[See sidebar disclaimer. These opinions are my own, and my employer — or recent employer — has nothing to do with them.]
To paraphrase H. H. Munro, it was a good job, as jobs go; and as jobs go, it went.
Years ago former operatic tenor turned Discovery Channel host Mike Rowe had a program called “Dirty Jobs.” According to Rowe, the son of a pig farmer, he was trying to shine a light on the unsung heroes who made life possible for the rest of us. A noble aspiration, indeed.
Over time, however, it seemed clear that Rowe favored jobs that had a definite physical component: sewer workers, chimney sweeps, reindeer farmers, etc. (I’m not sure that reindeer farmers have much impact on my life, but your mileage may vary.) Such jobs tended to skew male, but I am going to give Rowe the benefit of the doubt on this and assume that he wasn’t seeking out mostly male jobs. He did have a few primarily female jobs (candle maker comes to mind), but for the most part, they were definitely blue-collar (mostly male) jobs.
These workers do need to be recognized — they’re part of what makes society tick. Just look at the streets during a garbage strike. But many other people allow us to live the lives we do but don’t have to get their overalls dirty.
Pink collar clerical workers are not just unambitious pencil pushers. I know: I — and my coworkers — fall into that category. And people like me make government in the United States possible. It is hard — occasionally tedious — and unrecognized work, in occasionally unpleasant conditions.
We worked in a crappy structure that sweltered in the summer and froze in the winter. In the VBM (Vote By Mail) rooms, the floor was made of varnished plywood that buckles slightly when you walk on it. There were rumors last fall that the building had fleas. (That’s a distinct possibility — the area where we were located was pretty close to the street called “Alameda de la Pulgas” (Avenue of the Fleas) supposedly because the Spanish found them such a nuisance.) Because of security concerns, janitorial staff didn’t come into the VBM area, or at least not very often, and we had to empty our own trash cans. Also for security reasons, nobody was allowed to be by themselves in any area where ballots were. This meant that if you forgot your cell phone at your desk at the end of the day, you had to find someone who could walk you back to pick it up.
Our hours were entirely at the whim of the voters of the county; this year, because it was a small off-year election that only affected half the jurisdictions, turnout was low, and our hours were cut. Last year, during the presidential general campaign, of the ten weeks I worked, I only worked less than fifty during one week (I worked 48). I worked more 60 in four weeks, and election week I worked 72. I did not even work as much as a couple of my co-workers and permanent staff; the somewhat bitter joke was that they were working lawyers’ hours but not getting lawyers’ pay.
The work is seasonal: you get called every few months to help. (“Extra help” is our official designation.) Because this election was so small it seemed to me like only the best workers were called in. I suppose I should be flattered. I have already been told that if I want to come back next year they would be happy to have me.
In between, I have to decide what to do. And I grapple with the “I’m a failure because I don’t have a career.” After all, aren’t people with my educational advantages supposed to be off making deals or making policy?
Except that I love this job. I love the surprisingly artistic aspects of verifying signatures. I love feeling like I am connecting with voters, even at an anonymous remove. I love being part of making democracy work, even if I am simply one small ant in a very busy hill.
It’s not all beer and skittles: there is some seriously tedious grunt work that nonetheless requires very close attention. All those ballots have to be extracted from their envelopes in a manner that preserves their secrecy. I am slow at this because it requires exceeding precision and my attention issues make that difficult. The people who excel at ballot extraction have my unadulterated admiration.
I love my coworkers, from the tall guy who makes the runs to the post office to the cute young woman who sits two cubicles down verifying signatures to the two guys who run the machines that scan the envelopes when they come in. They are friendly, often funny, and they care about what they are doing.
In political campaigns, you find people dedicated to a partisan cause. At the elections office, we care about something even more ambitious: representative democracy itself.
That is certainly a job worth doing, and worth doing well, and worth celebrating.