How New York’s Poll Peacekeeper Spent Her Day From Hell

Susan Lerner of Common Cause

Lerner.

It’s election days like yesterday that Susan Lerner both lives for and dreads. The executive director of Common Cause left the house at 3:30 a.m. She spent the wee hours of the election morning printing out thousands of fliers alerting people to the voter hotline that the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) were manning along with Lerner and her associates in Common Cause to field  calls about voting problems. It has been a joint election protection effort of NYPIRG and Common Cause for more than 20 years, and a solo NYPIRG effort before that time.

By 9 a.m. she had 60 volunteers manning phones that never stopped ringing, not even for a second. 

“We just got a report from Ditmas Park; people are getting angry,” Ms. Lerner told a volunteer poll monitor who called in from Park Slope. “People don’t know about the affidavit ballots, they aren’t even being told they exist. People are starting to hit each other.”

Common Cause and NYPIRG are polling police of Election Day. Under normal circumstances, the team goes to locations to keep folks moving and answer questions about Assembly and election districts, for example.

Yesterday, there was barely a location that hadn’t been getting complaints about broken scanners, long lines, untrained poll workers or a lack of affidavits.

“We urge people to not give up, to not leave without voting,” Ms. Lerner said. “If they have flexible timing, we suggest a time to come back that might be better. The worst thing for this process if for people to get frustrated and leave without casting a ballot.”

“Is that line very long, or is that line moving?” Christina, a  young volunteer with dreads was asking someone on her cellphone. “Okay, I’ll pass that message along.” The issue was 133 East 13th Street, a poll site short on poll workers and long on lines.

Another young man came in two seconds later: PS167, which had not received ballots this morning, had ballots. Now the location just needed machines.

“Get everyone to fill out affidavits,” said NYPIRG Government Reform Coordinator, Neal Rosenstein. For a moment, we were confused as to whether he was speaking to the person in the room or the one on the phone cocked against his ear.

At 40 West 20th Street, a polling place at a public library was turning away “hundreds of people,” according to one caller. Two minutes later, another complaint about that location came in. A decision was made to send a poll monitor to the location to assess the problem and reach out to the BOE, to which NYPIRG and the Common Cause have a direct line.

From Soho, a complaint came in and Mr. Rosenstein read it out loud: “It looks like a third-world country. Only two poll workers.”

A short while later, a young man in a baseball hat rushed in, waving a complaint sheet. A woman had brought her 90-year-old parents with her to a “supersite” polling location. The parents, displaced by the storm, needed affidavit ballots. The woman asked if they could sit down, or jump the line. The poll workers were not only not accommodating, they berated the would-be voter and kept the parents standing in the three-hour-plus line. The woman wound up calling not just the hotline, but the NYPD as well.

“Where was this?” Ms. Lerner asked.

“M.S. 51.” Everyone groaned. The Park Slope location had the most angry calls throughout the day. I.D. checks, Spanish translation issues, lines so long that people left instead of voting.

“The place is having a meltdown,” Ms. Lerner said. Poll monitors had already been dispatched to the area, and the police had responded by showing up as well. Mr. Rosenstein left our small room to host a volunteer training session. As he headed out, someone’s big black dog went poking around his backpack.

“Who brought a dog into the center?” Ms. Lerner asked, more amused than annoyed.

Maybe it’s a watchdog, we suggested.

Another urgent phone call. From the Soho location on Broome Street. And a rash of calls from  from Suffolk County, where people have been turned away from affidavit voting. And so on. It was 1:30—and still more than seven hours to go.