So, yes, I already shared my analysis of the election results.
But I’ve also been thinking about the mechanics of Election Day.
And, for the long-term, I think that there are even more pressing challenges there that demand our attention.
Since I quit my full-time job in 2007, I have worked every election I can (I missed the 2008 general, because the twins were 6 weeks old!) for my county’s election board.
That means getting up at 4:45AM (even earlier in a Presidential year!) and spending about 14 hours in one room, for about $122.
Yes, I get some reading done, because turnout is never as high as I’d wish, but it’s still a pretty grueling gig–one that I only sign up for because I believe so strongly in civic participation and, because, for now, voting is still one of the most potent forms of civic exercise.
For the most part, our county runs elections very well. Our Election Commissioner is a stand-up guy, very professional, and fanatically committed to managing smooth elections that protect citizens’ right to vote and preserve the public’s confidence in the democratic process.
He actually talks like that.
But, still, there are obvious cracks in the whole process that really call into question its long-term sustainability.
In August of this year, for example, in our primary, I served with 6 other people, a serious overstaffing for the turnout we had. The problem is that, come November general elections, with higher turnout, the risk is that an election with too many inexperienced poll workers will be a disaster. So, we pay to overstaff in “off” elections, in the hopes that the system can absorb greater strains in the peak times.
More disturbing than tripping over other workers, though, was the composition of the poll workers that day. To make a really long story short, I spent 14 hours alongside one of the most unpleasant human beings I’ve ever encountered (and, for someone who has gotten a lot of hate mail, that’s really saying something). She was insubordinate to our supervising judge, nasty to the rest of us, and even rude to one voter. And then there was the Confederate reenactor who refers to the Civil War as “the war of Northern aggression.” Seriously.
Which brings me to the real problem: the way that election work is currently structured, not just where I live but in much of the country, few people can, or want to, do it, and so we’re left with those who will, which, quite honestly, isn’t a great way to staff one of the most central functions of our nation.
Allison Fine put this problem in national perspective in her essay on online voting for Rebooting America.
In 2004, the average poll worker was 72 years old. Ageist generalizations about comfort with technology and physical stamina aside, that’s a long-term problem; unless we recruit younger poll workers, or convince today’s Baby Boomers that election work should be in their future, we’ll have a dearth of poll worker options in the next 15-20 years.
There is evidence that supply and quality are already considerable problems, at least in some parts of the country. In some states, almost one-third of poll workers don’t show up on Election Day! No wonder election offices feel that they need to overstaff, but few can afford this practice long-term, either, especially in today’s fiscal climate.
I didn’t even know all of that, as I intermittently fumed in silence and lashed out in frustration, during that long, hot, day of serving my country in August 2010, but I was consumed with the thought: I know we can do better than this.
NOTE: Don’t even get me started on the fallacious “voter fraud” argument against expanding suffrage opportunities, such as online voting. Ample objective research has demonstrated that no significant voter fraud, of the kind that would be susceptible to exploitation through expansive measures, exists. And, seriously, we think that our current phalanx of poorly paid and only sometimes trained poll workers is a better protection against would-be fraudsters than the best-designed online systems, like the ones we trust, say, all of our financial transactions to?
So, let’s put aside for a minute the potential of online voting options to increase participation and help citizens to reenvision what it means to “do their civic duty”. And let’s even ignore the potential cognitive surplus if those millions of dedicated election workers were directed to other civic pursuits, even just a few days a year. And let’s even forget the cost savings of not having to pay those workers, or buy those physical machines, even after you figure in the cost of online voting systems and security technology.
Because what I’m thinking today, and what I thought on August 3 and November 2 is, what will Election Day look like once Sam is old enough to vote?