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Poll Workers Brave 16-Hour Shifts, Low Pay In Service of Democracy

About 2,350 precinct officers—from students to retirees—helped Sacramento County voters Tuesday. They talked to Patch about why they do it.

Early Tuesday morning, before the first Sacramento County voter had set foot in a polling place, members of the Women’s Thursday Club in Fair Oaks were busy stacking ballots and checking lists.

They’d set up voting booths in their clubhouse two nights before, and were getting ready for an Election Day shift that would last from 6 a.m. to as late as 10 p.m., when the last ballots from their precinct would be delivered.

Their total compensation for all that work: $100, plus $25 to attend a required three-hour training.

“It’s one long day, but most of us have a strong feeling that we’re doing something good,” said Terry Emmett, a poll worker for the last five years. “It’s something you can do that’s important that’s over in a day.”

The 2,350 precinct officers helping voters across the county Tuesday are the unsung heroes of the election season—a mish-mash of retirees, college students and the unemployed with minimal training and a sense of patriotism. They navigate the often-complicated election process in exchange for what one poll worker called  “volunteer wages.”

Some are drawn by the chance to make a little extra money—like former home care worker Don McGovern, 51.

“I’ve been out of work for almost a year, “ said McGovern, who was manning the polls at a Fair Oaks fire station. “You grab what you can nowadays.”

Others said the work helps them feel connected to their communities.

“I volunteer because I think it's my civic duty," retiree Nancy Oprsal said at . "I taught in schools for 44 years, so it's nice to give back."

Fair Oaks poll worker Mike McHenry was even more passionate about the importance of voting.

“I feel people who don’t vote deserve who’s elected,” said McHenry, a retiree who’s also knocked on doors for the U.S. Census Bureau. “They have no right to complain.”

McHenry said he waived his pay for the training. “It’s just a way to do our part with all the budget shortages and all that.”

Poll workers must be registered voters fluent in English (some high-school students can also serve) and are forbidden from discussing politics or wearing campaign buttons. When the flow of voters slows—as it often does during a low-turnout primary election like this one—they pass the time by reading or talking about the places they’ve traveled.

Longtime election helpers said they’ve seen many changes over the years, including the arrival of voting machines and California’s new top-two primary system for state offices. This year, those registered ‘Decline to State’ aren’t allowed to vote the Republican Presidential Primary, which poll workers said has led to a few irritated voters.

Voters also get peeved when they arrive after 8:00 p.m. and are told the polls are closed, said Emmett. “If they insist, we give them a provisional ballot so they can go home,” she said. “But it doesn’t count.”

Other than that, “people are very well-behaved,” said Emmett, who’s working alongside her granddaughter this year. “They often thank us for our service.”

But if you really want to know what motivates poll workers, talk to 76-year-old Marshall Mitchell, who with 15 years under her belt is one of the county’s more experienced poll inspectors.

“It’s a labor of love,” she said Wednesday night from Livingstone’s Reform Church in Sacramento, where she was setting up polls. “Somebody has to do it. Why not me?”

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Carmichael Patch editor Victor Calderon contributed to this report.

Alex Gronke (Editor) June 06, 2012 at 12:09 AM
I love this quote: "I taught in schools for 44 years, so it's nice to give back." We need more of that attitude.
Joshua Staab (Editor) June 06, 2012 at 12:17 AM
Couldn't agree with you more, Alex. Just goes to show you, there's more to this type of work than earning a paycheck.

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