Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Pollworker 101: How a few crazy hats can make our democracy stronger

By Karin Mac Donald

women in crazy hats

It’s election season in California, which means that the state’s 58 county Registrar of Voters offices are buzzing with activities – everything from designing, printing and mailing ballots to finalizing voter-registration rolls and ordering precinct supplies. Each task that staff in these offices perform factors into an election’s success, and there’s little-to-no room for error: if things go wrong on Election Day, there’s no do-over.

Carrying out a flawless election is a challenge, especially since our system relies on a huge volunteer labor force in polling places throughout the nation. In California, this volunteer labor force numbers more than 120,000.  In previous elections, as recently as a decade ago, polling places were staffed by four workers each. But the required number of volunteers has increased as California has become more diverse and as the Voting Rights Act, along with the state's Election Code, has added more languages for which assistance must be provided.

women in crazy hats

Finding pollworkers who are bilingual in one of the required languages, as well as in English, has been difficult; finding those who speak multiple languages is an even greater challenge. In practice, it looks like this:

Los Angeles has approximately 5,000 polling places in a typical election. Each of these is staffed by four to eight pollworkers, depending on the location. Los Angeles provides election materials in English and Spanish (which are provided statewide), as well as Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Tagalog/Filipino, Thai and Vietnamese. And for many of these languages, bilingual poll workers are hired to work in communities that have high populations of non-native English speakers.

All of these election-day volunteers have to be recruited and trained in advance to perform various duties: issuing ballots, processing provisional voters, opening and closing procedures, and more.

Pollwork 101

Santa Cruz County, with a population of about 263,000, is small compared to Los Angeles County's 10 million, but implementing an election there is just as challenging. On Nov. 4, Santa Cruz will have 136 polling places and 750 workers, many of whom will work only half of the usual 6 a.m.-to-9:30 p.m. election day.

For each polling place, there’s one inspector and two or more clerks, in addition to an Electronic Voting Specialist (EVS), who is responsible for setting up and operating the voting technology. Santa Cruz recently added two new languages, Chinese and Tagalog. So county staff are still working to recruit a consistent pool of bilingual poll workers for these two language groups, in addition to Spanish speakers for areas in which Spanish has not been a provided language in the past.

With a small staff, the Santa Cruz County Clerk, Gail Pellerin, also serves as the Registrar of Voters and personally conducts all the procedural training for poll workers.  This translates into teaching 9 two-hour classes for clerks, 8 two-hour classes for inspectors and one class for roving inspectors, who serve as trouble shooters for multiple polling sites.

EVS training, provided by a county IT employee, consists of a 3-hour training for first-timers, 2-hour refresher courses for experienced EV specialists and drop-in labs for those who want to practice on the equipment.

Where crazy hats come in

Gail Pellerin's pollworker trainings are known to be highly entertaining, utilizing visual and interactive learning techniques to communicate a dense and technical curriculum including laws and procedures. At a recent session for 70 or more pollworkers, several trainees approach, as they enter the room, to tell her how much they’re looking forward to the day.

women in football and turkey hats

Pellerin’s popular trainings feature role-playing exercises in which she wears a face mask to impersonate a voter residing either on Sesame Street or Pennsylvania Avenue. She also comes towing a huge bag of hats and costume supplies for five volunteers who staff a mock polling place she sets up in front of her audience.

One pollworker, playing the alpha-index clerk, is asked to wear a hat shaped like a baseball. Pellerin explains that this is the first person of contact on voting day, the pollworker who greats every voter with an all-American smile.

The second volunteer, impersonating the roster clerk, dons a “putting green” hat featuring a white flag and a golf ball. In golf, Pellerin notes, great precision is essential, just as it is for the pollworker responsible for the roster.

The third volunteer, serving as ballot clerk, sports the hat shaped like a football. Like a quarterback who throws footballs throughout the game, Pellerin explains, the ballot clerk hands out ballots all through election day.

She moves on to the EVS, wearing a soccer hat to signify her protection of the goal or ballot counter. The inspector, meanwhile, wears a turkey-shaped hat to indicate her status as referee.

Sometimes pollworkers forget the exact procedure to follow, Pellerin explains, but remembering the character in the role-playing exercise can help them figure out what to do.

Pellerin’s recent training included other notable characters: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, John McCain and Barack Obama.  One represented a first-time voter who needed to present identification; another was at the wrong polling place; a third had lost her absentee ballot; a fourth was not registered to vote. With each scenario Pellerin presents, volunteers work through the procedures while she encourages, corrects and praises.

Though the curriculum is largely comparable throughout California, pollworker training varies dramatically by county. Santa Cruz most certainly has the market cornered for entertainment value, which means that pollworkers' recollection of the material is probably on the higher end, as well.

Santa Cruz, like many other California counties, is still looking for pollworkers for the Nov. 4 election.  Consider participating. This democracy needs you.

For more on pollworker training and its importance for elections, see this UC Berkeley NewsCenter Q&A with Karin Mac Donald and Bonnie Glaser, " Probing the depths of poll work ."