Ethnic Election Officers Needed
By Jackie Bong-Wright
Every November, Virginia holds local, state, and national elections. This year, constituents went to vote for state Senators (4-year term), Delegates (2-year term), Commonwealth Attorney, Sheriff, School Board-at-large members, and County Board of Supervisors members, all of the latter for a 4-year term. In 2004, residents will vote for the President and Vice President (4 years) and U.S. representatives from their districts (2 years). The following year, elections will occur for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General ( 4 years), then in 2006 for U.S. Senators (6 years).
These elections are important to ethnic communities because the policies and budget decisions adopted taken by these elected officials affect people’s everyday lives. It is important, therefore, for ethnic citizens to participate in the political process and learn how the system works. There is no better way to do this than to become an election officer. That is what I did this year, and the experience was invaluable.
Role of Election Officers
Election officers’ responsibilities are to manage polling places to make sure that everything is set up and ready before the polls open at 6:00 a.m. when voting starts. Appointed for a one-year term to represent either of the two major political parties, they must be registered voters. They must take an Election Officer Oath on Election Day administered by the Chief Officer.
They must also be non-partisan. They may not hold elected office and may not engage in any political activity or partisan behavior on Election Day and must refrain from discussing candidates or issues. They are required to attend a training class before serving for the first time.
As an election officer, I had to arrive at the polling place at 5:00 a.m. and remain the entire day. We set up voting machines, arrange tables and chairs, lay out forms, and post signs and notices inside and outside the room. We opened and certified the voting machines, operated them, and manned the check-in tables, and tallied results. For our work, we were compensated $100 for the day. Election officers need to vote absentee if they don’t serve in their home precinct.
The voting procedures that the election officer oversees are designed to make voting as simple as possible. At the entrance of the polling station, sample ballots with instructions are posted to show the different steps in how to vote. As further instruction, a video showing a person actually voting on a real machine is run every five minutes.
Voters register at the “check-in” table. They state their full legal name and current address, and show either their voter’s card or some identification (a driver’s license, passport, or birth certificate).
The first Poll-book officer locates the voter’s name in the poll-book, and repeats the full name and address in an audible voice. The second Poll-book officer enters a consecutive number in the Poll-book Count Sheet. If voting on a machine, voters receive a machine-entrance 3×5 card and are directed to the line for the next available voting machine.
If voters are unable to present an acceptable form of identification, the officers ask them to sign an Affirmation of Identification. People 65 and older or physically disabled may ask to vote outside the polling place at the curbside using a paper ballot. If a voter is not found in the poll-book, has applied for an absentee ballot, is already marked as having voted, has undergone a name change, or needs assistance, he or she steps out of line and gets assistance from the Chief Officer or the Assistant Officer, who will determine the person’s eligibility.
Qualified voters are directed to the voting machines with their machine cards. Voting machine officers activate the machine by inserting the ballot card into the Smartcard reader, explain the different types of ballot if necessary, and touch the “Activate” square to load the ballot. Voting machine officers instruct voters, as needed, regarding ballots on different screens, and explain how to select by touching the names of candidates on the screens. Voters may change a selection by touching the same name again, and may review and change selections from the summary screen. Finally, after touching “Vote” and seeing the machine confirm that the ballot has been cast and “Thank you for voting” appears, voters step outside the machine voting booth and receive an “I voted” sticker.
During voting procedures, Machine Voting officers stand away from the booth to give voters privacy.
Does the whole process sound easy? It is if you are comfortable with the
computer. For the first time, Fairfax County is using the WINvote unit, a state-of-the-art touch screen voting machine about the size of a large lap top computer.
The WINvote system is equipped with an audio headset that enables voters with visual disabilities to cast their votes unassisted. This light-weight machine may be placed on the lap of a person who uses a wheelchair or carried outside to a car for a curbside voter. The system also has the capability to transmit election returns via modem to a server at the Government Center. All data are encrypted and password-protected using the most advanced security protocols. Each unit has a battery back-up system in the event of a power failure.
All that is well and good, but for ethnic constituents who are voting for the first time and who are less than literate in English and in computer usage, voting by computer may seem complicated. There are also people who don’t have time to spare since they have to work from very early in the morning until late at night, or who are away from their precinct for justifiable reasons. What kind of assistance is available for them?
First of all, they can apply for an absentee ballot. Special provisions apply to military and overseas voters and their spouses and dependants. An absentee ballot application can be mailed, and must be received by the electoral board by 7:00 p.m. on election day.
Secondly, people who come to the polling places and want help may sign a “voter assistance form” and bring a designated representative to the booth. They may also request an election officer who speaks their language to assist them. The officer may stand in the voting booth with them to interpret and explain the procedures, but must not tell them whom to vote for.
I assisted several elderly Vietnamese voters in this way. Many of them told me they preferred to stay home rather than be embarrassed in public for not knowing what to do.
Ethnic election officers, therefore, have an important role to play in northern Virginia’s electoral process. They are needed to help newcomers get involved in voting. In fact, ethnic mentors are needed even earlier in the process – people who can motivate their communities to register to vote and familiarize them with voting procedures using hands-on demonstrations.
If you are interested in working at the polls on election day, contact the electoral board in your state or county, and look at your board’s website. If you decide to become an election officer as I did, I can assure you a fascinating and satisfying experience.