July 2012

Knowing Who's Who at Your Polling Place

by Ed Vopal, President
Wisconsin Association for Justice

With Wisconsin’s fall elections fast approaching, it is important for voters to remember the rights and responsibilities of the various actors in their polling place, and the role those people can play in the voting process.   

The first person one sees when going to vote usually is a poll worker, officially called an “election inspector.”  Election inspectors ensure the voting process is conducted fairly, openly and as efficiently as possible.  The number of poll workers in the polling place depends how many voters live in the ward, but their duties are the same: taking people’s name and issuing ballots to registered voters, registering voters, monitoring the voting equipment, explaining how to mark the ballot or use the voting equipment or, in some cases, counting votes.

All poll workers are chosen to serve by the local municipality, and they go through training conducted by the municipal clerk, as required by state law.  One inspector is designated as a “chief” and receives State Elections Division-certified training, for each polling place for each election.  Chief inspectors receive additional training and they make decisions as questions arise.

Watching the voting process may be election observers, who are required to notify the chief inspector they are there, fill out a form and wear a specific ID badge.  Observers may only watch the process.  They cannot talk to voters, cannot handle election documents, or use cell phones in the polling place.  They also cannot take pictures, wear campaign buttons, or engage in any other conduct that could be construed to influence voters.

If observers view a problem or wish to challenge a voter, however, they must file the complaint with the chief inspector.  In the June 5 recall election, reports were made that election observers were trying to intimidate or harass voters, which is not acceptable.  If a voters feel intimidated, they should alert the chief inspector immediately.

Aside from other voters, the only other people a voter may encounter in the polling place may be members of the news media, who are sometimes allowed to tape or photograph the voting process, as long as the chief inspector believes they are not obtrusive, or filming a voter’s ballot

Voting place activity can greatly vary, depending on voter turnout and the number of people who intend to register at the polling place.  There can be long lines.  If voters are concerned about lines or plan to be out of town on Election Day, they can vote by absentee ballot ahead of the election.  Wisconsinites need no excuse to request an absentee ballot or vote in person at the municipal clerk’s office prior to the election.

Wisconsin law allows employees to take up to three hours off from work to vote if they first request the time off ahead of time and get their employer’s approval.  The time off, however, is unpaid and the employer may determine which three hours the worker can use for voting.

What happens if you have a problem voting?  There is a group called Wisconsin Election Protection that exists to protect voter rights, to expose and prevent voter intimidation, and to preserve access to the polls for all voters.  They have a hotline to call if there is a problem as well as a Facebook and Twitter account.  Hotline: 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8685), Facebook: Wisconsin Election Protection and Twitter: @EPWisco.

Attorneys staff the hotline and answer questions for people.  For the June 5 recall election, over 2000 calls were made by Wisconsin residents to the hotline and attorneys were in communication with election officials throughout the state to try to resolve voting issues as they arose.

After voting, make sure to thank the poll workers on Election Day.  They often work from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. or longer, with little time off and not a lot of money, but the role they play is vital to our participatory democracy.

Click here to learn more about the duties of poll workers, election observers and absentee voting:

Poll Worker Guidelines
Election Observer Rules
Absentee Voting in Wisconsin

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For more information about the Wisconsin Association for Justice, see WAJ's website or call 608-257-5741.

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