Local officials prepare for Election Day
Yards are being raked, the baseball World Series is just getting underway, and Packer games are interrupted by a steady barrage of political advertisements. All signs point to election season. The ballots for the fast-approaching midterm election may feature new names, but at least one face at the polls on Election Day will be familiar.
Assisting voters at the YMCA of the Northwoods will be Kathy Pelletier, a lifelong resident of Rhinelander who has now been working the polls for over 25 years. In 2004, after more than 15 years as an election worker, she was made the chief inspector of Rhinelander’s 4th Aldermanic District, and is in charge of the polling station and making sure that everything runs smoothly. Her time as an election official has spanned the terms of three city clerks, six presidential elections, and numerous changes to voting procedure.
“The biggest change I’ve seen was of course the move from paper ballots in a box to voting machines.” Pelletier says that while recent elections still usually consume a 15-hour workday, the time commitment is much more comfortable than in the past. “We used to stay at the polling station until three or four in the morning counting ballots by hand. It’s much easier now having machines that count.”
Pelletier, who retired from her longtime job as a typesetter for the Our Town (now the Star Journal) 15 years ago, intends to relinquish her position as chief inspector after this election. Citing several sources of stress, she said “I have enjoyed it all, but it’s time to let someone else do it.” The poll worker is a familiar figure to all regular voters, but what happens behind the scenes goes largely unnoticed.
To begin with, poll workers must undergo a certain amount of training every year to stay up to date with polling procedures. Workers must be to the polling station before its 7 a.m. opening, and stay late into the evening ensuring that the voting machines match the record books. Aside from the grueling day of the election, throughout the year chief inspectors must attend meetings and stay in touch with one another and the county clerk to ensure that elections go smoothly, that sufficient ballots are provided, and that every polling station will have enough attendants.
Presidential elections, says Pelletier, see larger voter turnout and are exceptionally stressful. “The lines are usually out the door and down the hall. I will continue to help with elections, but I won’t work another presidential election, I can tell you that!”
One aspect of the job that Pelletier likes in particular is the task of travelling to the nursing homes in the weeks prior to elections to assist the residents in filling out absentee ballots. Many of these people have limited access to polling stations, among other challenges. “Sight problems are a big issue. So we read the ballot and mark it for them.” This tour takes two volunteers two days, but Pelletier says the residents are very appreciative.
Pelletier estimates that that she works an average of four elections annually, most of which occur on a smaller scale than this year’s. But Election Day mayhem extends beyond the polling stations’ doors. Oneida County Clerk Mary Bartelt describes the festivities at her office as hectic, from making sure that ballots are correctly printed and distributed to staying late to count and update the vote tallies as they are reported—and all of this with the added stress of having members of the media watching intently.
The status of the election in Wisconsin this year has become the center of some controversy and confusion concerning the recently passed—and more recently blocked—Voter ID Law. Bartelt is clear that the law will not have an effect on this November’s election, which means that same-day registration will require proof of residence, but not a driver’s license or other form of identification. However, Bartelt suggests that anyone without a valid form of identification begin the process of acquiring the free voter ID as soon as possible to be prepared should the law be upheld. “The process can be lengthy, especially if you don’t have access to a birth certificate, so it’s best to start now and have it before the next election.”
Wisconsin’s Voter ID law was passed on the heels of similar legislation in many states in recent years. Proponents of such laws insist that it will cut down on voter fraud, whereas opponents say that there is little evidence of voter fraud, and that the laws will make it more difficult for certain groups of people to vote. It is notable that voter turnout in the United States is uncommonly low among established democracies. While Australia, where voting is compulsory and takes place on the weekend, is accustomed to nearly 90 percent turnout among eligible voters, the United States has only broken the 60 percent mark in half of Presidential elections since 1948. Also in that time, not a single midterm election has seen even half of eligible voters show up to the polls. Low turnout has been attributed to countless motives, from apathy and mistrust to attack ads and an increasing lack of socialization. Perhaps the truth lies in a combination of these potential causes.
Regardless of how many people turn out to vote, Kathy Pelletier and other dedicated and knowledgeable poll workers will be waiting to assist in the process that is most central to American democracy.
Those eligible may register at their polling station on Election Day, Tuesday November 4, with proof of residence. Those unsure of their polling station may find the address with a simple search at www.myvote.wi.gov. On the ballot will be the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state treasurer, and secretary of state; both houses of the state legislature; Wisconsin’s members of the US House of Representatives; county Sheriff and clerk of the circuit court; and referenda regarding the state transportation system and BadgerCare.