Author’s USAToday OpEd Gives an Inside Look at Mississippi Pollworker Training

[Image via newsocracy]

Author Margaret McMullan has an op-ed in USAToday that provides an inside look at pollworker training in Mississippi. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a world many people encounter – but mostly only from the other side of the table. I’m going to skip my usual practice of chiming in occasionally and let Ms. McMullan tell her story:

We’re stuck on Current and Valid Photo IDs.

Our trainer, Renick Taylor, hands a driver’s license to the African American woman in the front row. “Is this a valid ID?”

She reads the card, then tilts it to see the state seal wink. “Yes,” she says, definitively.

“Check out the photo,” Taylor says. “Does it match the person standing in front of you?”

The card’s picture shows a young, thin man with short, brown hair. Taylor is middle-aged, with a belly and long hair pulled back in a ponytail. 

“No!” she says. 

“Can I still vote?”

We all hesitate with her. The photo clearly does not look like the man standing in front of us. Are we required to match the person to the picture exactly?

I am with 40 other people in the civil defense room of the Harrison County Courthouse. By noon, we will be official poll workers, ready for Mississippi’s June 5 primaries for U.S. Senate and House seats.

I’m training to be a poll worker because I was born in Mississippi and my husband and I moved here three years ago. We registered to vote our first week back, and we got new state driver’s licenses to use as photo IDs to vote. The paperwork was more complicated than I expected — the state required an actual Social Security card, which I’d lost long ago and now needed to replace, which meant another trip to another office.

It felt like Mississippi was intentionally making each task difficult. I managed, but I wondered if and how others did. I vowed then to get involved in the voting process.

“So?” Taylor asks. “Can I vote?” I imagine him standing in front of me on Election Day, ready to challenge me.

“No?” says the woman in the front row.

The answer is yes, Taylor can still vote. “I might not look like I did a few years ago,” he says. “Some people gain weight. Some lose weight, but the ID still has their fat face. They can still vote.” 

Taylor shows a Power Point slide explaining Current and Valid Photo ID. The word Current means within 10 years. Even if the ID expired 10 years ago, it’s considered current. Valid means your ID does not appear to be forged or fake. 

All morning, Taylor teaches us. 

A person over 18 can present any one of these IDs: A driver’s license, a Photo ID card issued by a branch, department or entity of the State of Mississippi, a U.S. passport, a government employee ID card, a firearms license, a student photo ID issued by an accredited Mississippi university, college or community/junior college, a U.S. military ID, a tribal photo ID, any other photo ID issued by any branch, department, agency or entity of the U.S. government or any state government, a Mississippi Voter ID Card. If you don’t have any of these, you can apply for a free voter ID card at any Mississippi Circuit Clerk’s office. 

“If your voter is belligerent,” Taylor says, “just smile.”

Phrasing is everything. He advises us not to say, “Democrat or Republican?” Rather, “Would you like to vote in the Democrat or Republican primary?”

If your voter is in the wrong precinct, tell her she must go to the precinct where she’s registered. This is important. In some states, you can vote anywhere. Not in Mississippi. Taylor says it’s often helpful to swing the laptop around at this point. “Show them where the poll book says they need to vote,” he says. “The ultimate authority is the poll book.”

Taylor holds up the blue plastic ballot box. That’s it. The paper trail. The trick will be to get the ballots safely and legally into that box. Then get that box safely and legally to the courthouse. 

If an unusual occurrence takes place, we fill out a form marked Unusual Occurrences. Taylor calls it the CYA. The Cover Your Ass sheet.

And if we see police lingering or a squad car parked too close to polling, we should ask them to leave. Their presence counts as intimidation. “This might be your only chance to tell the police to scram,” Taylor says. 

Taylor reminds us that no campaign materials or logos should be anywhere within 150 feet of the polls. If someone is wearing a campaign T-shirt, we should ask him to change or take off the shirt and wear it inside out. A woman asks about President Trump’s red Make America Great Again caps. Taylor says they no longer count as campaign material. “MAGA could also mean My Attorney Got Arrested.” 

We view the tools of our democracy — the new touch screen laptops, the secrecy folders, the rolls of white tape, the ballot cards, and the flash drive that goes into the transparent Media Bag. He shows us the blue, green, red, and gold bags marked Affidavits, Spoiled Ballots, Absentee Ballots and Challenged Ballots. It looks like an REI camping kit.

We’re near the end.

Someone points out we haven’t gone over Challenged Ballots.

“Anybody can challenge a voter,” Taylor says in a measured tone. “It has been known to happen.” 

Wait. What?

I imagine some Faulkner-like scenario of a man in overalls running into the voting room, yelling that his neighbor can’t vote because of a horse he stole or a barn he burned. 

But this is no joke.

Most people protest a vote because of the state’s disenfranchising laws, Taylor says. Under Mississippi’s 1873 Constitution, once you’re convicted of a felony, you lose the right to vote, often, even after you’re served your sentence. Mississippi has the second-highest rate of disenfranchised voters in the country. A report from the Sentencing Project estimates that state law currently disenfranchises 218,181 Mississippians.

Taylor shows us the slide listing Mississippi’s disenfranchising crimes — murder, rape, bribery, theft, arson, perjury, forgery, timber larceny and more. No mention of pedophiles or drug dealers. They can still vote.

Even if the person is challenged, they might still be registered. Taylor puts his hand on one of the laptops we’ll use. “Just check the poll book. Why?”

Because the ultimate authority is the poll book, we say. 

I’m sitting up straighter now. We all are. We are poll workers. We work in pairs. We use red ink. We are armed with forms. We have a checklist for everything. 

“But what if the voter doesn’t have any ID?” a man in the back row asks. He’s still stuck on the IDs. The class responds: Fill out an affidavit! Tell her to run home and look! Tell her to get an ID and bring it to the courthouse within five days! 

Taylor is solemn now. He urges us to do everything we can not to turn people away. Why? Because, he says, no voter should be refused the right to vote.

I know for a fact I couldn’t have said it better.

This is a gorgeous appreciation of the gift of volunteering for poll work and an elegant summary of the big(ger) issues workers face. Thanks to Rick Hasen of Election Law Blog for flagging the piece – and especially to Ms. McMullan for writing it; it’s an electiongeek ode to the people who make democracy work. Here’s hoping that Unusual Occurrences are few and far between in the Magnolia State next week. Stay tuned!

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