Opinion: Expanding early voting hours was a mistake

The Board of Elections recently decided to expand early voting hours to 7 pm as a way of helping Athens workers get to the polls and increasing turnout. The decision has been celebrated by some, and it will almost certainly help Athenians find the time to cast their ballots this election. But there’s a downside, which is described by Mary Songster, an experienced and dedicated poll worker, in this open letter to the Board of Elections. -APN

The recent decision to expand early voting hours is very demoralizing for those of us who work the elections.

If the Board of Elections felt like there was not enough access to early voting it would have been something you would have known almost a year ago when planning for the general election was well underway. You could have at many previous times, months before the beginning of voting, allowed for more options for early voting. It is concerning that the board shows a lack of appreciation for the intense logistical operations involved in running a safe and accurate election.

I feel like we have the Board of Elections to protect election workers from the pressure of outside special interest groups and this decision feels like the Board is, in fact, conceding to outside special interest groups rather than looking at the actual vote access and success in Athens. For example, I am not aware of the Board ever lobbying for a more suitable space for the Elections offices so that when they have to be the State required early voting location more equipment could easily be accommodated to allow for a greater number of voters.

Poll workers are part time, essentially seasonal workers for Athens-Clarke County. Like Board members, when we are not working elections we have other obligations on our time — work, family, community — and we set aside time for elections because we are committed to the vote.

For each election cycle, in addition to being officially hired by ACC, every poll worker is required to go through two trainings. I work early voting, election day and will be part of the risk limiting audit team. I work as poll worker, assistant manager and manager. I went through four trainings and one practice to meet the state requirement.

For early voting, a typical day is ten hours for the poll worker and longer for staff and the manager. The first day is early and late and long. By the fifth day in a row you start to forget the faces of your loved ones and what a home-cooked meal tastes like. During the day if you get a fifteen minute lunch and two restroom breaks you are lucky, and the manager is often inhaling a power bar at their desk while making sure the hourly count is correct.

The physical stress is matched by the state’s ever increasing expectations of real time information during voting that not done accurately could result in legal trouble for the poll worker. Currently the work day cannot be split between workers. We are all required to work long days.

For the primary election I worked sixteen days for just over two hundred hours including Saturday and Sunday. Frankly, it was too much to ask of my family and my business, so for the General Election I can only offer seven days for early voting.

We poll workers are a tested team and support each other to maintain an incredibly positive polling location. Even though we fill every nook of the Elections office, normal elections staff are very helpful and accommodating. No problem is too small or too large to solve, and they patiently work with us until a resolution is reached, which undoubtedly slows their normal work as we work early voting in their cramped space. We strive every day for accuracy and this becomes harder as the days go on.

I would never think to explain all of this to you because I would assume you had a handle of what it is you ask of our town’s poll workers, but your recent actions have me concerned that you are not, in fact, aware of what you ask.

On election day, we all know it will be a thirteen to fourteen hour shift. We are prepared; it is a special day and we look forward to the challenge of getting everyone voted. We have studied and practiced and trained. It is game day. It is exhausting and exhilarating but like a marathon few could run one back to back.

By extending hours for early voting in the middle of the election, you have pushed what is a very difficult early voting schedule to the brink of impossible.

It is not what we signed up for. While that must seem like a small accommodation to the Board, it is resolutely harder for every poll worker. We who work the polls represent a small minority who are willing to set aside our lives for a month because we value the opportunity to vote. You would be hard pressed to find more individuals who weren’t working for a specific political agenda. All that we have done to schedule this into our lives has just gotten that much harder to manage. I believe physically it will be too much for some that work the elections and they will not return to work again. So all of these hired, trained, and experienced workers are pushed this far so that the Board of Elections can appease outside special interest pressure to change our elections to a manner that suits them as opposed to finding real ways to support voters and election workers in Athens.

I also serve on the ACC Community Tree Council. I have learned so many interesting things about our community trees. A healthy forest includes trees of all ages and varieties. It turns out that the older trees actually contribute the most to the over all success of a forested area. I have learned, while serving on the council, that maintaining trees to develop an older larger canopy is the secret to a healthy ecosystem. If you clear cut and replant it eliminates the ecology and takes decades to recover, if ever.  

I think of this as a metaphor for the longstanding hard working poll workers who cannot be cleared away and replaced, they are the heart of free and fair elections in Athens and if not maintained and supported the whole ecology of our elections will be diminished.

ACC Board of Elections Member Hunaid Qadir has responded. You can read his comments here.

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