Young Poll Workers Can Help Prevent Another Vote-Counting Fiasco In November

'Encouraging people to be part of the actual election process is the cutting edge of civic activism,' Minnesota secretary of state says.

With the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee far from decided, and Mike Huckabee still posing a threat to Republican front-runner John McCain, perhaps all that Super Tuesday proved is just how close of a race this will be. Every vote matters. So what can we do to ensure that, come November, every vote is counted?

The answer may be in the hands of young voters — and it may be as simple as working at your local polling station.

Since our democratic process suffered a fiasco in the 2000 presidential election, many states have spent millions to revamp their voting systems. The Help America Vote Act, which became law in 2002, set aside federal money for such reforms, enabling lever and punch-card machines to be replaced and poll workers to be better trained (well, more on that in a moment). Now about 40 percent of the votes in America are submitted through electronic voting machines.

So with record turnouts in all 23 states this week, and many states braving the transition to new technology — electronic or optical-scan machines — there were real concerns about what might happen to your ballot on its way to the box. New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Arkansas, Delaware and Tennessee were most closely watched for mishaps — mainly because they require neither any kind of paper receipt for your vote nor the random checks of voting machines conducted by other states. And on the flipside, concerns were raised in California — where Diebold and other electronic machines were decertified because of errors of potential tampering — by the quick conversion to paper ballots that left some counties counting votes by hand.

But most of the issues on Super Tuesday were isolated — if no less embarrassing for that fact. New Jersey can boast of a truly awkward moment, when Governor John Corzine had to wait an hour because the machines weren't working at his polling location and about a dozen voters turned away. In New York and Arizona, voters reported several instances of their names missing from the log at their regular polling locations. In addition, some New Yorkers reported that, in cases where voting machines malfunctioned, they were told to forfeit their vote rather than given an emergency paper ballot.

The longest waits were in Georgia, where poll workers checked IDs against computerized registration records for the first time, leaving some voters waiting for 90 minutes while booths stood empty (although that was still nothing compared to the infamous 12-hour lines that plagued 2004's general election in Ohio). Elsewhere, in Los Angeles, voting machines were not delivered to several voting locations, The Associated Press reported. But the far-and-away winner for sheer Three Stooges-style voting mayhem was Chicago, where 20 voters were told to fill out forms using "invisible ink," according to the Chicago Tribune. Truly. You can't make this up.

Clearly, rumors of invisible ink are not about to start plaguing our voting process. But Super Tuesday did raise one major concern for the general election: Why are so many of our poll workers (or election judges) misinformed and often too advanced in age for the job? In many states, delays were caused by elderly workers who were unfamiliar with and intimidated by the newly computerized systems. (Comments on The New York Times blog gave a sense of just how frightening uninformed poll workers made some voters' experiences.) With all the changes shuttled in since Help America Vote, voters seriously need adequate, on-site help to ensure that our votes are not forfeited.

Maybe the solution, as we approach a historic election in November, is to have as many self-motivated young people as possible working at the polls. Younger trainees, educated on the current system and with correct and up-to-date info. This is not ageism, it's realism: If our poll workers aren't being properly trained, then it's time for people who are more comfortable adapting to new technology — and less likely to confuse a computer stylus for a ballpoint pen — to step up to bat.

And that can include students as young as high schoolers. Some states currently allow 16- and 17-year-olds, who can't yet vote but want to take part, to become "co-worker trainees" at their local polls. The positions can be paid, credited at school or even incorporated into their curriculum. "It helps students get involved in the system — and they also provide a burst of energy," Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie told MTV News. "In Minnesota, this has been a big success."

While the application is always simple, the process itself can vary from state to state, making it hard to know where to start. For this reason, 26-year-old Beth Cieslik, a senior government affairs specialist at Target, had the idea of helping to recruit the company's younger workers for the polls, putting together a Web site that compiles instructions for every county in the U.S. — and guarantees that any employees chosen to become judges be given that time off.

"We're trying to simplify [the process] so you don't have to dig through these sometimes confusing government Web sites," Cieslik said of the site, which launches next month but hasn't announced its URL yet. "People can start applying anytime." And it may be just a matter of time before other companies — and social-networking sites like Facebook — also help spread the word.

As Ritchie put it, "Encouraging people to be part of the actual election process is the cutting edge of civic activism."

To find out more about how to volunteer/work at your local polling station — whether in one of the remaining primaries, or in November — head to Voter Resources on Nass.org, or the Election Official Directory on OverseasVoteFoundation.org, which lists numbers of local officials who can help you get involved.

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