10/31/2008 03:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Turn to Man the Polls in Small Town Virginia

For more than thirty years, each election day, wherever I lived, I went into the polling place, showed my voter registration card, followed whatever instruction I was given, voted in whichever kind of booth was then available, got my cute little "I voted" sticker and then went on about my day.

I paid no attention to the older, often elderly man or woman who took my name and looked it up in the large book whose pages he or she flipped by hand, or the equally older man or woman who asked me if I needed any help voting.

But last Monday night I became perhaps the youngest of those men and women who will sit and stand and help at the polls all day this Tuesday November, 4, because I am being trained as a poll worker.

And I now have a new and profound appreciation for all those "invisible" people we all take for granted when we go to cast our vote.

This year there will be more of us than ever: forty for five wards and an additional four for the absentee voters. The turnout, of course, like everywhere else, is expected, to be huge-- record numbers.

This year, too, for the first time in Virginia history, plainclothes policeman will be stationed at every precinct, in case things get out of hand. "We have been advised by the state," said Staunton Police Chief Jim Williams, "to have law enforcement around to handle possible protests." He added that the police will not be in uniform as there is no wish to discourage or intimidate voters, and that he does not anticipate trouble. "But there is a lot of passion about this race." The poll workers laugh and murmur their assent at this remark.

We are told that no visible buttons, hats or T- shirts will be allowed inside the polling places. If people cannot take them off or cover them up with a coat or sweater, each polling place has been provided, courtesy of one of our volunteers, with a disposable hospital gown to place over their clothes. We are also told that all poll workers must not take or make cellphone calls while we are working and that any bathroom or food breaks must be cleared with another poll worker so that our place will be covered at all times.

The registrar tells us that early voting has been particularly strong, with more than fifty voters the past Saturday. For little Staunton, that is a lot. She says registrars across the state have been sharing stories of early voters and while one story of a brand new citizen who hugged the registrar and cried after voting, there were others not so much fun. One new precinct worker came in drunk and carrying a loaded 38. Naturally, he will no longer be working the polls. Another voter sealed his ballot with a bloody mouth. Still another spat on the table, and yet another peed in his wheelchair while voting.

All of us hope we don't have to expect the same kind of shenanigans.

In the meantime, before we show up at 5 a.m. on Tuesday (and expect to be there until at least 8 p.m. and most likely much longer in order to make sure the poll book numbers tally with the machines), we have a lot of information to go over. There is a thick booklet called "Election Day Guide for Officers of Election" which we will bring with us but which we are expected to learn well before we come. As a newbie I need to be a quick study; most of the other precinct workers have done this for years. And then there are pages and pages of "What Ifs...": quick references to problems. The kinds of problems many of you may have heard about on television.

What if a person does not have a valid ID?

What if a person name is marked with a question mark but he has not moved?

What if the voter's name has been removed from the book in error?

What if the voter is challenged by an Officer or another voter?

What if the voter's name is not on the poll book?

We are also told that so many new voters registered that some of the names had to be written in at the end of each alphabetical listing so we need to check there for names, too.

It is bureaucratic and detail-oriented and daunting.

But we are also instructed, in no uncertain terms, to allow everyone to vote. If there is a question, the chief of the ward, an experienced person, can usually handle it. If not, the registrar is available by phone. Every effort will be made. At the least, a voter will be given a provisional ballot and will be allowed to make his or her case with proof of identification or residency or voter registration the next day.

We are not trying to disenfranchise anyone at the polls.

Stanley Cline, the 85 year old Secretary of the Staunton Electoral Board, is the man who called me to serve, when one of the precinct workers bowed out to help get out the voters at the Obama headquarters. I met him that night. He has been serving for forty years. Unbeknownst to him (or anyone else in the room at City Hall where we were being trained) a surprise birthday cake was delivered to celebrate his upcoming 86th birthday. We embarrassed him mightily by singing and eating cake and then I made to slip out the door, but was stopped by a woman in her late sixties.

She held out her hand. 'I'm Jean," she said. "I understand we'll be working Ward 3 together."

"Yes," I said. "Thanks. I'm new at this."

"Not to worry," she said. "We're all in it together." Others gathered around. They told me to be sure to dress comfortably in layers, wear sneakers, bring a 'butt' pillow for my chair, and plenty to eat and drink. I thanked them heartily for the advice. Later, when I spoke with my friend who is the Chairman of the Electoral Board, she said she is glad they told me all that.

"I usually bring around chocolate every couple of hours," she laughed.

I am not a morning person. On November 4, five a.m. is going to come very very early...