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As an official poll worker on November 6, my job was to help people vote. We looked at IDs, confirmed voters' addresses, handed out paper ballots and did all the nuts-and-bolts stuff of election day. Nearly 1,000 voters showed up. Most of what happened was routine and smooth--a tribute to the successful checks and balances in place in our county. But there were a few surprises that revealed some glaring gaps in voters' knowledge about our election system. And these incidents make me realize that civics classes really need to be re-instituted in American schools--and possibly via a nationwide ad campaign aimed at adults, too.

Here are some of the incidents--from just one polling place--that make me worry about the state of civics education in our schools and in our society.

Where do I sign?
During a stint at the optical scanner while the assistant supervisor was on a 30-minute break, I collected "voting tickets," directed voters to voting booths and helped them feed their completed ballots into the scanner. During that half-hour period, three voters asked me, "Where do I sign this ballot?"  I explained that there is no signature line on the ballot, because we have a secret ballot in America. We don't match up people's names with their actual ballots. Apparently, they didn't know that basic tenet of democracy.

Will it count?
Upon receiving their paper ballots, several voters asked, "I don't know much about the judges." [In Missouri, we vote on whether to retain judges, not to elect them.] " If I don't vote on them, will my ballot count, or will it be thrown out?"  We reminded each of these voters that we don't have compulsory voting in this country. You don't even have to vote, let alone vote on everything on the ballot. So, yes, your ballot will be valid even if you don't vote on every race, issue or judge.

Upon further reflection, I have a theory about where this concern comes from: school. Kids in school are bombarded with standardized tests, many of which penalize them for unanswered questions. The paper ballot in my state--replete with little S.A.T.-style bubbles to fill in--looks a lot like a standardized-test answer sheet. Maybe there's an unconscious, perceptual spillover from tests to ballots. Even if that's a crackpot idea, it's still worrisome to see voters who don't understand the basics of optional voting.

Which is who, and how?

Several voters wondered how they'd know who to vote for. One asked, "Does the ballot say which candidate belongs to which party?" Another wanted to know what a Democrat is, and what a Republican is, and she asked us how to decide between them. Of course, as poll workers, we're prohibited from giving advice on who to vote for. It's tempting, of course, but we didn't. But it's somewhat shocking to encounter people who have taken the time to come to the polls, but who don't know what a political party actually is.

You want me to vote on what?

This year's Missouri ballot included a bunch of ballot initiatives that, it became clear as I observed the body language of voters standing behind the silver privacy booths, a lot of people had never heard of prior to election day. Should the St. Louis City Police Department be under the jurisdiction of the city, rather than the State of Missouri? Should Missourians have to vote on the creation of health-exchanges under Obamacare before they can be implemented? [The language on the ballot was not as straightforward as my framing of those two questions, by the way.] Judging from how long it took many voters to fill in the bubbles next to those propositions--if they ever did--I surmised that many were reading them for the first time--and reading them multiple times--and then saying to themselves, "What the hell is this," and then, "I dunno."

Obviously, we don't do a very good job of informing voters about what's on the ballot--or motivating them to find out on their own. When pundits and pollsters talk about "low-information voters," they may be unfairly blaming the victims of the testing-industrial complex [sometimes known as schools] to emphasize learning about the basics of our political system--and the failure of our society to encourage students-- who later become voters-- to think critically.

Please add any questions you may have encountered while working at the polls.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I got asked by a voter standing at my touch screen (10+ / 0-)

    "What is an "imcumbent" ? "
    I got asked a million other questions yesterday ,
    but that one stands out .

    "Drop the name-calling." Meteor Blades 2/4/11

    by indycam on Wed Nov 07, 2012 at 07:45:36 PM PST

  •  The "when in doubt, vote NO" syndrome (7+ / 0-)

    One thing I've noticed regarding ballot measures is that if voters are unsure of what it means, they vote NO, especially if it includes the word "tax". Here in Arizona, we had a proposition that would have raised the exemption for property (equipment, not land/buildings) owned by a business. It was supported by our large industries such as mining as well as by most small businesses, and it might have drawn some employers to Arizona. Unfortunately, the summary on the ballot did not make it clear that a YES vote would have reduced business taxes, not raised them. The measure went down to defeat, I believe, because there is a knee jerk reaction that leads to a NO vote on any measure that mentions taxes.

    •  Ballot initiatives are a civics lesson, too (7+ / 0-)

      Y'know, if people thought that their state legislators were actually doing their jobs, there would a lot less of these unintelligible ballot initiatives.

      Life's a dance you learn as you go; sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.

      by gloriasb on Wed Nov 07, 2012 at 08:02:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  All 11 Florida initiatives were put on BY the (8+ / 0-)

        state legislators this year.  

        To avoid blame, so they can claim the people spoke.  

        And to make it harder to get rid of after we get rid of them.  It takes simple majority if they passed such bills in session.

         It takes 60% to get stuff in or out by initiative.

        Since JEB invaded ----- they work full time to install garbage that will stink long after they are gone.

        De fund + de bunk = de EXIT--->>>>>

        by Neon Mama on Wed Nov 07, 2012 at 09:13:29 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  AZ 116 (0+ / 0-)

        This one was put on the ballot by our state legislature. I think they were required by law to do so. The GOP had a supermajority in both houses, so I think they would have pushed it through if they could have.
        I recently found out from a friend (she and her husband own a small machine shop with lots of pricy, taxed equipment) that said opponents were advertising that taxes on real property would go up for everyone else if it passed. Looking again at the actual measure (here), nothing is said about real property taxes. Note also that no official arguments against it were submitted.

  •  I was an election judge too (6+ / 0-)

    And encountered a LOT of people who were unclear on the concept in pretty basic ways, like understanding how columns and headings work-- I don't know how many times I had to explain that this set of names is the presidential candidates, these are for the Senate, etc. The different races had headings in bold caps with gray shading, plus the instruction VOTE FOR ONLY ONE for each office. Some people are simply dense, of course, but a lot of them seemed as though they just hadn't been exposed to forms before, and didn't get even this fairly simple kind of layout. There are quite a lot of immigrant voters with limited English in the precinct, but they weren't the only ones with this problem. About 1 ballot in 10 got spoiled (a few people spoiled more than one), which is way higher than the rate in the precinct where I used to work--but that one was in a neighborhood full of students, college faculty, yuppies, etc.

    I think it would be useful for the state govts to run PSAs right before elections, just to give less practiced voters some idea of what's involved--I think you could show the basics in a 30-second spot, at least enough to save a lot of fuss and difficulty at the polling place.  Although I fear they would probably get lost in the avalanche of campaigh ads...

    "I believe they talked of me, for they laughed consumedly."--George Farquhar

    by slapshoe on Wed Nov 07, 2012 at 09:08:50 PM PST

  •  I worked as a clerk in my precinct... (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lujane, myboo, semiot, slapshoe, Lucy West

    for the second time (the first was the primary). As you, we had a lot of people who had no clue how to fill out the ballot. Ours has broken arrows pointing to the candidates and you have to fill in the arrow next to the candidate you want to vote for. Probably the most common question by those who actually voted was "what happens if I vote straight party?" Had to explain a lot of times what that meant, and how it worked. We also got a lot of questions about not voting on particular races. Here's what disturbed me most, though...

    A lot of voters coming to my precinct had no idea where they should vote. If we were lucky, we'd get through to the clerk's office and be able to find out their precinct for them. Mostly, though, we had to go by the address on their ID and hope it was where they were registered. Judging by the people who voted in the precinct, we had about a 20% chance of being wrong. We also had a surprisingly large number of people come in who had never voted before (some in their 50's and 60's) and wanted to register and vote. Unfortunately, Indiana doesn't have same-day registration. If you weren't registered 29 days before the election, you weren't voting. Understandably, a lot of these people were upset. The most upset were those who thought they had registered through the BMV or the food stamp office (both offices ask if you want to register to vote). There must be some kind of disconnect between these state offices and the county clerk's office, because the majority of the people I talked to who registered this way found out that they were not actually registered. I guess my take-away from this is to take responsibiity for your own voter registration: at least six weeks before the election, call the county clerk's office or check the state's voter registration website, and make sure that you're registered and know where you vote. It's a little thing, and just takes a couple of minutes, but it insures you'll get to vote.

    Other than that, my experience was mostly positive. I had an inspector who didn't know how to run a precinct and two judges who hadn't worked an election before so it was pretty much up to myself and the other clerk, but things went pretty well. If I can avoid working with the same inspector next time, I'll do it again.

    "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right" - Thomas Paine

    by grothenberger on Wed Nov 07, 2012 at 09:52:50 PM PST

    •  We had a lot of reassigned precincts (0+ / 0-)

      Because of redistricting, precincts got shifted a little bit this year, and a lot of people didn't get the message about that (so they said, anyway), and we had to send quite a few to a different site to vote. But every polling place gets a precinct finder booklet so we can find the right location for them on the spot. (Though this doesn't help the people who wandered in from other counties, or even from neighboring states...)

      We also had a number of people who were sure they were registered and had voted in 2008, but didn't show up in the roster at all--however, since we have same-day registration, they could be accommodated. Sometimes people who register close to the election don't get put into the system promptly, but I can't figure out why the existing voters would have been dropped. MN is generally quite good about election-related matters, so I was surprised to see so many established voters in this situation--perhaps things got bollixed up during the redistricting process.

      It must have been unpleasant to turn so many people away, I always hate to do that. I hope that all of them complain loudly to the Sec. of State and that the record-keeping will be more organized in the future. If the state is going to offer people these options to get registered, the state had jolly well better follow through on it.

      "I believe they talked of me, for they laughed consumedly."--George Farquhar

      by slapshoe on Thu Nov 08, 2012 at 09:18:07 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  In my state at least (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lujane, gloriasb

    looking at IDs is emphatically not part of the nuts and bolts of an election.

    I told them who I was, they checked me off the list and gave me my ballot.

    •  Those were the good old days. (6+ / 0-)

      Unfortunately, our Republican governor and Republican-dominated legislature decided we had to have photo ID's to "prevent voter fraud." All it really does is prevent honest people from voting. At least it's relatively broad: it has to have the voter's photo, the name on the ID has to "conform" to the name in the precinct list (not match, just be reasonably close), it has to be unexpired or expired since the last general election, and it has to be issued by the federal government or the state of Indiana. Still, some people didn't even have that. I'd love to get rid of that requirement.

      "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right" - Thomas Paine

      by grothenberger on Wed Nov 07, 2012 at 10:17:26 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  My Favorite Question (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gloriasb, semiot, slapshoe, Lucy West

    I was a Presiding Precinct Judge here in Santa Fe County, New Mexico on Tuesday. My favorite question from a voter was "Where do I vote for Vice President"? I needed to point out that the Vice Presidential candidates were listed in small print under the names of the Presidential candidates. I agree that those voters who've taken standardized tests in public schools seem more comfortable with the paper ballots we use here. Most of our spoiled ballots were from "over-voting", voting for more than one candidate in a particular race.

    It's a real privilege to be an election worker though the hours are long and the pay is equivalent to minimum wage. Kudos to all my fellow election workers who care enough about the electoral process to get involved. If you want to make a contribution other than GOTV on election day, become an election worker - you'll be tired but satisfied at the end of a long day.

    •  At work from 5:00AM to 8:30PM on election day. (0+ / 0-)

      Best part is seeing your neighbors bodily support democracy. We had about 85% turnout in my Virginia precinct, including the absentees.

      Even though many more votes went to Republicans here, I am gratified and proud of my neighbors for getting the democracy thing done of Tuesday.

      Courage is contagious. - Daniel Ellsberg

      by semiot on Thu Nov 08, 2012 at 05:47:20 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Find another scapegoat. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    semiot, slapshoe

    In CA, a course in civics is required for high school graduation; all students are presented the information, but it is the student's responsibility to retain and use that information. The diarist is defaulting to the common urge to blame the schools for the actions, or inactions, of people.

    The voting materials sent by the county contain selections printed just as they are on the ballot, a list of party recommendations, pro and con arguments for every issue, voting location, application for an absentee ballot, phone numbers and web sites for more information. The state publication, also mailed, has the entire text of every state issue. Newspapers thoroughly cover candidates and issues, information is often given on news shows or radio. Candidate forums are held, as are informational programs on issues. There is no shortage of places for anyone to get information.

    In spite of all this help, some people still arrive at the polls and act as if they never heard of anything on the ballot. I see it among both the young and the old, and often wonder why they don't learn from one election to another to come better prepared. Whose fault is that? It is just like the students who show up for a test without ever having opened the book and without having listened to the instructor. This will go on until people take personal responsibility for their actions.

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