“People are coming to the precincts expecting you to give them a hard time,” Heyward said. “We don’t need you to give them a hard time.”
After two conventions, four debates, hundreds of candidate appearances and billions of dollars in advertising, the 2012 election will culminate in this: a brief and fragile connection between voter and poll worker. On Nov. 6, a one-day workforce of nearly 1 million will open the doors to about 130,000 polling places across the country.
The question is: Are they up to it?
Poll workers in this election will be challenged as never before, given new laws tightening voting rules in dozens of states. Redistricting has altered precinct lines, making it easier for voters to walk into the wrong polling place. New machines and evolving rules on how to serve non-English-speaking or disabled voters are also in the mix. Already, reports are popping up across the country of confusion over dates and rules.
Nov. 6 could be a turbulent day, Chesapeake general registrar William “Al” Spradlin warned the training class.
“This is going to be the craziest election y’all have ever been involved in,” he said.
He was referring to the chaotic, angst-filled environment that poll workers might face. Watchdog groups will be on hair-trigger alert for anything that smacks of fraud, intimidation or suppression. Grass-roots organizations such as True the Vote vow to aggressively challenge those who they think are illegally casting ballots. Labor unions and ballot-access advocates will be there to push back and try to make sure that everyone who can vote gets a chance.
All of this will hover around poll workers, whose fluency in the law and technical know-how could be the difference between a smooth day and one plagued by long lines, accusations of fraud, recounts or litigation.
“They are kind of the last gatekeepers to the ballot,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that works on voting issues.
Although as much as 40 percent of the electorate will have cast ballots in early voting, that still leaves millions who will walk into polling places not quite sure whether rules have changed.
Virginia’s voter-ID law is among the more flexible of the new measures across the country, allowing more than two dozen forms of photo and non-photo identification. Anything from a utility bill to a concealed handgun permit with a current address will be enough to cast a ballot. But it ends a practice that had allowed voters without ID to vote after signing an affidavit swearing to their identity. Now, those who lack any identification — even if their names are on precinct rolls — will have to use a provisional ballot. They will have until noon on the Friday after the election to present officials with acceptable ID or their votes will not be counted.