Who are the people at your polling place?

By on November 5, 2014
Republican committeepersons Ben Sahd and Leslie Penkunas welcome voters to the Elizabeth Township municipal building. (photo by Katie Grisbacher)

Republican committeepersons Ben Sahd and Leslie Penkunas welcome voters to the Elizabeth Township municipal building. (photo by Katie Grisbacher)

Our election correspondent, Katie Grisbacher, spent her day talking to voters in the 37th legislative district, where Elizabeth Township residents overwhelmingly supported Mindy Fee. But this coverage is more about neighbors than politics:

Judge of elections, majority inspector, minority inspector, clerks, committeepersons. Polling places spring to life twice a year thanks to poll workers called to a civic duty alongside voters.

At most polls, voters are greeted by grassroots political party representatives stationed outside (at least 10 feet away from the polling place). Democrat, Republican, and other parties send representatives to share information, make a presence, and sway undecided voters. These are people on the front lines of campaigns.

“The voters are our friends and our neighbors,” said Margaret High, Republican committeewoman for East Cocalico Township, Smokestown District. “We’re here to welcome the voters, thank them for coming out, and listen to comments, what they want to share with us.”

Committee members such as High and Don Kirby greet voters at primary and general elections, staff information tables at community events, and meet with their local committee several times throughout the year.

“We also take a look at school board candidates to vet them against Republican party guidelines, and make a recommendation,” explained Kirby. “We do some vetting work that some folks working full-time may find hard to do.”

Kirby arrived late Tuesday morning to take over for High, who had been greeting voters at the fire hall since the polls opened. “At this point we’re expecting about a 50 percent turnout,” said High.

Tuesday’s early voter turnout looked good throughout Northern Lancaster County, with reports of 10 percent of registered voters participating at Elizabeth Township by 9 a.m., 254 out of 1,600 in Shoeneck by 10 a.m., and 225 out of 1,100 in Swartzville by noon.

Scott Althouse, district leader for the Warwick Democratic Committee, joins Brian Kresge, 37th district candidate, at the Elizabeth Township polling place. (photo by Katie Grisbacher)

Scott Althouse, district leader for the Warwick Democratic Committee, joins Brian Kresge, 37th district candidate, at the Elizabeth Township polling place. (photo by Katie Grisbacher)

“I just think it’s important,” said Stephanie Spangler of Smokestown. “I was reading in the newspaper this morning how people fought a long time to get to vote … women couldn’t vote. It’s a privilege.”

Other voters had more pointed reasons to be there.

“We want a change,” said Cindy Kulp of Smokestown. “Something that’s gonna help put jobs back. We moved here four years ago from South Carolina, and pay four times the property taxes we paid there.”

That’s the sort of thing Kirby wants to know.

“One of the nice things about (serving as committeeman) is it gives you the chance to talk with people and get a pulse of the area. You can use that to provide feedback to elected officials, and it gives the elected official another chance to listen. It’s a little more personal than social media and email.”

Dennis Foultz took the opportunity of Election Day to spread the news with fellow Smokestown voters about a 2016 presidential candidate.

“I’m not here with a political party. I have volunteered today to enlighten people about Dr. Ben Carson, sign his petition online, and tell him we support him,” explained Foultz. “At least 50 percent of people I have spoken to have barely heard of him, or not at all. So by being here today, I got to help share information with people who now know something about him.”

East Cocalico Township voters did have something new on the ballot this year.

After the 2010 census, Pennsylvania redrew elective districts based on population. East Cocalico Township and Adamstown Borough were redistricted from District 37 into District 129, joining a number of Berks County municipalities. The Supreme Court approved Pennsylvania’s redistricting in May of 2013, which made this election the first for East Cocalico residents to vote for their new district representative.

The change was quiet, because Republican incumbent Jim Cox ran uncontested.

“The Democrats didn’t have a candidate; this is pretty much a Republican district,” said Democratic committeewoman Sharon Susa, stationed at Peace United Church of Christ in Denver. “I think Jim Cox is very effective for the area he’s coming from, so we’re presuming he’ll do the same for us.”

“That’s off the record, right?” joked Republican committeewoman Seeran Mizii.

“No,” said Susa, forthright in her support of Cox. “I got in contact with Jim after we were redistricted three years ago. I wanted to know who he was, and why did we have him.”

Inside, Judge of Elections Mike McGee found business mostly as usual, though he did need to make use of provisional ballots for an older couple who did not appear on his list of registered voters.

“The voters had voted here a number of times, and were recognized by a clerk,” McGee explained. “They voted with the provisional ballots, which will be sent in to the county to verify whether the voters are registered.”

Judge of elections is an elected position with a four-year term. The judge manages all logistical aspects of the polling place, including checking equipment, setting up the room to ensure voter privacy, and delivering the election returns at the end of the day. He or she serves as “go-to” person for anyone with questions, such as how to use the electronic voting machines, and supervises other poll workers.

Each polling place has a majority inspector and a minority inspector, elected by their parties to assist the judge of elections as needed.

“We’re here to make sure things go smoothly,” said Shoeneck Majority Inspector John Duty.

The minority inspector also keeps a copy of election results for one year after the election.

The most familiar faces at polling places are the clerks, who check in the voters. “They have been here much longer than I have,” McGee said.

“I just enjoy doing it, serving the public, the people contact,” said Jane Watts, in her seventh year as an election clerk in Shoeneck. “Voting is heavy today, more than usual.”

“Turnout has been good,” agreed Duty. “I think some of the issues, races, definitely the warm weather help.”

“I think the governor’s race has got people interested,” said Republican Committeeman Kirby Sensenig, stationed outside the doors at Shoeneck Fire Company. “We had about 15 people lined up at 7 a.m., and it’s been steady. Most people know what they’re doing, and we just chat, since I know them. I’ve been here my whole life.”

“We just think it’s important to voice our opinion in the government. Voting is the simplest way,” said Ruth Gosnell, as her husband caught up with Sensenig to share his latest hunting photos.

The Democrats had a table, too, but the couple that had been there were working three precincts, explained Sensenig, so they would probably be back later.

In Elizabeth Township, the atmosphere was more intense, with both major parties represented and ready to talk.

“A lot of voter questions concern one or two issues,” said Republican Committeeman Ben Sahd. “Second Amendment rights, gun control, the right to carry firearms … Abortion rights, a lot of pro-life constituency, they voice their concerns.”

“There’s been a great last-minute push for Corbett,” said Republican Committeewoman Leslie Penkunas. “People who were undecided and apathetic a month ago now realize their vote counts.”

Scott Althouse, district leader of the Warwick Democratic Committee, was eager to talk about his full slate of candidates.

“We have school teachers and veterans on our ballot,” said Althouse. “These candidates are second-amendment, God-fearing people, just like their voters.”

Ah, the candidates. The final bit of personnel to find at the polls.

Brian Kresge, Democratic candidate for PA State Representative of District 37, was there to meet voters in person.

“We’re changing the state narrative,” said Kresge. “We’re changing a lot of Republican minds, and it’s been good.”

Katie Grisbacher is a writer and editor living in Brickerville. She welcomes your comments at kgrisbacher@gmail.com.

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