Signing up to work the polls is a lot more than just showing up


With a hugely consequential election upon us, many will be heading to the Orange County Voting Centers in the next few weeks to cast ballots and interact with the people who staff them. Until recently, here’s a question I haven’t pondered: How smart do you really have to be to serve as a poll worker? 

With reports about fake election drop boxes in Southern California and a national discussion about the fundamental trust in our election systems, layered on top of the fears with COVID-19, safe and accurate voting has never been more important.

Earlier this summer, after reading about the lack of poll workers due to the pandemic, I decided to take the plunge and apply to help out. Obviously, without poll workers in-person voting is impossible, although there are plenty of other ways to cast a ballot nowadays.

I didn’t do it for any other reason other than to assist the community. I figured that I would raise my hand and the Orange County Registrar of Voters would welcome me in, escort me to a voting machine and ask that I disinfect it after every voter or some other basic task they needed.

Gary Sherwin

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Courtesy of Visit Newport Beach

Gary Sherwin

Was I ever wrong.

Maybe I was naïve, but I learned that if you want to work the polls in Orange County, you have to want that job very, very much.

Not only was the application process tough, but the training, both online and in person, is extremely time consuming and not for the faint of heart.

Hello? I just want to help people cast their ballots in a year with expected high voter turnout. That’s not how this process works. If you remember older people sitting at a polling station desk with a big paper book of addresses ready to cross you off when you arrive, those days are as dead as large birthday parties this year.

Back in June, I logged on to the county site and after searching around for a while, found the poll application and filled it out. Then crickets. Nothing. 

Then magically many weeks later, I received an email acknowledging my application and asking that I take an online assessment from a third party named Wonderlic. No problem. They suggested that I have a pad of paper and a pen ready to take the exam and nothing else.

The next day I took it. And it blew me away. The exam, no exaggeration, was in many ways the equivalent of the dreaded college SAT. There were questions featuring algebra, geometry, fractions, decimals and English synonyms. Every question was timed and there was a countdown clock as you sweated the answers.

Did I accidentally apply to be a county scientist or in the accounting department? Why are they doing this for a poll worker position who doesn’t actually even count any votes? My fear was that most applicants would be so turned off by the exam that they would walk away from the process before finishing it and I would completely understand that. 

More concerning is that it seemed that the only poll workers the county wanted were highly skilled college-educated people, which never seemed to be what the job required. Was the county trying to scare off potential workers?

I answered as many questions as I could and finished it. I didn’t hear anything for weeks until they emailed me back and asked for a Zoom interview.

The interview went well, and they emphasized they wanted people with excellent customer skills. I was happy to hear that.

Then more emails came. I was instructed to go and get fingerprinted. Then I was given two days’ notice, no other options, to report to the registrar headquarters and to bring proof of citizenship like a passport. I guess they were weeding out Russian and Chinese operatives who want to meddle with our Vote Centers.

They had me sign a huge pile of papers to the point where I asked the person behind the counter if the county had just sold me a house. “Yeah, I get that a lot,” was the reply.

Then the big stuff happened. They sent me a link for a mandatory 11-hour online training course which included how to work all the equipment and set it up. There were numerous quizzes throughout and if you didn’t pass them, you couldn’t move to the next module. It took me well past the allotted time.

The online course was tedious and extremely detailed. My brain hurt. Why am I doing this, I asked myself, and frankly I almost gave up. After several days of taking the course in chunks, I got through it.

After jumping through those hoops, then it was time for the eight-hour in-person training at the registrar headquarters. A personable instructor named Hala took 20 of us application survivors through a full day of hands-on work with the equipment and the various scenarios we would face. Our group was a mixed bag of young people and older professionals, primarily female and mostly first-time poll workers. I didn’t see any retirees.

We practiced situations such as what happens if an LA County voter wants to vote in the OC or if a person tries to vote twice. (The check-in machine, called ePollbook, can track if you have already voted by mail or at another Voting Center. In both cases, they both get provisional ballots, by the way, but if you try to vote twice, we are instructed to sternly tell the voter that they can’t do that).

While I was at the registrar, I asked a few people why the initial exam was so hard and what exactly were they trying to recruit for, but I didn’t get any answers. Some people told me it was a human resources issue. Nowhere on the application site did it indicate what the steps were needed to apply, and the time needed to train for this job which would have been useful. 

After all that, I have my official name badge and my poll worker handbook. I’m ready to go when county voting begins on October 30. I’ll be assigned to work at a Voting Center and my hours will last as long as 13 hours a day perhaps longer on Election Day. And I’m OK with that.

Perhaps with all the new technology, being a poll worker isn’t as simple as it used to be. But in much larger LA County, they recently put out a call for poll help and indicated that all would be required is an hour of online training and another hour in person, a very far cry from here in the OC.

Serving as a poll worker has traditionally been an honorable way to provide a public service to your community for just about anybody. I think it still is and I’m excited to serve, but you better have a solid body of knowledge (especially math, which as I learned, except for some basic addition and subtraction, you don’t use in the job) and a lot of stamina during the training process to support you.

I hope that the county didn’t come up with this system and intentionally or unintentionally spook some great people from pursuing this work. In a year when all eyes will be on polling stations, we need as many talented people as we can get to serve in this role even if they aren’t folks with fancy degrees.

See you at the polls.

Gary Sherwin is President & CEO of Visit Newport Beach and Newport Beach & Company.