thanks to Whitney for sharing this and all of her work in this space – and, of course, just for being Whitney. I’ll have more to say about the poll workers and election security project soon, but for now this is a valuable reminder of the key role that people – not in general, actual INDIVIDUAL people – play in the election process.

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