Behind the scenes with precinct workers
What Butte County voters don’t see at their polling places
“Things are going fast!” That’s what Candace Grubbs, Butte County’s clerk-recorder/registrar, told a classroom full of precinct workers last Thursday (Oct. 23) as they brushed up on their training in advance of Election Day.
She was talking about the late rush by her staff to enter the 1,000-some voter registrations that arrived at the deadline, but she might as well have been talking about Nov. 4. With the U.S. presidency, controversial propositions and local offices all on the ballot, Grubbs is expecting a hectic Tuesday—and she wants to make sure the people manning the polling places are prepared.
That’s the reason why the registrar’s office conducts classes. This one was for veterans: chief inspectors and inspectors who’ve worked other elections, such as the two primaries this year, and need only a refresher course to supplement online instruction. Other sessions—for less-experienced clerks and voting system specialists—take longer than 2-1/2 hours.
They’ve made a difference. Mary Rudolph, Grubbs’ deputy, who taught Friday assisted by Paul Markovic, said the phone at the election help center rings half as often thanks to the proactive training.
The workers aren’t volunteers; they received stipends—$130, $155 or $175—that cover class time, set-up and Election Day. But this isn’t a job; it’s public service. Many of the 30 attendees last Thursday work for the county: in the Public Health Department, the library, the Children & Families Commission (the latter represented by Liz Griffin, a candidate for the Chico school board, who will spend Tuesday beyond district boundaries in Durham).
Grubbs credits these volunteers for the county’s track record of smooth elections, and during the hour she spent with her crack crew, she made sure they knew it.
Much of the training revolves around electronic voting machines. Even though California Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified them, including Butte County’s Diebolds, each precinct is allowed to operate one, ostensibly to accommodate people with disabilities. (For instance, the machines have zoom and audio features to aid visually impaired voters.)
Grubbs, who advocates electronic voting, takes a “don’t ask, don’t tell” position—precinct workers offer both paper and electronic options to everyone. As she told the CN&R before the June primary, “We don’t discriminate in this county; we’re not going to ask if you’re disabled.”
“Precinct” and “polling place” aren’t interchangeable; some sites serve multiple sets of voters. At those locations (such as Chico State’s student union, the Paradise veterans hall and the Southside Oroville community center), Grubbs’ staff will set up units in clusters.
Machines are the prime domain of voting system specialists, but inspectors need to know the inner workings, too. So Rudolph allotted 30 minutes for practice setting up the units and 20 minutes for practice taking them down.
The trickiest tasks involve the printer. Butte County bought its machines before paper records became mandatory, so the Diebolds had to get retrofitted. The rectangular modules use rolls of paper roughly the size of adding-machine tape; they’re locked in boxes with clear panels that enable voters to inspect their piece of the paper trail before it spools into the collection canister.
Between set-up and take-down, Markovic patiently and methodically demonstrated how to change the paper, which Rudolph estimates will be required at least once per polling place. Two workers sign the end of the sheet before it gets removed from the housing, sealed and sequestered.
The rest of the training covered procedures, tips and troubleshooting. Poll workers are in the customer-service business—they have laws to enforce, but they’re not law enforcement. As Rudolph explained, “Our goal on Election Day is not to get in any conflicts.” If a voter comes into a polling place wearing a campaign button or T-shirt and refuses to remove it, don’t argue—offer him or her a coat or sweater, or just “get them through as fast as possible.”
Speed will be key, because even though half of Butte County’s 122,270 voters requested mail-in ballots, more than 61,000 are eligible to vote at the polls. Plus, as of Wednesday morning, just 31,000 absentee ballots had arrived at County Center in Oroville; Grubbs expects a lot of drop-offs Tuesday.
Grubbs recommends mailing ballots by Friday to ensure on-time delivery. The elections office is open today, Friday, Saturday and Monday for early voting and hand-delivered ballots. Tuesday’s hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., with poll locations and other information online at http://clerk-recorder.buttecounty.net.