A voter fills out her ballot at Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit during the primary election on Aug. 4. The city clerk's office is recruiting poll workers for the November election. (Photo by Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press)

Katy Locker and Donna Murray-Brown are Detroit residents.

This story also appeared in Detroit Free Press

We’ve talked to a lot of people who are frustrated by what they experienced at the polls in Detroit earlier this month. Some just want to complain. Some are worried about what this means for the November election. And some want to do something.

We know the feeling.

That’s why we signed up to be City of Detroit poll workers this summer, and worked on Aug. 4 to help our fellow citizens exercise their right to vote. Donna was a first time pollworker; Katy worked the polls during the March presidential primary. At the end of a very long day, we were confident we had contributed to our community, and our democracy. Even though we both experienced a lot of frustrations that day, we’re both applying to serve again in November.

If you’re thinking about signing up to be a poll worker, here are some tips. And if you’re training poll workers, well, we have some thoughts on that, too.

Who can volunteer

If you are 16 years old or older, and a resident of Michigan, you can be a poll worker, formally referred to as “election inspectors.” If you are 18 years old or older, you need to be a registered voter in Michigan. Every community in Michigan needs poll workers, and on the Michigan Secretary of State’s site, you can sign up to serve anywhere in the state: www.Michigan.gov/democracyMVP

In Detroit, there are 503 in-person voting precincts and 120 absentee ballot counting boards. Each precinct needs a minimum of three election inspectors. And, in our opinions, three really isn’t enough. Six is more appropriate — allowing for breaks, troubleshooting, cleaning, etc. That means the city clerk needs thousands of individuals to work on Election Day.

It is a paid position, but no one is getting rich as a poll worker. You’ll spend two to three hours in training, and then you’ll work Election Day for more than 14 hours. You’ll be paid about $200, depending on what role you work.

If you’re applying to work the polls in Detroit, use this site: www.vote4detroit.net/pollaccess/ 

You don’t have to live in Detroit to work Detroit elections. Although both of us are city residents, Katy worked with a resident of Lathrup Village and a resident of Ann Arbor on Election Day.

Watch out for this

After you complete an application, the next step is for the clerk’s office to send you a date, time and location for training. In some cases, you’ll get this in the mail. You could also get an email. You might get a phone call. (Donna had less than 24 hours notice by phone of the training she was assigned to. Katy got four pieces of mail assigning her to two different training dates/times.)  

But here’s the thing you need to know. You can submit the application (you can also mail in an application or go to the clerk’s office and fill one out) and they can still lose you in the system.

If you want to do this, you need to be persistent. The clerk’s office is trying to sign up and train more than a thousand people in a short period of time. If you haven’t heard from them after applying to work, you need to email or call or just show up.

You have to 

Both of us were trained as Electronic Pollbook Inspectors, called EPIs. That’s just one role an election inspector can train for, and it’s probably the person at the precinct who you  think of as a pollworker — the person who checks voters in on the laptop computer that lists all voters at that precinct. Neither of us know how we got selected for this specific training. There are other roles, like precinct chair, ballot inspector and application inspector, etc. 

The training is not adequate.

The clerk’s office has the oddest collection of handouts that are some of the worst photocopies, in no particular order, and don’t seem to focus on the things you’re most likely to encounter on Election Day. 

The training lacks tremendously in teaching a new person how all the precinct roles work to create the entire experience. That makes it hard to hold your fellow poll workers or precinct chair accountable, or to ask for help when it is unclear how the roles work together.

There is little guidance to understand the “right” way to process things. Then, for both of us, there were only two or three workers total in our precincts, so what should be distinct roles were combined and mixed — none of us were adequately prepared to do these additional roles.

The trainers tried to share their knowledge, but there did not seem to be a set curriculum that would make sure key items are prioritized.

Like closing the polls

One of those key items is how to close the polls at the end of the day. We learned from our colleagues on Election Day that the training for precinct chair isn’t much better. Regardless, you have to complete the training in order to be a worker on Election Day. There is no test at the end. You just have to be present.

The good news: there are very detailed checklists distributed on Election Day that become critical to being able to do the job. These lists should be distributed at training. Katy also experienced this while working the March primary. 

After you complete training, you should receive a single sheet of paper from the clerk’s office, titled “Election Day Credentials,” giving your precinct assignment.

Again, you have to be persistent to be sure you get this paper. In Katy’s case, the Thursday before the election she still hadn’t received her assignment so she sent an inquiry to a random email she had for the clerk’s office. Her assignment was then emailed to her. She never received any notice in the mail.

What to expect on Election Day

Your Election Day Credentials will tell you the address of your precinct. It will also tell you that you need to be there at 5:45 a.m. — the polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. — and that you’ll need to stay until you are “dismissed by the Supervisor.” Prepare yourself for a 14 to 16 hour day.

Your credentials will tell you that you need to wear black or blue pants and a white shirt. At the August election, we were also told that we were required to wear a mask all day and that PPE would be provided (it was).

We were also told that we had to present a negative COVID-19 test the day of the election. It remains unclear to us whether this was a required or optional, but presenting it qualified us for the $50 hazard pay offered to poll workers for the August election. 

Bring meals and snacks

No food or drink is provided for poll workers. You’re supposed to get a few breaks during the day, but depending on how many voters are turning up and how many workers are at your precinct, you may not get all of those breaks. This means you need to pack water, coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner and whatever else you will need to get through your day. (Katy makes sure to bring an extra phone charger, and has also been known to bring an extra extension cord.) If you aren’t working the polls, think about checking in at your precinct and asking the poll workers whether they need coffee, water or a snack.

Upon arrival, you’ll meet the people who you are going to work closely with for the next 14 hours. They may or may not be experienced. Your precinct chair will have all of the materials for the day. Some are delivered to the polling site the night before. It is everyone’s responsibility to assist in setting up the site. This means setting up tables, posting signs, putting out ballot applications, pens, PPE, etc. It’s all hands on deck to open the polls at 7 a.m.  — and hope you have an experienced precinct chair, because that can make all the difference.

This is what makes it worthwhile

Throughout the day, you will be processing voters. This part is joyful. It is a powerful thing to welcome voters and thank them for participating in our democracy.

It can also be extremely challenging.

Voters expect you to move quickly and know how to handle every possibility. If a voter is at the right precinct and hasn’t been sent an absentee ballot, it can be relatively simple to issue them a ballot. If they are in the wrong place, if they didn’t receive their requested absentee ballot, or a myriad of other issues you probably weren’t trained on, it can get difficult quickly, and other voters can get impatient.

Having worked relatively low-turnout primaries, both of us are daunted by the thought of November’s general election, and the number of voters that will need to be processed. We can’t even imagine what would happen if a precinct lost power, its ballot tabulator malfunctioned, or the electronic pollbook crashed. 

There are procedure checklists and a lot of paper about everything in the box of materials on site at the precinct.

Unfortunately, it’s an overwhelming amount of paper, and it’s not easy to find what you need when you need it. If you have an experienced chair, you’ll have a much easier time, because the chair responsible for all the paperwork and for dealing with any unexpected issues. As far as we can tell, there are nowhere near enough experienced chairs for Detroit’s 500-plus precincts. Of the three precincts the two of us have worked, we only worked for first-time precinct chairs.

When in doubt, find the instructions

The polls close at 8 p.m. You’re exhausted. You still have work to do.

Everything you set up 14 hours ago needs to be taken down. There is an elaborate process that your precinct chair needs to complete to get all of the precinct’s documentation delivered to city and county clerks. All of the poll workers have to sign several documents when it’s all done, so you can’t just leave while your chair figures it out. (And if you do, you won’t be paid.) We won’t go into the details of the closing procedure, except to say it’s really involved and not easy for a first-time chair to do without great difficulty. In all likelihood, it will be after 9 p.m. when your precinct chair and the pollbook inspector leave with the ballot boxes and the laptop to take it to another location, the “receiving board” for your precinct.

Working the polls can be exhausting and frustrating. Do it anyway.

Be persistent to get signed up, to get trained, and to get an assignment. Then show up on Election Day with patience, snacks and a good attitude. You will be rewarded with the knowledge that you contributed to our city, our state and our nation.

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