Wednesday, November 08, 2006

San Francisco Election Day

Hundreds of election poll workers descended on City Hall at six in the morning on Tuesday the 7th and the vast majority were very sleep-deprived.

Working an election is like a grueling version of jury duty with its outlandish range of people, from the old to the young, the smart to the simple, the sympathetic to the annoying.

The group I spent my morning with, waiting for an emergency assignment to a troubled precinct, was a trio of altogether delightful women in their fifties and sixties.They included the lovely native San Franciscan (Irish division) above, Nora the Hispanic Mission District Goddess, and Marilyn who had just arrived from New Orleans two weeks earlier to make a new start in San Francisco after losing everything in Katrina.

A huge collection of alternate clerks were soon dispatched to precincts all over the city as the polls opened at 7AM...

...leaving about fifty "inspectors" who had presumably been trained to jump into emergencies.

At first the election department employees only asked for volunteers, and I followed the military maxim to "never volunteer for anything."

At 11AM, I was finally asked to use my "great communicator skills" to help out at a precinct on Ellis Street in the Tenderloin. An Elections Department driver dropped me off next to a gentleman pissing on the sidewalk in front of the high-rise poor people's hotel whose lobby was hosting the precinct. The place was in utter disarray, with boxes and ballots strewn everywhere, none of the legal signage posted and an absent "inspector" who had gotten into a fight with his superior and then had to be removed by the police.

The insanity was compounded not only by the interesting looking residents who were hanging out on sofas and chairs around the small lobby, but by the large, elderly Ms. Pappas, one of the poll workers. She was sitting behind the Eagle voting machine and was yelling at voters in a thick Greek accent that "You do it WRONG!" whenever the machine would spit out an "overvoted" or "undervoted" message, which was quite often. She was being counseled not to do this by a young Russian man, who was an Election Department supervisor sent to this disaster zone for damage control.

Another "alternate inspector" had also been dispatched to the precinct from City Hall, and I told her, "Doris, take charge, the place is yours." We proceeded to restore some order for two smart, determined Asian high school students and the quatri-lingual Vietnamese clerk, Jade. Unfortunately, Miss Doris turned out to be a toxic combination of incompetence and bossy control freak, so after three hours of wanting to strangle her I bowed to everyone, told them they were fully staffed and doing a great job, and returned to City Hall.

At about 6PM, I was asked to go to a precinct in Bayview/Hunter's Point, the very dangerous (particularly for white strangers) neighborhood in Southeast San Francisco. I decided to be brave and got into a van that was being driven by a Hispanic teenager who had just gotten into an accident with the same van, which made it almost impossible to open the passenger door.

When it became clear that the young man was tired, agitated, a bad driver, and didn't really know where our destination was in Bayview, I ordered him to turn around and return me to City Hall. "I didn't feel safe in my task," I explained, and no further explanation was needed.

At the 8PM closing time, just when the dozen or so alternates in City Hall thought they might get to go home, most of us were dispatched to help various precincts in their closing procedures. I was driven to the basement of the Haight-Ashbury branch library on Page Street and helped the inspector, Nancy Kramer, with her tasks.

One of her adult clerks had gone to lunch and never come back and her other adult clerk was a classic Haight-Ashbury flake who decided she was tired and didn't feel like staying late. The saviors of the precinct were once again two high school girls who by law had to leave at 9PM.

Nancy was obviously a smart, capable lady but the combination of not eating all day and sleep deprivation had taken their toll, and her ability to think had just about vanished, as had mine. To add to the nightmarish quality, San Francisco closing procedures involve a grotesquely byzantine series of plastic bags, signed seals, arcane accounting, and dozens of picayune details.

Somehow, by 10PM, the two of us managed to get through the ordeal and sign off all the ballots to a deputy sheriff. It was time to finally find out what had actually happened on election day.


sasha said...

At the precinct I was at, the young guy was by far the most competent and least annoying. Similar to your experience with high school kids.

I am also curious what the training tells you to do with representatives of campaigns? The folks working at the one where I was were pretty unfriendly.

sfmike said...

Dear Sasha:

"No electioneering within 100 feet of the polling place! No exceptions!" is the training and the law, which is not necessarily a bad one. In front of City Hall on Polk Street at 5PM, there were a whole slew of Daly and Jane Kim supporters holding up signage and I asked them huffily in my best Department of Elections temporary voice if what they were doing was legal. "As long as we're not on the stairs," the transsexxual Daly supporter replied. "Then please continue and good for you," I replied.

sasha said...

yeah, but what about things like when we come in to check who's voted (in our best Clark Kent gear, to be sure)? Are they trained that they're supposed to let us know who's voted? And that we can see the tape at the end?

I've had good experiences with elections workers before, but the people this time were aggressively bad.

sfmike said...

Sasha, the poll workers are overworked (in terms of too many hours in a row), undertrained and underpaid. Plus, it's a Tuesday. Where are you going to get 5,000 people to work a 16-hour day for minimum wage who are going to be even minimally competent?

For the system to work, we need lots more intelligent, capable people to work the polls and the entire process needs to become much simpler and transparent for everyone. I would recommend you sign up now to work the next election as a clerk just to see the process from the inside. It's fascinating and will help you with your political work for candidates. Plus you can help change the way things work.

puck said...


i applied to be a pollworker in mid-september, and they never called me back. which is too bad, because i was interested in helping out, had the time (full-time student/worker, classes monday and wednesday, work flexible), and really could have use the money (see above). when i stopped by my polling place (666 ellis) they seemed really overwhelmed.

but oh, i'm glad that people voted.

janinsanfran said...

The stories I could tell... :-)

And I will, at least a couple. These from the campaign perspective:

-- the time one of my pollwatchers, after dutifully standing by all day, was told at count time by the clerk, "I have a little of that, what's it called Al... disease. Will you count?" So she did.

-- and on Tuesday in San Joaquin County, the poll watcher, instructed to follow the car with the ballot box when it was driven to the county center: "That's okay, honey. You can take it or drive with us." He did the latter.

Thanks for the stories, Mike. I mean it: I'm getting these two posts included in a list for beginners.

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