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One day -- one long day -- at the polls

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By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2002


It was a day filled with frustrations, Mountain Dew, fun, pig's feet, voters and two extremely appropriate raspberries (and I don't mean the fruit). Most of all, working as a touch screen technician for the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Office at Precinct 753 in Plant City was a really long day.

4 a.m.: I wake up because I have to be at the precinct at 6 a.m. This means my wife will have to get the boys ready for school and my daughter ready for day care. She asks, "Why didn't you remind me you were doing that poll thing today?"

5:50 a.m.: I arrive 10 minutes early to the polling place, the Boys & Girls Club on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Plant City. I quickly skim the headlines in the paper while waiting in the car because you can't bring any newspapers, televisions or radios into the precinct. For a while, it seemed like being cut off from the world would be a blessing.

6 a.m.: I walk into the precinct and discover two things: It's freezing, and I'm the only man among the 12 workers. The clerk and fearless leader is Vivian Williams, a longtime Plant City native and teacher who seems to know everyone. She has a dry, cutting wit, and my guess is she is matriarch of the precinct and maybe even the city. And she's really funny.

6:45 a.m.: I realize I don't know how to get the demonstration voting machine up and running. Yes, I've had six hours of training and yes, I have a touch screen technician operational manual in my hand. But, well ... I call technical support, leave a message and wait to hear back.

7:50 a.m.: I finally get an answer about the demo. The support staff person on the telephone explains the procedure. Also, the easy-to-follow instructions are on page 34 of the manual. Mrs. Williams says I may need to attend the remedial reading class across the hall. Luckily, the 10 other touch screen machines are functioning just fine and the steady stream of voters are pleased.

10 a.m.: The poll has been open three hours and as the touch screen technician, I've helped answer questions and take people through the sample ballot on the now-functioning demonstration machine. Sheilah Beale, who is handling the card activation machine, seems to get great joy out of saying, "If you need any help, see Mr. Ernest."

10:30 a.m.: Most of the questions are pretty standard: Folks want to know where to insert the ATM-like card (in the yellow slot), how to get through the ballot (push "next" in the lower right corner) and how to finish and get the card back. Two people wanted to know who to vote for, but I couldn't help with that.

11:30 a.m.: I take my 30-minute lunch break and make an amazing discovery in the kitchen of the Boys & Girls Club: steamed chicken, yellow rice, bread pudding and, lo and behold, pig's feet. Prior to Tuesday, I had never had pig's feet, and they did remind me a little of Babe. But my 100-year-old grandmother has had a few pig's feet in her time, so it couldn't hurt. It was all good. I decide that I will be a poll worker again, but only if I can work in Precinct 753.

3 p.m.: Lilly Williams, who works at the Boys & Girls Club and is wearing a bright yellow T-shirt, walks in and tells us the polling precincts are going to have stay open two extra hours because of problems in South Florida. We haven't had any problems, but she says the governor has ordered this.

I tell her she is our ray of sunshine and then I stick my fingers in my ears so I can't hear her reply.

4 p.m: Vivian Williams gets the call from the supervisor's office. It's true; we will be open until 9 p.m. Mrs. Williams sums up the general mood of the precinct workers by giving the person on the other end of the line not one, but two raspberries.

She's my hero.

5:15 p.m.: There is some talk of somebody going out for food, but it never happens. I spot a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup on the desk of a worker I've been friendly with. She's away from her post, so I take it. It's all about survival.

5:30 p.m.: Melissa Barton-Fernandez, who handles the phone bank and helps handle voter identification problems for the precinct, is incredibly upbeat despite the news that we will endure a 15-hour day. She said she's excited about people getting extra hours to vote. When I recall she usually works for Disney, it all makes sense.

6 p.m.: Mrs. Williams announces her black pumps are 12-hour shoes and changes into a more comfortable pair.

8:40 p.m: Lilly Williams, the Boys & Girls Club worker and ray of sunshine, announces she's going home. On her way out, she jokingly promises to find five people to come in and vote just when we're ready to close.

8:50 p.m.: Five people come in to vote.

9 p.m.: We close the polls, break down the machines and hand off the results to be taken downtown. The day is a success, with only one person, as I recall, being truly frustrated with the new system. I figure it can only get better.

10:08 p.m.: I arrive home and find my family just as I left them 16 hours earlier -- in bed. I wonder what their day was like.

-- Ernest Hooper can be reached at 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com.

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