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My Frustrating Primary Day as a New York Poll Worker

More than one million New York City residents participated in Tuesday’s presidential primary. I served as a poll worker on election day and it left me with many questions. Why did many would-be voters receive affidavit ballots on Tuesday? What do you do when everything breaks down at once? Once you go through this process, you have a newfound annoyance with the way New York conducts elections.

I got involved  after volunteering to help with voter registration. I wanted to continue to learn how voter suppression and disenfranchisement works, down to the nuts and bolts. Being a poll worker involves a four-hour training with an exam at the end. If you do not get 18 out of 20 questions correct, you fail. After passing, I was assigned to be a  ballot marking device (BMD) inspector, which involved assisting vision-impaired voters with a special machine. The machine also translates the ballot into other languages and has a variety of other options for voters who are unable to use the regular paper ballot. Other positions available to poll workers include information clerk, scanner inspector and election district (ED) table inspector. These positions are not equal in complexity but they are equal in training.

Contrary to what some people might think, these are not volunteer positions. Each position pays $200 for a 16-hour shift and $100 for the training. Workers are given a $75 bonus after they work two elections.

Only registered Republicans and Democrats are able to apply to be a poll worker. Members of other parties and independents are excluded. Since New York City voters are predominantly Democrats, it is difficult to have an entirely bipartisan process. On the day of the election, workers are designated Republican or Democrat, in order to maintain a bipartisan illusion. I was the Republican worker for the BMD position even though I am a registered Democrat.

On Tuesday, I worked at PS 51 on West 45th St. in Hell’s Kitchen. Our coordinator arrived 45 minutes late, which delayed our opening and kept voters waiting. Despite the late start, it was gratifying to see so much excitement among voters at the beginning of the day. As a BMD Worker, I had little to do, since voters rarely ask to use the machine. After the information clerk called in sick, I offered to help where I was needed. We streamlined the district lookup system with tablets instead of coded books, where addresses and districts are written in tiny font. This kept the lines moving very quickly.

As voters arrived, we checked them. About 10% came back to us and said their election district’s table inspectors did not find them listed in the district’s book. This book includes all voters who are able to vote in the election for each district. There is a signature line so that signatures can be matched. When voters told us they were not in the book, we urged them to get an affidavit ballot. It is the voter’s right to an affidavit. What table inspectors must say to these voters is that there is a chance that this vote may not be counted.

PS 51 faced even more challenges in the late morning. Our scanners broke down at the same time. The required procedure in that situation is for all new ballots to be placed in the emergency box under the vote scanning machine to be counted at the end of the night as regular ballots. However this was not done when our scanners broke down. The Board of Elections informed us that voters should use affidavit ballots until the scanners were fixed. Thirty minutes later we were back to regular voting but some of the table inspectors handed out affidavits instead of ballots after our machines were fixed. Once they figured this out, all the numbers needed to be fixed and reorganized.

We had 59 affidavits at the end of the night, which were not counted. There were also 50 unaccounted for ballots that the election district table inspectors could not reconcile. The scanner breakdown from nearly 12 hours before still lingered.

There is now a lot of discussion over the affidavits that many people, especially in Brooklyn, had to fill out on Tuesday. Brooklyn is not alone, and at PS 51 we saw voters who had not moved or changed parties in 10 years and were not listed in the book. We had new voters who registered properly and were not in the book. We found misspellings, birthdate issues, and we even found someone’s name backwards. When I placed a follow-up call to the Board of Elections today, I was told by a spokesperson that they do not know how many affidavit ballots they have received but they will be counted in three to four weeks. Whether an affidavit ballot is approved or not will be subject to the same database that showed the voter to be ineligible to cast a regular ballot in the first place.

New York City voters stepped up to do their civic duty on Tuesday. They deserve an election system better than this.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Independent.

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Nancy Wolfe is a journalist and producer based in NYC. 

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