Election workers dedicated to duty

Helpers' commitment makes for consistent environment at polls

Posted: Monday, November 06, 2000

Voter numbers increase or decrease in any given election, but one thing stays the same: election workers' commitment and dedication.

Here on the peninsula, they will punch the clock at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and finally head home sometime after 9 p.m.

"I call them my hands, feet, eyes and ears in the community," said Pam Crowe, election supervisor for Southeast Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island boroughs.

Crowe's area includes 107 precincts with an average of five election workers at each precinct, and an additional 40 absentee voting sites.

"We work well together," Crowe said of her team, including municipal clerks who make sure elections run smoothly. "These people are essential. They are wonderful. They are a great group of people."

Nina Pearson of Soldotna has been involved as an election worker since she first moved to the area 23 years ago.

"They had me counting ballots at the end of the first election I ever voted in up here," she said. "I just went in to vote with a friend who knew the chairman and they needed counters. From then on, I've been working in elections."

Pearson said she does it because it's fun, she enjoys the people she works with and gets to see people from her community that she only sees on Election Day.

"It's a very long day, but it's very fulfilling," she said.

Her involvement has provided Pearson with a way to measure changes in her community. One of those is the switch from hand-counting ballots to computer technology capable of spitting out results with the push of a button.

In between voters and while she and her co-workers wait to push that button, they use the time to socialize.

"We talk and I crochet or knit," Pearson said. "But our precinct is large enough that we usually have someone voting in there most of the time."

There also is paperwork to be completed. And then there's the food. While they work, her crew makes something Pearson called "election soup."

"We start out with hamburger and onion soup mix," she said. "And everyone brings in a handful of vegetables. That way no one has to spend all day cooking and everyone contributes. It turns out great every time."

In 23 years, she also has gathered some stories. Voters who ask for results before the day's over. One individual who continually identified himself as "Mortimer Snerd." Others, appreciating the workers' role, bring them treats.

"One of our (Soldotna city) council members always brings us bagels or something to eat to tide us over," Pearson said. "He doesn't know about all our goodies stashed in the back."

Jackie Bear of Ninilchik has been an election worker for 16 years and said her reasons for being involved are the same as those motivating Pearson. And, like Pearson, Bear is the chair for her area. Her responsibilities begin the tonight, when she makes sure the booth is set up and everything is in order.

Bear said she's seen the voting register in Ninilchik grow from 300 people to almost 1,000. The other change, from hand-counting to computers, has made the process run a lot smoother.

"In previous years we hand-counted until 1 or 2 in the morning," Bear said. Then there was a time when they had to drive the ballots to Soldotna. "But now we no longer have to make that awful drive at night and we're done by about 9:30 p.m."

Ida Chenier also works on Bear's team.

"I go back quite a ways," said Chenier, trying to remember when she first became involved. "I would say into the early 1970s."

Over the years, Chenier has gathered a few chuckles.

"We've had some voters write in some pretty strange names, like 'Mickey Mouse,'" Chenier said of the ballots she saw while hand-counting. "Some people have questions about voting. We can explain the ballot, but we can't tell them how to vote."

Chenier enjoys the opportunity to see familiar faces on Election Day.

"Years ago the community was so small that you used to see everyone," she said. "But now it's bigger and we don't see each other the way we did. But everyone comes out to vote. Especially during a presidential election.

"Everyone should get out and vote," Chenier said. "We want 100 percent turnout."

Dorothy Lentz, chair for the Nikiski area, said voting for Alaska's statehood in 1958 motivated her to be involved as an election worker.

"I'd voted once before, but that was the big one," said Lentz, who assists voters with absentee balloting for two weeks prior to elections and also works on Election Day. "We were given certificates for voting in that election. I gave mine to the museum in Seward."

Her commitment runs deeper than Alaska's statehood, however.

"Elections have always been a big thing to me," she said. "I've encouraged my children and grandchildren by telling them to never, ever give up their right to vote."

Through her involvement, Lentz also has seen her community change. Babies that once accompanied their moms are now old enough to vote. During her 42 years of experience, she also reports seeing a third generation reach voting age.

"It's really kind of exciting," Lentz said. "You watch your own family grow, but you get to watch others grow, too."

Prior to the introduction of computer technology, she remembers voting day being very different and recalled one instance when Kenai ballots were driven to election headquarters in Anchorage by an Alaska State Trooper.

"The hand-counting was really something else," she said. "Those were long, long hours, but we made a lot of good friends that way."

Lentz is quick to recognize the teamwork required so Americans can exercise their right to vote. She described Mae Leighton and Betty Idleman as her "left and right hands" for their assistance in setting up the voting area.

Kenai City Clerk Carol Freas and Kenai Peninsula Borough Clerk Linda Murphy also got high marks from Pearson for keeping Election Day running smoothly. And Lentz applauded Crowe's effort.

"She just makes everything seem so easy," Lentz said. "She has such an 'up' attitude."

Crowe said election workers are paid $7.50 an hour and laughingly referred to them as "paid volunteers." They sign precinct registers, check voter identification, assist people not on the register by voting question ballots, ensure the election area is free of any campaign materials and provide a positive experience for every voter. In return, she said the workers gain personal satisfaction for a job well done.

"They work a lot harder than the number of hours they actually put in," she said of the training, recruiting and organizing her crew does. "Many times they even meet on their own to make sure everything is done smoothly."

"There's a place on the voter registration form where you can indicate if you want to be a voter election worker," said Crowe, who has been with the Alaska Division of Elections since 1992. "Or people can call me."

Her number in Juneau is (907) 465-3021.

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