At a time when we seem to be drowning in political disillusionment, I may have found a lifeboat of optimism here in Pierce County. Last fall I became a temporary election worker for the county auditor.
I found the job opening on social media. I applied online and waited. Next thing I knew I was asked to take an aptitude test. Could I spell? Could I read? Could I “cipher”?
I must have done a passable job, as I was called in for a brief interview. The question I remember best was: “How would you maintain your focus in a job that required attention to detail over long periods of time?” Since it was National Coffee Day, I mentioned my reliance on my drug of choice: caffeine.
Next up was a criminal background check. I guess a couple of traffic violations did not disqualify me.
In late October I reported to the County Annex. The first wavelet of ballots had come in the past weekend, and we were to start preparing them to be counted. I learned as part of the “opening” process that we were either partners or subordinates to the machines that would read and tabulate the ballots.
We worked in pairs and learned detailed procedures for opening envelopes, removing ballots and checking them to make sure the machines could read them. Ones with stray marks that would confuse the optical readers were set aside, as were ballots with write-in options. Cast votes that did not connect the arrow segments adequately also were set aside.
We were prodded toward impartiality. We had agreed as a condition of our employment to limit, but not eliminate, our political participation. As citizens we could express our preferences, but the amount we could donate was capped.
In addition, the requirement that we be consistent and expeditious was a strong deterrent to partisanship. Reading the content of ballots slowed down the review procedures. I cared that the voter had cast a clear preference, rather than finding out what that preference was.
Once we had reviewed the ballots and removed the ones with problems, our work was checked by a different team.
The next task was “remakes.” When a ballot had a problem in one area, the entire ballot was copied by hand. Two problem areas received special attention: faintly marked ballots and write-ins. Regarding the latter, reviewers had to check whether the voters expressed real preferences or were just being mischievous. As far as we knew, Mickey Mouse was not a candidate for one office, much less several.
Nevertheless, the auditor’s team was directed by Washington state law to assess a “voter’s intent” on any ballot; a detailed manual helped make that judgment.
My only other task led me to respect the power of government. On election night I rode with two partners to the Anderson Island ferry. While the other team members went to collect ballots from the drop box at precisely 8 p.m., my job was to delay the ferry’s scheduled departure until they returned.
Had the ferry crew been obstinate, I wore a sign demanding that they delay the sailing until the precious ballots were on board. Fortunately, the crew was accommodating.
Election worker is a paid position, but the pay, while above minimum wage, is not generous. The real rewards include spending time with neighbors working on a common task and talking about travel plans, children and hobbies – anything but politics.
We are not strangers to corruption, incompetence and rabid partisanship in this election season. But for me, being an election worker helped give me faith that public service can be a noble calling, one governed by a commitment to respecting the desires of citizens with integrity.
I feel good about the experience; small restorations of faith can help stem the tide of cynicism.
David Droge retired in 2012 after a career as a professor at the University of Puget Sound and a graduation adviser at Lincoln High School. He lives with his family in Tacoma's North End and currently serves as a volunteer Special Olympics coach for Metro Parks. He’ll be working Tuesday’s election, too.