When I signed up to be a poll booth worker in this year's general election, I needed $200. I'd read on my voter registration form that poll workers make $106-$200 after working just one election day and attending the necessary training. With one check of a box, I was a government employee.
I won't say why I needed this money, only that it would help pay for a certain citation from the City of New York that I had been putting off paying for some time. I considered working the polls the equivalent of doing dishes to pay for my meal.
My training assignment came in the mail in the form of a small, sediment-covered business card. "BRING THIS TO GET PAID," it read in bold letters, along with the address of the Brooklyn Board of Elections building next to Borough Hall. It occurred to me that there was a good chance that no one signed up to be a poll worker for fun. I clutched my card close and hoped I wasn't working in a county that only gave its workers $106.
Working at the poll booths is no glamorous task. Despite the "White" House, the common experience most have with government is: dusty. I'm not sure what our country did before fluorescent lighting because its presence in government buildings is rampant, as well as grey carpet, the smell of paper bags, and an ill-fitting suit worn by someone somewhere in your line of vision. My experience at poll worker training was no different. After standing in an elevator for 20 minutes to go up three floors, I arrived in the beige room where I would train to be an election worker for the next six hours.
A quick look around the room; I saw approximately two people who were looking to amp up their resumes to submit to grad school, 10 to 12 Maya Angelou types with whom I would later hold hands and cry when the constant flicker of the fluorescent lights caused me to have a day-mare, one "Travel Guy" wearing wooden bead bracelets and a leather choker with shark fang pendant (they are everywhere, aren't they), and four silent individuals who, like me, looked like they came here as some sort of dark vengeance and needed to be paid $200 by the government. Those people never took off their sunglasses.
"Welcome to 2011!" said my instructors, who both had the same Latino-origin name though one was of Jamaican descent and the other looked and sounded to be Woody Allenese. They were both from the Coney Island area and drove cabs.
"If you notice, your packet says we are still in 2011." My new classmates and I -- a team of misfits who will save the general election, I liked to think in the part of my brain that sounds like a movie trailer -- brushed the dust off of our manuals and confirmed that the year was wrong on our materials. "That's because to the government, it is still 2011."
The next six hours of my life were spent learning to operate the various machinery people use to vote in a general election along with various lectures on how unsafe it is to wear shorts while working as a poll booth operator (though in an emergency, "save the ballots first"). Our mechanic supervisor was a tree trunk of a woman with a one-syllable name (cue the ill-fitting suit) who had us repeat the words "You are not a mechanic, just a poll worker" until our mouths were dry. Why is there never any water in government buildings?
I learned many comforting facts about our nation's thoroughness and appreciation for voting, such as: if you don't have hands or legs, you can vote with your mouth. If you hate all of the candidates, you can submit a blank ballot in protest. Animals are allowed inside voting booths, and there's no specification as to which kind of animals are allowed, so one must allow all animals that seem to be assisting people. Our instructors treated us like employees, explaining to us in their cartoony voices that we could be fired for being on our phones, eating on top of a stack of ballots, or losing a ballot altogether. Their gestures and mannerisms reminded me of two baby Marty Markowitzes, proud of their borough and their nation but at the same time knowing fully well that most of us were there to get paid and go home rather than partake in the intricate process that makes us a free country.
A large portion of training was learning how to be respectful towards other voters because our kindness would ensure that they vote again. Only 768,703 Brooklynites voted in the 2008 presidential election, a small fraction of the borough's population of two million. Though we were being trained to anticipate a voting mass of thousands, the veterans in my training session said they'd never seen more than 100 people vote throughout the day. This surprised me, but I did not admit that I had voted absentee in the last election because I didn't want to be around other New Yorkers, as most New Yorkers would probably understand.
I thought about this as we returned to our seats after having a mock emergency drill (because someone's shorts caught on fire. We all blamed Travel Guy). It's true that I probably could have found $200 somewhere else to pay my fine, but I know a small part of me wanted to be here in this room with these people, talking about what to do when someone asks you to hold their baby while they fill out their ballot (you do it). I was bored, lonely, and didn't feel like I was doing anything by simply voting. I think it was clear that I, the grad school applicants, the shady characters who wore their sunglasses indoors and the army of Maya Angelou-types -- we all just wanted to help.
At the end of class we had to take a test to qualify to work an election day. Despite my years of public schooling I did not cheat. Everyone in my class passed, and even the individuals wearing sunglasses cracked a smile in their pride. We may not see each other again, considering the large amount of voting locations in the borough, but we all hoped to see each other for our next training session. Out of curiosity, I asked one of my new friends what she was going to do with her $200, which is now in the mail headed to each of our homes. "I'm going to buy a subway pass for me and my husband!" she said. It was then that I realized I would always owe the government money, but I would do it gladly just for the luxury of being able to vote.