Thursday, October 28, 2004

Poll workers preparing for additional scrutiny

By Cindi Andrews
Enquirer staff writer

Hamilton County Board of Elections poll workers Charlotte Schnitz of Montgomery and John Meckes of Colerain Township read their handbooks during training Friday at the Blue Ash City Council Chambers.
Photos by ERNEST COLEMAN/The Enquirer
After all the arguments and even lawsuits over who can vote Tuesday, it largely will fall to the four people behind the poll table to make sure your vote counts.

Those two Democrats and two Republicans are citizen gatekeepers and guides on Election Day. They ensure that a voter is eligible to vote and then they help make it happen.

"Your procedures and poll workers are the backbone of the whole process," says John Williams, director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections. "If they are confused or not quite up to par, it can cause problems."

Poll workers are getting training to prepare for the first presidential election since problems in Florida kept the Bush-Gore outcome in limbo for 36 days. They will get an unusual amount of scrutiny, like every other aspect of the election process this year.

"In the past, poll workers have gone in and done a very important job, but it's been a lot easier than it is this year," says veteran poll worker Charlotte Schnitz, 53, of Montgomery.

The Hamilton County Board of Elections has held dozens of two-hour sessions across the county for the past month to prepare its 4,000-plus poll workers.

"When (voters) walk in, they expect you guys to be the experts," county Election Administrator Joe Mallory told a class of about 100 in Northside.

"A lot of people have been hearing this word - the 'D' word, disenfranchisement - so some people are going to be looking for anything out of the ordinary."

Mallory stressed the instructions on how to handle voters who go to the wrong polling place and election challengers - two controversial issues in Ohio this year.

People who have registered as challengers with the Board of Elections may observe inside polling places and tell the precinct's presiding judge if they doubt a voter's age, address or U.S. citizenship. The judge then must ask the voter a series of questions to learn whether he is qualified to vote.

Political parties have always been able to assign challengers to polling places, but this is the first time it appears they will do so. Republicans have listed some 700 precincts where they may post challengers, and Democrats more than 400.

"It's a good thing to me - it'll make it a better election," poll worker Terry Jones, 53, of Westwood said. "That keeps it honest."

He doesn't think poll workers will have a problem keeping the election running smoothly.

Schnitz said she sees a potential for problems because of the changes in procedures.

"I hate to say it, but the poll-worker population is getting older, and it may be difficult for some of them," she said. "They've done things the same way for so long that it's going to be difficult for some of them to be flexible."

The average age of poll workers here is in the upper 60s, Williams estimated. He hopes training and clear rules - spelled out in every precinct judge's packet on Election Day - will overcome any confusion.

"If they go by the documents that we have and just go step by step, they should be fine," he said. "We have run the gambit from concerned to very excited (poll workers). People feel this is a history-making election."

The Board of Elections will have 16 teams of troubleshooters - twice the usual number - to answer poll workers' calls for more supplies and other help, Williams said.

Working the polls from 6 a.m. - a half hour before opening - until after the 7:30 p.m. closing is a lot of work and responsibility for $125.

Most say they do it out of a sense of civic duty, not for the money. Some even use vacation time to take off from their jobs for the day.

"The democracy that we live in, it works with people like us," Mallory told poll workers.


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