She might take five-minute patrols to make sure no one’s politicking within the perimeter. She’ll grab another few minutes when her husband brings her something to eat. But from 5 a.m. until voting ends, it’s all business at Monica Kirsh’s Sheepshead Bay polling site, where she has worked for more than 30 years.
It’s primary day. Maybe you voted this morning or are planning to do so later. Anytime before 9 p.m., when the polls close, you’ll be greeted by a part-time army of 30,703 NYC poll workers, of which Kirsh, 69, is a veteran.
It wasn’t about the money back when she started, Kirsh says: The $15 stipend for the day wasn’t exactly a lifechanger even in the 1980s (now it’s $200). Good Christmas money, though, Kirsh says. She’d left a job as a file clerk in the Garment District to be “a full-time domestic goddess” to three children at home. But when the kids started school, she began to get more civically involved, petitioning for the local Democratic club. One day, a party leader asked whether she wanted a job at the polls. The clubs still furnish many of the poll workers who are then approved by the Board of Elections.
“Why not,” she said.
The people who make elections run
Thus began decades of work at the polls, rising from a lower-level “inspector” to site coordinator. Over the years, the machinery changed, starting with the old “dinosaur” voting machines that had to be unlocked at the end of the night. A worker would shout out the vote tally from the machine’s innards as another wrote the numbers down. Now the process is more automated, with the count downloaded from each vote scanner and the information whisked away by waiting police officers.
Turnout varies with the race. Presidential elections are “crazy,” Kirsh says, mayoral elections less so, and “people don’t even bother” for judges.
Many poll workers have similar stories: from the sheer boredom that can ensue, leading you to fixate on particular voters you see year after year, to the surprises that could always occur depending on the campaign, the candidate or the polling site.
For example, primary day 1988 was very different in the Auburndale section of Queens for Evan Stavisky, a longtime Democratic strategist and partner at the Parkside Group who worked the polls that once as a college student. It was a Greek neighborhood, and the locals were “coming out of the woodwork” to vote for Michael Dukakis.
“There was tremendous pride,” Stavisky says. He remembers that some would-be voters tried to flash Greek passports as a form of ID.
Kirsh reminisces about moments of civic pride and excitement in a neighborhood like Sheepshead Bay, home to many immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
“They’re overjoyed” at the experience, says Kirsh. They might come up to her or another poll worker, alone or perhaps with a family member urging them on, repeating nervously, “I want to vote.”
“We’re here to help you,” Kirsh tells them.
It’s all in the family
Many of the poll workers are retirees or the semi-retired who are affiliated with local political clubs. In Kirsh’s part of Brooklyn, between 150 and 250 of the poll workers are arranged by the 41st Assembly District Democrats Club, according to club leader and former City Council member Lew Fidler.
But these days, some of the “old-timers” are taking a backseat — either they’ve had enough of the long hours and intricate directions, or they are just ready to retire. That leaves some openings for young people — college students or recent graduates, for example.
Still, it can be a family affair. Kirsh has nudged her husband into the business as an accessibility clerk, and her daughter has worked the scanners.
She expects this primary day will be like many others before it — though she has found it’s hard to perfectly predict turnout. But she knows she’ll be corralling her inspectors, clerks and interpreters (Russian and Spanish). If there are lines or problems, she’ll apologize for the delay. And, she’ll thank people for voting as they make their way out.
“It’s important,” she says.