Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Poll Clerk...

When you’re a self-employed, part-time clerical worker, ad-hoc paid employment can be hard to come by, so when I discovered that there were opportunities of earning some extra cash doing ‘election work’ for the local council I duly applied. For the General election of 2010 I was offered several hours work opening postal votes prior to the event as well as the important-sounding job of ‘Poll Clerk’ for the day itself. Poll Clerk training consisted of reading a glossy brochure and attending a presentation for a couple of hours, neither of which was particularly taxing. The envelopes thing was a breeze but the criminally early start and subsequent 16 hour shift endured by poll clerks (and presiding officers) was a challenge that I wasn’t keen to repeat. After the first time I swore I’d never do it again….but a year later the memories of wrist-slitting boredom had faded and I was skint enough to sign on the dotted line once again. Unfortunately, although I’d been lucky enough to undertake a few hours paid employment stuffing postal votes into envelopes a few weeks earlier, fate intervened and a hideous and possibly highly contagious tummy bug the night before Election Day rendered me incapable. When the letter from the local council arrived early 2012 I wasn’t sure whether or not to accept the poll clerk position again, but I figured that if they had faith in my abilities then I should, at least, take the chance of some much-needed funds, and once again sign on the dotted line.

As is the norm when I need to be up early, I couldn’t sleep a wink the night before, so when I got up at 5.30am for breakfast I had serious doubts as to whether or not I’d manage to stay awake until 10pm. I shoved half a cup of tea down my throat but ended up binning my Weetabix as I simply couldn’t face food at that ungodly hour. I then packed my bag with enough snacks and bottled water to sustain me throughout the day and I staggered, bleary eyed, out of the front door at 6.15am. It was raining.

My polling station is just 10 minutes walk away and when I arrived my colleagues were already there, putting up the voting booths and sticking posters on the walls with copious amounts of blu-tac. I tried to force a smile as I put my things on the floor and attempted to be helpful by tying string to the pencils and re-acquainting myself with the voters register. By 7am we were ready for our first ‘customers’, however, by now it was absolutely pouring down outside and it was fifteen long minutes before anyone arrived. This was an ominous sign of things to come…

The only ‘entertainment’ we had all day was when the ‘characters’ appeared. The bloke that was seemingly off his face who staggered towards the booth shouting out “Who do I vote for?!” was mildly amusing. We then had the over-excitable teen who’d just celebrated his 18th birthday and wanted the world to know that he was now old enough to vote. The OAP done up to the nines in fake fur and gold sandals really had made an effort this year! If you happen to be working close to where you live, there’s always the chance that a familiar face will appear. This is, indeed, a very welcome distraction and can boost your morale enormously.

Some people just don’t understand the system and believe that simply living in the general vicinity of a polling station gives them an automatic right to vote – even if they haven’t bothered to register, and then there’s those who haven’t checked their polling card properly and have arrived at the wrong place, and then moan when they’re told they can’t vote there. There are the inevitable clerical errors where people have been missed off the list or told the wrong information on the phone, and they get quite miffed when you have to break the bad news to them that they won’t be allowed to vote today. Rather glad that the Presiding Officer gets to do all of the difficult stuff. Some voters feel the need to rant about the government but we have to remain impartial and therefore simply indicate to them where the booths are and politely hand them their voting slip.

You generally get through the first couple of hours by getting to know your workmates, or if you already know them, catching up on all their news and by eating most of the snacks you brought along with you. I’ve been very lucky indeed to have been placed with extremely personable co-workers, which has made the task far more bearable than if I’d been lumbered with Norman (or Norma) No-mates for the duration. Unfortunately, by about 10am you’re struggling to find anything new or interesting to say and, to be frankly honest, you’re just too tired to force yourself to be sociable (it’s hard enough putting on a cheery face for the voters). The thought that you have another 12 hours of much-the-same begins to sink in as you now remember why it was you said “Never again”.

The plastic chair you’ve been sitting on makes your backside go numb but the only place to walk to is the lavatory – which you end up doing so often that everyone thinks you have a bladder issue. Having said that, if you have a kettle nearby you consume so much coffee in order to stay awake that you really do need to keep on ‘popping out’. You get flying visits from candidates and their representatives, as well as from a gentleman (or lady) whose job it is to inspect all the polling stations to make sure all is as it should be and that the correct posters have been displayed etc. A community support officer might pop by, but with it tipping it down outside there was never going to be any crowd control issues.

Noon seems to be a landmark time on the painfully slow-moving clock as you’ve now completed the morning, but there’s still another 10 hours before you can finally close the front doors on the general public. You’ve read all of the newspapers you brought with you and your eyes are now struggling to focus on the register. Your colleagues are playing with ipods and iphones but are equally as bored.

Even though you know how annoying it is you can’t help yourself and you simply HAVE to announce (on the hour) how long there is left. “Nine hours to go” sounds daunting when you’ve already been there 6 and a half hours. At 2pm you hit a brick wall (metaphorically) and you find yourself feeling a tad surreal. You are mind-numbingly bored, you’ve eaten so many sweets you feel sick and you’re shattered. You try to do the crossword in the paper but your brain doesn’t want to play, so you give up.

Little things can ease the situation, such as a group of 4 all coming in to vote at once giving you something to do for a whole two minutes. You go and sharpen the pencils even if they’re already sharp. By 6pm you’ve got to the over-tired stage and are now rambling on boring your colleagues with tales of all your past holidays. They’re just as bored and politely respond with tales of their own.

The final hour should, in theory, be the light at the end of the tunnel, but in reality it feels as if the clock has broken and time drags now like no other hour. You pace up and down (with wobbly legs due to the plastic chairs cutting off your circulation at the knees for the past 3 hours), itching to pack up, but you have to wait until exactly 10pm before you can at last remove all the posters and take down the booths. You try not to trap your fingers as you fold down the tables and stack up the chairs while the presiding officer completes their highly important paperwork….and finally you hear the words you’ve been waiting to hear since 6.30am… “Thank you for all your help today, you are now free to go!”

The rain had stopped as I staggered home in the dark enjoying the cool air on my face and the sweet taste of ‘freedom’. I’d been inside for 16 hours and yet it felt like a lifetime (I have no idea why anyone who’s been in prison would ever want to break the law again). Under my breath I was muttering “Never again” but I just know that once I’ve caught up on some much-needed sleep and had some physiotherapy for my excruciating back pain, if, next year, I’m offered the opportunity to receive a cheque in return for one day’s worth of boredom, I’m more than likely going to sign on the dotted line once again..…

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