I wrote in part 1 about how my short time as a poll worker has strengthened my confidence in the technocratic procedures of tracking and counting votes. On Tuesday night my supervisor asked me to stay late to help back up the machines. Backup involves transferring the information from the machine's built-in memory to an onboard SD card, plus a second SD card that holds the information from all the machines. Then the machines are locked electronically, so that the screens won't work without the password, and the doors are sealed with numbered stickers. This takes a while, so on Tuesday I didn't get home until after 8:30.
As an experienced educator, I know that most people will only absorb one or two important pieces of information from a short interaction. I decided early on that my personal take-away for the public was that we as poll workers are competent professionals, and that we are honestly confident in the integrity of the electoral process. The Carter Center, which observes elections around the world, said on the radio that the two most important factors that determine whether violence breaks out are confidence in the counting process and legal avenues for losers to contest results they don't like. If one or both of those fail, violence is more likely.
Stupid Jokes for World Peace
I started experimenting and optimizing towards that first factor, public confidence in the counts, the only one I have any possible influence over right now. I have less than two minutes of conversation with each voter as I walk herm to the machine and check herm in. During that time I am laser-focused on delivering that one message through body language, emotional tone, whatever pheromones are leaking out of my armpits, and (least importantly) words. Of course I also answer any questions the voter has, but most don't ask any. As long as I have that minute or two, I'm going to use it productively and responsibly. I'm not interested in chatting or “How are you?” small talk.
When I say, “Good morning / afternoon / evening,” I am watching for a reaction. Some among my teammates apologize for the wait, or read the voter's name off the check-in paper, but I don't. The voter chose to be here at this time, and however long the wait until this point was, it has almost certainly been shorter than it will be on Election Day. Instead I project helpful, but never submissive. I take my cue from the voter. From there it's like a flow chart, and I am in constant motion.
Sometimes I try “We have a wide selection of machines to choose from.” If the voter responds, “I'd like the rigged one, please,” or more often, “Any one that ain't rigged,” then the hook is set, and we're off. By the way, that's the word they always use – “rigged” – one I hadn't otherwise heard much in years. I don't have any good way of estimating how many people have this bias. Each day, over the course of an exhausting twelve hours, I meet hundreds of voters, which is a good sample size, but I don't have time to write anything down, and memory is notoriously unreliable about statistical matters. Instead I'm adjusting the content of the spiel from one voter to the next.
If I detect even a whiff of personal rapport, I may add comething conspiratorial to the standard, “I'll trade you,” (which everyone uses) when I take the check-in sheet and hand herm the sticker that reads I Voted (Early) Today! Did You? That might be either, “It's a valuable collector's item,” or, “You'll like this much better anyway,” or, “You didn't really want that sheet anyway.” Offering herm something in return lubricates the transaction. Capitalist peoples seem unconsciously to expect to walk away with a goodie pretty much all the time.
If s/he has a flat affect or is angry at standing in line (or maybe just at life in general), I'll test it with a more blasé joke on the way across the gym floor.
“Have you used one of these touch-screen-type voting machines before?”
Yes? “Oh, well, then you get the short, snappy directions then,” or, “I won't bore you with the long directions, then,” or even “No directions for you, then, missy!”
No? “Ah, you get the long boring directions, then,” or “Well, then, you're in for an adventure!” That last one I just came up with on Wednesday around 6pm. The actual words are less important than the tone in which they are delivered.
By the time we get there I know my audience. In some cases it builds into practically a stand-up routine, timed by the responses of the machine I'm plugging codes into as much as the laugh track of the voter. One of my supervisors criticized me for talking during that code punching, saying it took too long, but it doesn't. Each touch requires almost half a second for the machine to respond, and the code is at least twelve characters long. Besides, based on the questions I've heard, if anything will inspire confidence in the integrity of the election, this is that thing.
“Ah, but you're NOT voting today in precinct G17 (or whatever). You are voting here at Lewis -LW- today, and we're going to tell your precinct that you checked in here on laptop 254, and that you were the 1109th voter through that line, just in case you show up all drunk on Election Day and start demanding to vote again, they can be like, 'Dude! Go home!',”
“just in case you were planning on driving around and voting a hundred times on Election Day,” or some such improvisation.
That's for the younger people.
The older ones get, “just in case you had any funny ideas along that line,” or something like that, with the country dialed up a little on my accent as though I was talking to my mom on the phone.
Humor is a well-documented way of cutting through prejudice and anxiety. And of course, noone is planning to vote multiple times themselves; it's only those bad other people who would consider such a thing. Hypocrisy is not a bug in human reasoning; it's a feature. That's why I turn it around on them.
Most people respond with an “Oh,” or a “Huh.” Some, whose biases I am confirming, add an, “Of course,” or “I just want to get it over with the one time.” The ones who need to hear the message of electoral integrity are more likely to expand on the grunt with a wondering, “I didn't know you all did that,” or “Well, that's a good thing,” or, even more grudgingly, “Well, you oughtta be.” Of course, I have no idea whether that impression will stick, but I fully intend to approach the County Board of Elections about studying that question, and possibly implementing something like the model I've worked out in their training of poll workers. Candidates come and go, but people need to trust the institutions.
I'm not talking about a script as tight as a telemarketer would use. That alienates people, especially if they hear exactly the same spiel coming from the next booth over. I'm careful to space my voters out across machines if possible, and if I do have two next two one another, I make sure to alter my wordings. It's like a marathon jazz concert.
I should also emphasize that I'm not doing propaganda. It's not a Jedi mind trick. I'm just narrating the actual process that we use to track voters and their ballots, as I do it, in as entertaining a way as I can manage. If the voter has a question, I answer it to the best of my ability in a direct and unbiased way. I neither agree nor disagree with their opinions on candidates, and I don't engage them at that level. The nature of the process on the floor makes this easy, especially if there are people waiting in line and machines open, which is most of the time, because we are always under-staffed. Either someone doesn't show up, or someone has a broken foot and can't walk fast, or something.
source: Los Angeles Student Pollworker Program
I'm also going to suggest employing more high school and college students. Twelve hours is a long shift for anybody, and physical stamina becomes important. Even if the kids just came in to take over the walking for the few hours after school, that would improve things. The elders could at least start the counts before they were completely exhausted.
Next post will be about bigger questions of ballot and election design. Those are questions academics have studied in detail, and I want to do a little reading before I toss in my two cents. Also, I have to do my research on some of the local races before I crash out. Two more shifts on Friday and Saturday.
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When he's not channelling B.F. Skinner, your friendly neighborhood neuroscientist Randall Hayes also writes the monthly PlotBot column for online SF magazine Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.
Banas, J. A., Dunbar, N., Rodriguez, D., and Liu, S. (2011). A review of humor in education settings: Four decades of research. Communication Education, 60 (1), 115-144.