Republican Dessamae Curry, left, and Democrat Ruth Gulliford have worked the polls in precinct 7C together for many years and say, despite their differing political views, they have never had a fist fight. The Hancock County Board of Elections is recruiting poll workers ahead of the Nov. 6 general election and, in Republican-heavy Hancock County, Democrats in particular are always needed. (Photo by Sara Arthurs)

By BRENNA GRITEMAN and SARA ARTHURS

STAFF WRITERS

The Hancock County Board of Elections needs poll workers for the Nov. 6 election. They must sign up no later than Sept. 28 and can do so by stopping by the elections office at 201 E. Lincoln St., or by contacting 419-422-3245 or bdelections@co.hancock.oh.us.

It’s a commitment. Poll workers’ day begins at 5:30 a.m. and usually ends at 8 p.m. Precinct workers get paid $140 for the day (about $9.66 an hour), and voting location managers earn $160.

Two Republicans and two Democrats — all of them active voters — must work each precinct.

Jody O’Brien, one of the election directors, said it is hard to recruit people, especially for voting location manager. In theory, precincts should be staffed by their residents, but that isn’t always possible.

Hancock County has 60 voting precincts. Churches are the most common polling places, and schools are no longer used due to security concerns.

Roving poll workers are also needed to fix any voting machine problems that arise. (The machines all have battery backup, and there are paper ballots available, just in case.) Rovers generally station themselves at the polling place with the best food, O’Brien said.

Turnout varies among Hancock County’s 50,000-plus registered voters, and people often vote early or absentee. O’Brien said some precincts get 300 voters on Election Day, while others may see just 70.

O’Brien said she enjoys being a part of the election process, noting that there are countries where people are shot on their way to the polls. In the United States, “We have made it very easy to vote,” she said, adding she wishes more people did so.

‘Repeat offenders’

Nancy Wilczynski was voting location manager at First Church of the Nazarene during the May 8 primary election. She has a lot of regulars or, as she calls them, “repeat offenders.” She advises the poll workers to bring a book or a puzzle in case things are slow, but most of the time, they simply chat. Wilczynski said it’s like a twice-a-year reunion with friends who don’t see each other between elections.

On this day, Heidi Mercer was working the polls for the first time. She said the experience made her realize “what a great community we have” in Findlay. The other poll workers are “super friendly and supportive” across party lines and Mercer, who is 35, is trying to recruit others her age to help work the polls.

Vicki Jurkiewicz was motivated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She found herself wondering “What can I do for my country?” but recognizing that, as she was in her 50s, “I don’t think the Marines want me. Probably not the Army.” So working the polls was a way to serve.

Jurkiewicz said her first vote was for Richard Nixon. But she has found friends across party lines over in precinct 7C, where she works alongside her neighbors.

“Ruthie’s Ruthie,” she said of Ruth Gulliford, a Democrat working alongside her.

Gulliford encouraged Jurkiewicz to work the polls and also recruited Dessamae Curry, a Republican.

Curry said that, although she and Gulliford are of different political parties, they have been friends and neighbors for 50 years.

“And never had a fist fight,” Gulliford said.

Gulliford recalled bringing her own children in with her to vote, and letting them pull the lever. Today, she knows they all continue to vote.

Gary Dunn, a fellow poll worker, “always gives the kids a sticker,” Gulliford said.

Dunn said he likes when he sees veterans come in, or grandparents with their grandchildren.

“We get along just fine together,” he said of the Republican and Democrat poll workers.

Susan Wachter prepares a dish at Bible Methodist Church, a Hancock County voting precinct known for its over-the-top election day food. Food here often follows a theme, and the fare on primary day last May was All-American. (Photo by Brenna Griteman)

Kitchen claim to fame

“So what do you do when no one’s here voting?”

“EAT!” responded a chorus of poll workers at Findlay’s Bible Methodist Church.

This culinary inclination is the polling place’s claim to fame, with workers filling the kitchen with slow cookers, finger foods and desserts galore — often even following a theme.

This primary the theme was “All-American,” with a spread made up of standard picnic fare like pulled pork and shredded chicken sandwiches, baked beans, fruits and salads. The Bible Methodist crew has held primary day cookouts in the past and one year, when the election fell near St. Patrick’s Day, set up a buffet comprised entirely of green selections.

With all this talk of eating, one might forget that these volunteers are here to do a very serious job.

“I want you to understand, these women do earn their money,” said voting location manager Mona Wittlinger, who estimates she’s held her position for “about 100 years.” (When pressed for a more precise timeline, Wittlinger guesses it’s been more like 30-plus years.)

Not only do the volunteers work long hours, but there have been some “very interesting issues” to come up in the past, said Wittlinger and Becky Greeno, a fellow longtime voting location manager. They recalled a voter making a “huge scene” about being told which machine to use, accusing the poll workers of tracking his vote. (Poll workers are instructed to rotate machine use, rather than causing undo wear and tear to one machine in particular.) Some voters also take issue with being asked to declare their party, a requirement among primary voters. Greeno said poll workers have even reported being followed by voters to the board of elections after the polls have closed for the night.

Still, Greeno said the challenges are worth the patriotic experience.

“I think civic responsibility is a big deal,” she said. “If you don’t participate and you don’t vote, do you really have the right to complain?”

That’s the same mindset that prompted Colleen Benelli-Reed to sign up for her first poll working experience in May: “I’ll be honest. The turning point was just the whole political environment right now. And I thought I wanted to do something constructive.”

For many, the urge to serve was instilled in childhood. Many poll workers grew up watching their mothers, fathers and grandmothers volunteer.

“I come from a long line of people working the polls or election board,” said first-time volunteer Tina Miller.

Ellen Hugunin, in her first day as a poll volunteer, said she received a letter from the elections board “because I happen to be one of the few registered Democrats” (in the county). Her mother, too, was a poll worker in a small Wood County town. “However, my mother was a Republican.”

‘Our beautiful right and privilege’

Around the corner at St. Marks United Methodist Church, 30-plus-year volunteer Joan Thomas Riley said, for the highly outnumbered Findlay Democrats, her party affiliation affords a sense of “job security.”

Her mother was a poll worker for over 45 years, and Riley began volunteering in her early 20s. While she is interested in politics, she said the larger draw is the service to the community.

“I just feel it’s my little part of helping,” she said.

Here, too, the church kitchen was crowded with slow cookers brewing with meats and soups, trays of veggies, cheese and crackers, and “always lots of desserts,” Riley said.

Jim Baughman serves as voting location manager at St. Marks, where voters from eight different precincts cast their ballots. He’s been involved for 20 years and said electronic voting machines and election day poll books have made the process quicker and simpler over the years.

Shelley Blachuta has been a poll worker for 10 years and said, unlike during the primary, there is “very little downtime” during a general election or when a hot-button issue is on the ballot.

Blachuta is retired and enjoys meeting with the community and visiting with other poll workers, but she, too, takes the election business very seriously.

“It’s an American institution that needs to be helped. It’s our beautiful right and privilege.”

Gateway Church was a busy afternoon polling place in May, perhaps because Liberty-Benton School District had a levy on the primary ballot.

Gail Malloy, who was running things there, said she strives to make it easier on the board of elections, so they can understand any notes the poll workers make. “So I’m a stickler,” and the people working under her are just as detail-oriented.

She said poll workers at Gateway don’t assign specific dishes for a potluck ahead of time, but a variety of food always shows up.

“I always gain weight when I work the polls,” Malloy said.

There are a lot of details to keep track of, but Malloy said this shouldn’t discourage new people from signing up. Those who have more experience always help the newbies, she said.

Barb DeAngelis was working the polls for the first time. She was nervous at first, as “It’s so important” to “do this right.” But everyone was very helpful. And yes, she said, she’d do it again.

brennagriteman@thecourier.com

saraarthurs@thecourier.com

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