What a Duval County poll worker learned about voting

Yes, most poll workers are old, but so are most voters

Poll workers gather for a last minute briefing just before the precinct opens. (Photo taken through window since the only pictures allowed inside are by a voter taken to document their own ballot.) (WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – If you voted in person in March or last fall, thank you. With a second round of voting for mayor and other offices starting this week, I hope to see you again soon.

While it only takes a few minutes to cast a ballot, you might have been there long enough to notice that the majority of poll workers look like grandparents. Yes, retirement does give us the time to learn the highly regulated process and to devote entire days to helping people vote.

If you spent all day in a precinct as we do, you’d notice the overwhelming majority of voters are senior citizens, too. More on that, later.

Despite polarized politics and contentious elections nationally, I’m pleased to report that 99% of the thousands of citizens I’ve served as a poll worker over the past year have been polite and respectful. Most seem genuinely happy to be exercising their right to vote.

I’ve heard a few people grumble something like, “I hope my vote counts,” as they slide their ballot into the tabulator, but way more people say, “Thanks for volunteering.”

Duval County’s 1,600 poll workers do technically volunteer. But since our Supervisor of Elections realizes running our polling places is a serious job with serious responsibilities, we do get paid for the hours we are at the precinct.

But nobody I’ve met over the last three election cycles seems to be here for the money. Many of the people I’ve worked with have done this for decades. Deep-blue Democrats and solid-red Republicans are equally happy to be here. We all believe in our democratic system and want people to vote. As many people as possible.

Every poll worker must attend three-hour classes before every single election, and we don’t get paid for training. There’s an additional two-hour class before we can work an early voting shift. Election marshals have their own classes. Precinct managers and their assistants must attend even longer training sessions.

We’re taught the importance of following all of Florida’s voting laws, rules and procedures; how to secure all ballots and voting equipment before and after each day of voting; that nothing is to be left unattended while the polls are open, what to do if something goes wrong (even a fire); and how every step of the process is recorded and audited. Every time.

Before the precinct opens and voting begins, we swear an oath to uphold all the rules. Every voter is to be treated fairly and can only be asked specific questions. Poll workers at each precinct must be evenly split between registered Republicans and registered Democrats. And we cannot, under any circumstances, give any advice or opinions about the election.

However, there is one opinion that every poll worker I’ve met does share, and I don’t think I’ll get in trouble for saying it out loud: voting is important.

Selfie of Steve Patrick taken in the lobby of a library outside an early voting site. (WJXT)

Because of the voter ID laws, the “election tech” who checks you in sees your birthdate. When someone is just 18, we’ll often ask a question that’s not in the rule book: “Is this your first time voting?” If the answer is yes, we’ll make an announcement to the room and the new voter gets a round of applause.

Among the only non-voters that can enter a polling place are your dependent children and certified poll watchers. We’re pretty generous about giving “I VOTED” stickers to the kids, sometimes calling them voters-in-training. Again, this is not mentioned in the rules but sharing our enthusiasm about participating in the process just seems right.

Last November, a poll watcher scrutinized the room while I was on my ballot scanner rotation. After happily handing stickers to a couple of children, I wondered if I’d be written up for encouraging under-age voting.

No one said a word. And kids do love stickers.

Which brings me back to the subject of age.

Of the truly disappointing turnout in the initial round of voting for mayor and other city leaders in March – only 25.7% of registered voters cast a ballot – the Duval County SOE’s demographic breakdown by age shocked me: 65.6% of those who cast ballots were age 56 and above while fewer than 9% of voters were age 18 to 35.

Voters in the March 2023 City of Jacksonville election, by age group:

Let me slice this data another way to drive home the point: The biggest single age group of voters deciding who should be our mayor and other local elected officials for the next four years was 66 and above. Our citizens are largely letting the city’s retirees determine our future.

Do you want to show poll workers you appreciate what we do? Keep us busy over the next two weeks during early voting and on Election Day. Not only does it help the hours go by faster, we love to see people vote. Show that you care about your city and your government by showing up.

Depending on which city council district you live in, there are either three or four races on your ballot this time, and only two candidates in each race. And we promise we’ll get you in and out quickly.

You might even feel like one voter in March who told me: “I have a complaint. That was too easy.”

FAQs poll workers asked by voters

“Why didn’t I get a vote-by-mail ballot this time?”

  • A request to receive a ballot through the mail used to last for two complete election cycles – generally four years, but one of the changes the Florida Legislature made to the election laws last year requires you must request a vote-by-mail ballot each election cycle. It’s not too late. You can request one online through May 6.

“Can I drop off my vote-by-mail ballot here?”

  • All early voting sites have secure ballot drop-off station, but the law requires they now be within the polling place and monitored at all times, so you can only drop off a ballot during voting hours, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and only during early voting. There is no drop-off at precincts on Election Day. On May 16, you must either take the ballot to the downtown office (105 East Monroe Street) or choose to vote in person at your local precinct and save yourself the trip.

“If I received a vote-by-mail ballot, can I still vote at my precinct?”

  • Yes. Just tear up the mailed ballot or bring it in when you vote and we’ll “spoil it” and record that it was destroyed.

“I’ve voted here before. Why am I being told I have to go to a different precinct?”

  • You’re only told that on Election Day, and you’ll be provided the address of your neighborhood precinct. During early voting, Duval County voters can cast ballots at any of the 19 early voting sites. Your precinct is listed on your voter ID card or you can look it up online.

“Can someone help me vote?”

  • Yes. If you bring someone with you to help, you and that person must sign a form, then they can assist you with your ballot. If you come alone and request help, we’ll be glad to assist. The precinct manager will assign two poll worker – one from each party – to help. That ensures there’s no inappropriate influence on the voter.

“If I make a mistake on my ballot, what do I do?”

  • Bring it to the help desk. The first ballot will be “spoiled” and you’ll be issued a new one. This will also happen if the tabulator detected an “overvote” – voting for two candidates in the same race. Sometimes a stray mark will also cause the tabulator to reject a ballot and you’ll be asked to fill now a new one.

“Do I have to use that touch-screen machine?”

  • Not at all. The Express Vote station(s) are designed to make it easy for people who have trouble seeing or filling out the traditional paper ballot. These stations still produce a paper ballot you can review before feeding it into the tabulator. Yes, some people are skeptical or don’t like new technology, but everyone who expressed an opinion after using it liked it.

“If I don’t have my ID or it’s expired, can I still vote?”

  • Yes, but you’ll cast a provisional ballot – the same as if you came to vote with no ID and don’t have time to run home to get it. But for that ballot to count, you must produce a valid ID to the elections office within hours of Election Day. In this case, close of business Thursday, May 18.

“If I can’t use my voter information card as ID, what good is it?”

  • State law requires both photo and signature to be on the identification presented to allow you to vote. The voter information care has important information about which districts you’re in and your Election Day voting precinct, but neither photo nor signature. So it has a purpose but won’t allow you to vote.