Voters waiting to enter the polling place at Fire Station #3, North Pelham, on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. DON RICKERS

Serving with the gatekeepers of democracy

Ever since last week’s by-election was first announced, multitasking Pelham Town Clerk Nancy Bozzato has carried the ball, producing election materials, refining protocols, establishing dates and locations for two advance polls and the election day itself, and generally ensuring the accuracy and confidentiality of the voting process. In her words, the Clerk’s role is to “try to anticipate and preempt any potential issues or irregularities.”

During her tenure with the Town of Pelham, Bozzato confides that there have been glitches, but none that impacted the integrity of the vote.

“For me, it is not about the result…it is about the process that leads to the result,” said Bozzato.

When she put out the call for the recruitment of workers to staff the polls, this scribbler took notice.

Having never been involved in the backstage element of the electoral process, I figured it was high time for me to gather my civic pride and find out exactly what went on in the engine room of a polling station.

I completed the online application found on the Town of Pelham’s website, dutifully answering a list of questions which attempted to gauge my competencies and proclivities. Have you worked on a federal, provincial, or municipal election before? Do you feel comfortable using automatic vote counting equipment? Do you have experience with basic balance sheet calculations? Do you promise not to eat the firemen’s pickles and cheese stored in the fire hall kitchen? (I had to think hard on that one.)

To my disappointment, I learned that the most of the really responsible jobs (poll supervisor, deputy returning officer, revisions clerk, vote tabulator operator) had already been filled by seasoned veterans. Luckily for me, given the dangers of COVID-19, the municipality had created a few new roles: polling station cleaner (to ensure readily available and consistent cleaning of high touch points and ballot casting areas), health assessment officer (to screen electors entering the polling station), and physical distancing officer (to help guide and remind voters of spatial requirements).

My wife had given me specific instructions not to come home smelling of latex gloves and Lysol, so the cleaning gig was out. And the health assessment duties, I learned, were generally filled by nurses, or at least those with a clean set of scrubs who were not averse to asking strangers if they had spent the weekend in Caracas or Mumbai.

But lo and behold, I received a call from Sarah Leach in the Clerk’s Office, confirming that I had been selected to socially distance the good people of Pelham at Fire Station 3 as they waited in line to vote. Separating the masses if you will, in my mind something akin to Moses parting the Red Sea. I went to bed with images of hanging chads dancing in my head. (If you are haunted by the aforementioned reference to the Florida recount during the 2000 U.S. presidential election, in which punch-card ballots were inconclusively perforated, you probably have a Gore/Lieberman button stashed in the back of your desk drawer.)

A short training session was held a couple weeks prior to the first advance poll. Bozzato walked us through everyone’s role, and provided an overview of the election process. Masks and /or face shields were mandatory, of course. We would be working two advance polls (September 3 and 12) plus election day on September 15, a total of 30 hours. She appeared mildly annoyed when I referred to my role as sergeant at arms rather than physical distancing officer, and she stubbornly refused to allow me to carry mace and handcuffs to restrain any citizens who refused to abide by the “two-metre rule.” Hey, things can get crazy in a hurry…just look at all the turmoil south of the border.

Speaking of the good ol’ USA, it’s interesting to note that they have to scavenge for poll workers during their elections, whereas in Pelham we have a waiting list of willing citizens eager to take one of the 33 poll worker positions. The American general election on November 3 (also know as the “I’m Donald Trump, just try and get rid of me!” conundrum) will require some 900,000 poll workers, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In the 2018 US general election, 58 percent of poll workers were age 61 or older, and 27 percent were 71 or older. This year, the shortage has been made worse by the fact that the retirees who typically work the polls are also the most at risk for severe illness due to the coronavirus.

There were more than a few seniors working the poll at Pelham’s Station 3, including yours truly. It was a good-natured group, predominantly of the female gender. The ladies were generally assigned to duties which required mathematical tabulation and digital dexterity—in other words, heightened functioning of the cerebral cortex. By comparison, a well-behaved chimpanzee fed bananas as a Pavlovian reward could likely have assumed my function. Or perhaps one of Elon Musk’s robots from the Tesla assembly line.

The two advance polls were valuable to familiarize workers with their responsibilities. Clerk Bozzato happened by a couple times throughout the ten hours each day that the polls were open, dropping off doughnuts or chocolate bars, and providing a pep talk for the troops. Given that long periods of inactivity were the norm during the advance polls, I think Bozzato was really trying to catch me nodding off at my post. The Keurig coffee machine saved me from such an embarrassment. We had 51 electors place ballots at the first advance poll at Station 3, 83 at the second, and 113 on election day.

I was quickly made aware that staffing the election station is serious business. At the beginning and end of the shift, you must swear a verbal oath and sign a document saying that you will not and did not associate with any skullduggery while in the execution of your duties. Rumour had it that there was also a secret handshake, similar to that of the Masonic Order, but the pandemic precluded its use.

Although the polling area was well-marked with signage, and red circles with arrows on the floor designated the traffic direction for voters, a lot of people seemed to have trouble going with the flow. Perhaps the red discs confused them. I think next election, Pelham needs to take a page from the Wizard of Oz, and listen to the advise the Munchkins gave Dorothy and her little dog Toto. “Follow the yellow brick road!,” they exclaimed, indicating the path to the Emerald City. Let’s have decals with Pelham paving stones mark the route from the front door. Enter, register, mark your ballot, hand it to the tabulator at the exit door. Done. Easy peasy. Where’s that suggestion box?

It was my observation that Station 3 voters were predominantly of the older generation. Lots of canes and walkers, and a few wheelchairs, passed through the doors. You’ve got to hand it to those seniors. They rightly view voting as a civic responsibility, maybe even a sacred duty. Of the 1557 potential voters in Ward 1 aged 60 or older, 710 cast ballots (just over 45%). Compare that to the 42 of 422 eligible voters age 25 or under who took the time to complete a ballot (a tad shy of 10%).

It was impressive how quickly the results were tallied. The polls closed at 8 PM on election night, and a mere 15 minutes later the unofficial results were on the Town’s website. Ward 1 resident Wayne Olson won in dramatic fashion, taking almost 60% of the popular vote. One thousand and seventy seven citizens completed a ballot, out of 4364 eligible on the Ward 1 registry—a 27% participation rate. While this rate may seem low, it’s still impressively up from the 22% turnout during the last Ward 1 by-election, in 2011, when there was definitely not a pandemic happening.

From left, Town staffers Holly Willford, Sarah Leach, and Ross Savage assist in vote tabulation inside Pelham Town Hall on Tuesday evening, September 15, 2020. MARC MACDONALD/TOWN OF PELHAM

Bozzato advised poll workers that she had received plenty of positive feedback from electors on their voting experience, and that there were no concerns or issues reported.

Election poll workers have been referred to as the “gatekeepers of democracy.” True enough. Politics is not a spectator sport. Like a game of ice hockey, it involves contact. Citizens are needed to organize, oversee, and even referee to ensure fairness, transparency, and accuracy.

It’s about civics, not partisan politics.

So, well done, Pelham poll workers. And by the way, the fire chief at Station 3 wants to know who ate his gherkins and cheddar.