Did you vote?
The December 12 Examiner caught the usually unflappable Tammy
Haygood in an uncharacteristic pose. Our latest Department of
Elections Director is squinting at the camera, her upper lip
raised in what appears to be a snarl. The quote underneath the
photo says, “You can blame the director, blame the department, but
it’s about the quality of the poll workers.”
In this case, it seems that the proverbial buck did not stop at
Haygood’s desk, but slid instead into a South of Market trashcan
along with a pile of unmarked ballots.
Or perhaps it’s a case of — the holiday season brings out old
adages — the poor worker blaming the tools.
Ever since engineer-lawyer Haygood was hired to oversee the
process by which the citizens of San Francisco vote, she has been
deluged with evidence of its failings. Even if no real damage has
been done — and the jurors are still out on that charge — there is
still a public perception that major irregularities could have
Let’s take a good look at the target of Haygood’s blame, the
poll workers. Before each election the city trains some 4,000
volunteers, who will serve as poll workers and inspectors at 643
polling places. (They, in turn, are supervised by a group of city
workers serving as field election deputies.) According to Cindy
MacKenzie of the Department of Elections, these men and women
receive a stipend ranging from $80 to $150 for a day’s work that
begins about 6:15 a.m. and ends after the polls close at 8:00 in
In an attempt to transfuse these workers with new blood, the
Department of Elections has approached corporations and student
groups, with happy results: imagine the unexpected excitement of
casting a normally routine vote under the enthusiastic supervision
of a quartet of high school students. In another effort to broaden
participation in the process, the department has suggested that
organizations send a team of workers whose combined stipends will
constitute a hefty contribution to a favored charity.
But even with a revised cast of characters, the process remains
the same. These workers receive two to three hours of training
sometime during the two weeks leading up to an election. And then
the people playing the role of inspectors may take their allotment
of ballots home, to be safeguarded until they are needed at the
polling place on election morning.
Shall I repeat that? The individual inspectors are responsible
for their ballots from the time that they complete their training.
There is a careful count of the number they receive, and they must
return every one, either marked or unmarked.
Set your devious minds to work and imagine what clever plots
could be implemented during the time that the ballots are supposed
to be resting undisturbed under a bed or in the back of a coat
The oddity in this particular process is that the official vans
go out from the department to each polling place to deliver the
hi-tech Eagle machines used to count the votes we cast. But the
inspectors, the people responsible for actually setting up shop in
the morning, bring the ballots.
The holiday season brings out not only old adages but old
memories as well. I keep remembering finals week in my high
school. The State of New York required students to take a series
of standardized Regents Examinations, which were administered all
over the state at exactly the same time. In every school, sealed
exam packets would arrive in the principal’s office a few days
before. At the required moment, he or she would stride into the
exam room, dramatically rip open the wrapper, and distribute the
tests to the waiting students. The discovery one year that someone
had managed to take a look at the exams beforehand only heightened
security the next.
It was a matter of correcting the process.
Nevertheless, in recent years it has been hard to recruit good
poll workers. Tammy Haygood’s distress over their quality is
understandable. But so is the poor quality. What can you expect
when only 15 percent of registered voters manage to cast votes at
all? Haygood was lucky to turn up 4,000 volunteers of any sort.
Another memory surfaces, of an election day long ago, when my
mother led me into a voting booth (New York used machines with
pull-down levers in those days) and showed me how the mechanism
worked. It was clear from her manner that voting marked an
important moment in her life. No, she was not a newly naturalized
citizen. Just a proud one.
Betsey Culp (firstname.lastname@example.org)