There’s a small army of ‘greeters’ to our democracy

For every election, there’s a small army of citizens who devote their day to being the “greeters” of our democracy.

On most election days beginning at 6 a.m., this group of citizens are readying all nine of Decatur County’s polling locations stretched throughout the county, and these citizens are there for the whole day and into the night.

They are poll workers, and they are there to ensure voters seamlessly exercise their sacred right.

In Georgia on Election Day, poll workers are the state’s largest one-day workforce with more than 9,500 citizens who had to be trained in their duties for the day. In the 2008 presidential election, more than 15,000 were needed in the state.

Nationally, poll workers augment the workforce by more than 2 million for that one special day.

During the upcoming 2016 election season, expect those numbers to be large, and once again, the troops of that small army to be ready at their posts.

Charlie Laing, the poll manager for the Coliseum polling location, said: “One of the things that amazed me is the amount of energy that goes into making sure that everyone who is qualified to vote gets to vote. I think that’s the biggest thing that I have learned is how far elections people will go to make sure that if you are registered you get a chance to vote.”

Doris White, the chief elections official for the county, said she appreciates all the hard work and long hours poll workers put in. Also, the level of professionalism they exhibit is understanding because of the many laws and procedures that must be followed.

“The people we have right now do an excellent job,” White said, adding that there’s always room for others. “For the most part, everybody does a fine job, otherwise we couldn’t function.”

Laing, who works during the advance voting period and on Election Day, has worked at the polls for three years.

“It’s really kind of amazing that you can take a bunch of people from all different walks of life and backgrounds, and they all come together, and boom, you’ve got an election going. And, it goes off without a hitch. That’s pretty amazing,” he said.

A lot of changes over the years

A few of the county’s poll workers have been working at the polls for more than 40 years. One former worker, Fannie Boutwell, 88, served 60 years in the now-closed Parker Courthouse.

From 1949 to 2009, Boutwell said when she first started working at Parker, there was no heat, no bathroom and no running water at the polling location. Also, ballots were on paper that were stuffed into cans with slits on the top, and then had to be hand counted.

She also remembers that working the polls was similar to a social gathering when she and her female coworkers would make cookies, cakes and other goodies to have ready for the voters.

“A lot of people, when they came to vote, would come in and ask what kind of cookies I made,” Boutwell said.

She remembered one election when the lights went off at the old Parker Courthouse, and Boutwell, her late husband, Roy, and another poll worker took the ballots to her dining room table to be counted.

A lot has changed in those 60 years.

Offering food or any other enticement to vote is now a no-no, and trying to improvise like Boutwell said they had to years ago would now get someone in big-time trouble.

Furthermore, they say the changes that have been made over the years are for the betterment. The transitions from paper ballots to the shoup-lever machines to the current touchscreens have been positive. Even moving from the old paper electors’ list to the current Express Poll machines and scanners to check voters in has been better, poll workers say.

Janelle Nelson, who is the poll manager at the Fairgrounds polling location and during the advanced voting period, has been working with the county’s elections office for more than 40 years.

“There have all been good experiences and the more you work, you learn from it,” said Nelson, who retired from Winn-Dixie after 43 years in 1995. “You never get too old to learn. One of the most memorable times was when we had early voting for the first year President Obama ran. That was really a good experience because it was just an overflow of traffic and people coming in voting.”

During that election, advanced voting was held at the Board of Elections and Registrations’ office located in the Courthouse Annex on West Water Street. After that election, the advanced voting location was changed to the Fairgrounds.

Zack Calhoun, who has served as a poll worker for more than 10 years, said the ability to scan a driver’s license and then the voter’s name instantly appears, ready to have a card created for that voter to cast his ballot, is one of the best advancements in voting.

“One of the biggest changes is ID and being able to scan the ID,” Calhoun said. “To me, that’s been one of the biggest helps. It doesn’t work all the time, but 99 percent of the time, it works. You can take a driver’s license and put it up there and it shows you who you have in front of you and everything. It pops up and you can confirm that’s him. I think that’s one of the biggest changes and for the better too.”

Another change for the better is advanced voting, which at first they didn’t think would go over well, Calhoun said.

“But as the years go by, I think it has gotten stronger. People appreciate it,” Calhoun said. “But some people are diehards and like to go to the polling places on Election Day, but one of things I like about early voting is you can go and get through with it.”

Besides Election Day and advanced voting, a voter can now request a mail-in absentee ballot that is available to all voters, and the voter doesn’t have to get a reason for the request. There is even online voter registration available and a smartphone app that has a sample ballot, links to candidates’ websites, directions to advanced and Election Day polling locations and a way to request an absentee ballot.

Mary Jacobs, 76, has worked the polls for more than 40 years. Each election, she said she has a big smile on her face and tons of “hellos” for the voters at the Coliseum.

“I really feel like I have served my community,” Jacob said.

She said when the touchscreen voting machines replaced the old shoup-lever machines, and the Express Poll machines replaced the thick books of all the elector names listed, it all amazed her.

“We have come so far,” she said.

Sammie Battle had retired from Memorial Hospital after 37 years, and when the opportunity was offered to her to demonstrate the touchscreen voting machines throughout the county shortly after their introduction following the 2000 election, she jumped at it.

“It was just interesting to me. I had cooked all my life at the hospital, and I didn’t want another job involving cooking, but I wanted to work. I really wasn’t ready to come home, sit down and not do nothing.”

One change was from within

Kourtney Anderson, 24, said the biggest change she saw was within herself.

She started working as a poll worker when she was 16. She said former county Elections Official Erica Hamilton, who now works as the Elections System Manager for the Secretary of State’s Office in Atlanta, gave a lecture on voting during one of Anderson’s American history classes at the high school, and it sparked an interest.

“I was interested because that was something that caught my eye. My family wasn’t the type to vote, like my momma and daddy didn’t vote much. We didn’t talk about politics much,” Anderson said. “I actually have gotten into it a little bit. I understand why people need to vote. Before, I knew nothing about voting, or I knew about it but not like now. I didn’t think it was as important to vote like I do now.”

Anderson said she convinced her parents, James and Alesia Hudson, to become regular voters and in fact talked her mother into working at the polls on occasion.

Now Anderson is trying to get younger people to vote.

“Maybe I could get other young people to vote because a lot of young people don’t vote,” Anderson said. “It’s actually easier to vote now, but they still haven’t gotten the idea to go vote.”

Anderson, who works as a 911 operator for Decatur County, echoes what many of the poll workers say are their greatest satisfaction of working the polls – the people.

“I get joy of helping people and seeing other people voting; knowing that they are willing to make a difference,” Anderson said. “I actually like the polls, meeting people, talking with them and getting their input on things that are going on in the world.”

Poll workers are paid for their time. They must familiarize themselves with the law and procedures of working at a polling location, and there are certain minimum requirements they must meet, such as be at least 16 years old, and read, write and speak English. They also must take an oath that they will conduct the election in a fair, lawful and impartial manner.

If you have questions about becoming a poll worker, registering to vote or even if you are interested in running for public office, contact the Decatur County Board of Elections and Registration at (229) 243-2087.