January 20, 2017

Democracy in Practice

During this week of the presidential inauguration, we flash back to election day and the role that many Oakwood students played in this year’s democratic process. On November 8, nineteen students from Teddy Varno’s Campaigns and Elections in the United States class—an elective open to 11th and 12th graders—took advantage of California Electoral Code 12302, which permits eligible high school students to serve as poll workers. Arriving at their various polling places at 6am and working all day until 9pm, they put their knowledge of the electoral process to work, volunteering their time to help people cast their votes in the national election. Spread out across a variety of Los Angeles county precincts, from the Hollywood Hills to Westwood to Tarzana to Koreatown, the students gained an insider’s perspective on this sacred American institution while ensuring that the machinery of our democracy remained in motion.

As Teddy said,

We had the opportunity to listen to some of the participating students debrief in Teddy’s classroom a few days after the election. Here are some of the insights they shared with each other about working the polls.

On Voter Engagement . . .

This year’s ballot contained 17 statewide propositions as well as various local measures and congressional, judicial, and office elections, making the voting experience far from just a one-decision process. Los Angeles county voter turnout for the day was estimated at 57% of eligible voters (67% of registered voters). Our student poll workers noticed a wide range of preparedness, involvement, and overall engagement of the voters they observed. 

Liz: I was very optimistic to see how many people actually cared about voting and showed up to vote super early. They brought their moms with them and then made sure that they voted, and you could tell how important it was for them to vote, so I thought that was really awesome . . . One thing that disappointed me was how unaware some people were about the propositions. A lot of people seemed like the props didn’t really matter, but I wanted to say, “That’s what actually matters.” But, as a poll worker, I had to remain neutral, and I had to let them cast their votes no matter how prepared they were.

Lily: I had this really long list of voters, and by the end of the night, it was still really empty. As a girl, I felt really represented in this election, but it didn’t occur to me that other people would not feel the same way, to the point where even though they registered to vote, they wouldn’t show up. I’m not sure if these people went and voted in different places, but there were a lot of names that were left uncrossed, and we had a ton of ballots that weren’t used. I think voting is such a privilege, and in this class we talked about that a lot. For the people who didn’t vote, I am sad that they didn’t get to participate. I know that California usually goes to the Democrat, so people felt like their vote wasn’t important, but still, I thought that if you registered, if you went through the trouble to do that, why wouldn’t you just come?

Nate: As more people take advantage of the privilege of voting, our government gets more and more representative of the people, so that’s where seeing that low turnout list really affected me. If the goal is to have the most representative government as possible, people aren’t doing their part. They’re not holding up their end.

Will: A lot of people brought a little book or a note sheet they made of how they wanted to vote on each proposition, and even why. A lot of people I heard in line were really unsure about stuff, but their notes gave them a reason to vote on these propositions. I think it’s nice to see people that are involved, even if the reason they did get involved was because of just these candidates in particular. A lot of people even brought their families.

On the day’s challenges . . .

While the students on the whole found the poll working experience to be incredibly rewarding, and almost all of them have said that they will definitely volunteer their time in future elections, the day certainly brought with it some challenges. From voter frustration over being listed as absentee to voter enthusiasm that verged on electioneering— trying to influence the way others vote within 100 feet of a polling place, an illegal act in California—the students witnessed the whole gamut of election day obstacles and experiences. 

Will: We had a few cases of electioneering, and our inspector said even if they’re just wearing something, they have to take it off.

Lily: One of the difficult parts about being a poll worker in Los Angeles is checking addresses in a district with a lot of apartment buildings. Some people would give me just their street address and I’d say, “There are about 1,000 people who live at that same address, so please be more specific.”

Nate: A lot of people didn’t know which table to go to. I was at the yellow, and then there was the green, which had an enormous line, and also an orange table. A lot of people just assumed they were in the green line since everyone else was going to it. But after they stood in that line for a really long time, they realized they’d been in the wrong place, and obviously, they were a little upset.

Anna: We had two precincts in my location, and the inspector for my precinct didn’t speak English very well, so there was a very real language barrier when we were trying to clarify things or ask questions. All of the clerks in my precinct were first-time poll workers, so it was very hectic and sometimes stressful.

 Will: I’d say maybe upwards of 95 percent of the people were really nice. One of the only thing some people got upset about was when I told them to put their ballots into the machine, which would check to make sure they didn’t fill something out twice. Some people said, “Will this check if there is a right answer?” and I said, “Remember, there are no right answers in this election,” and some people were like, oh, right, yes, and then some people were like, no, there is one candidate who is right. I said, “This is an election. There is no right or wrong answer.” After repeating that four or five times, they got the idea that they just had to put their ballot into the machine.

Charlie: We had one lady who was really concerned about voter fraud. She said, “I’m not sure my vote will count. Nowadays, not everyone is who they say they are.” I had to reassure her, “You’re here. You’re you. Let’s go. You’re going to vote. It’ll be okay.”

Lily: One of the things that a lot of us experienced was people finding that next to their name on the roster it said, “vote by mail issued.” A lot of people didn’t get their vote by mail packet or had no recollection of signing up to vote absentee. If they are registered to vote by mail, unless they bring it in and surrender it, they can’t vote with a normal ballot. They have to vote with a provisional one, which was really sad. We had at least 200 people come in who had no idea what that was, no idea how they got signed up for it, and they were really upset, because they worried that their vote wouldn’t count.

Anna: So many people in my precinct were listed as “vote by mail,” who said they’d just never received one. It seemed like there were just as many people in that situation as there were people who were just able to vote regularly. When that happened I had to tell them that it said vote by mail, and they were confused and upset, and they had to vote provisionally, which takes another 10 minutes to fill out that paperwork.  Some people, even though they were really mad about the provisional votes, were still really nice to us and really grateful for us. They would say, “We know it’s not your fault. We’re just really angry with the system.” And the poll workers all agreed. If we were in the same position, we’d be really upset.

On communications from the outside world . . .

One of the biggest challenges the volunteers faced was pure curiosity at how the state and national tally was unfolding. Ironically, even though they were in the heart of the action, most of the students reported not being able to watch the results come in like the majority of Americans who were glued to television screens watching states go blue or red. Some of them did, however, experience tally information making its way to them, and that, too, proved challenging.

Liz: I was not really on my phone because I wanted to be respectful and present, but I really wanted to know what was happening, especially once five o’clock rolled around. I wanted to know about the polls on the east coast, and I wasn’t really allowed to—we weren’t even allowed to say the candidates’ names. But one of the women who was with me was texting her friend and kept showing me her phone with the different electoral counts. Meanwhile people would come up, and some had different political views than mine, but you still have to help them and be completely objective. My job was to say, “Ok, here’s how you will cast your vote for that person.” You just have to keep an open mind, which was difficult.

Nate: I didn’t have service where I was the whole day, so I could not communicate with anyone, which was great, but towards the end of the night everyone in my precinct was super antsy. They wanted to start to see the results, but no one had service, so we couldn’t talk about the election until we got service, which was when we left.

Will: You know what upset me a little bit is obviously California was going to go blue, but we were still counting the ballots when we heard they’d called it, and we realized they weren’t even waiting for five percent of the ballots. We felt like, they’re calling it just like a guess, and we’re still working. It was a good guess, but still, we were still figuring out how many ballots we had when California went blue. There was no surprise there, but they really didn’t wait for any actual facts.

Map showing the 19 polling stations at which Oakwood Students worked on November 8

On how the class influenced their experience . . .

Although the students had a wide range of experiences at their various polling places, there was one thing that they all agreed upon: taking Teddy’s Campaigns and Elections class not only enriched their understanding of the day’s events but also empowered them to help others cast their votes.

Liz: Having had the Campaigns and Elections class, I felt so knowledgeable about the system and how things work.

Will: There were a few times when a kid in line would ask their parents a question, and then their parents would give them the completely wrong answer, like the president breaks the tie if there’s 269 / 269 in the electoral college. When I heard that I said, “Do you mind if I answer that?” and they told me to go ahead and then were really grateful that I gave the kids the right answer . . . One of the most helpful things from this class was the condensed version of the California voters’ guide. We ended up sending out a PDF, and I sent it to my family. It was really helpful for me understanding the propositions and then when people called me over and asked “If I’m saying yes on this, what am I saying?” I could open up the guide and show it to them. The day was a very positive experience. People overall were really grateful, which was something I wasn’t expecting.

Lily: The problem with people having to cast provisional votes because they’d been registered as absentee was a big one. Obviously, the provisional votes still count, but not as soon as the initial votes do. But because of this class, I had the ability to explain how the whole voting process works to people who didn’t understand the difference between a regular ballot and a provisional.

Anna: I would say that I learned so much from this class about the political process that I didn’t know about before. But even then, you don’t really know how all of that is applied in real life, so the poll working experience, in that regard, was very rewarding. And, when I got home and turned on the TV, I had a very different feeling than I did in 2008. This year, I was sitting with my 13-year-old brother who was asking a lot of questions, and now I really knew what all the numbers meant. I remember being in my brother’s position, and now I know so much more now. I’m very grateful for that information. And, the people at the polling place were so thankful towards me. Over and over, they kept thanking me for what I was doing.

Nate: I think this class really helped me because a lot of people had trouble with the propositions, and we had spent about two weeks really researching them, so I knew those pretty well. The one question I couldn’t answer was, “Who should I vote for?” All I could say was, “I can’t tell you that.” Overall, this class, and then also volunteering has kind of given me perspective on the difference between the federal level—the law, how things ought to be in the perfect world—and then how the law is actually applied at the community level. Having both of those perspectives is really valuable . . .  The idea that this democracy is made up of people and not laws, that gave me a really valuable perspective, and I do think, coming out of this experience, America is much more democratic than I thought. It left me very optimistic. It was just a really eye opening, great experience. I really felt like I was serving my community. It was a long day, but it was really good. I would do it again.