Bob Ulrich says he will do “anything and everything to help people vote.” For the past 10 years, he has been doing just that by working as an election inspector for the City of East Lansing.
Ulrich was one of roughly 140 election inspectors who worked the polls during the August primary, and East Lansing City Clerk Jennifer Shuster is in need of even more election inspectors to help with the Nov. 6 general election. Due to the high number of expected voters, Shuster hopes to hire 180 people to help.
Election inspectors are stationed at each of East Lansing’s 17 precincts, checking voter identification, distributing ballots, handing out stickers, and keep precincts organized, allowing Shuster and her staff to troubleshoot as problems arise.
An election inspector’s day begins when polls open at 7 a.m. and end when they close at 8 p.m., though half-day shifts are available. Although Shuster anticipates having enough election inspectors to fill all time slots throughout the day, she says equal political representation may be an issue. “We have a hard time finding Republicans,” she says, “We have to balance Democrats and Republicans as best we can. They don’t have to be equal at every precinct, but we try.”
Election inspectors will be paid $10 an hour, with precinct captains earning $12 an hour. Ulrich does not work elections for the money, though. “I think it’s a civic responsibility not only to vote but to serve your community,” said the retired principal and teacher.
Ulrich’s interest in elections began early. His parents were election inspectors, and he became a fourth-grade social studies teacher for the East Lansing Public Schools, where he tried to impart a message of civic engagement to his students.
“When I was doing my student teaching in 1968, Nixon was running for president. I remember doing mock elections with our fourth graders,” complete with voter registration, campaign slogans, and speeches he says. “I can remember being excited, even back then. That was also my first election because back then, it was 21 years old when you got to vote. I was very excited about voting for my first candidate.”
At that time, polling locations were often in school cafeterias and Ulrich made a point to take his students to see voting in action. It was not until the 2008 presidential election, however, that he was able to work an election himself.
In 2008, Ulrich was a member of the East Lansing Receiving Team. Its primary responsibility was to go through a checklist as ballots arrived at City Hall after the precincts closed at 8 p.m. and until 2 a.m., he made sure all ballots were accounted for and secure, and that there was a record of all the election inspectors who worked that day.
Ulrich became a precinct captain in 2012, supervising Precinct 2, at Martin Luther Chapel on Abbot Road. “I got my eyes open that year,” he says, “I can still remember opening the door at 7 a.m., saying ‘The polls are open.’ I could not see the end of the line because it went down the hall and up the steps and into the parking lot. We were just swamped at 7 in the morning with people wanting to vote before they went to work. I had baptism by fire, so to speak.”
Not frightened off by his baptism by fire, Ulrich has continued to work at Precinct 2 in subsequent elections. He now recognizes many of his precinct’s voters and enjoys seeing his fellow poll workers at every election.
As a precinct captain, Ulrich arrives at his precinct at 5 a.m. on Election Day, which he spends overseeing election inspectors and the polling station. “I am managing a team,” he says, “I usually have six people that work with me, sometimes eight if we have a huge turnout, like in a presidential election. I’m responsible for opening the polls at 7 a.m. and closing them at 8 p.m. and maintaining a relatively friendly, helpful, efficient process during the day so that people can come and vote. … It’s important to be personable.”
In addition to being personable, Ulrich tries to be patient and organized to efficiently solve problems that arise. In past elections, Ulrich says machines have malfunctioned, voters showed up at the wrong precincts, and on particularly humid days, ballots have stuck together. Whatever the problems, he does not leave his precinct until all ballots are accounted for.
While precinct captains spend the day on their feet, Ulrich says there are plenty of other election inspection jobs, including checking photo IDs, distributing ballots, and thanking voters with “I Voted” stickers as they leave.
Poll workers now do much of their work digitally. Ulrich says this has been problematic in recruiting new election inspectors, most of whom are students or retired community members. “We’re losing a certain segment of the population who want to be voter assistants because they are afraid of the technology,” he says. Ulrich hopes interested poll workers overcome their fears and says, “I would just encourage people to give it a try. It might be more enjoyable than you thought. It doesn’t have to be intimidating. It’s very rewarding. … It’s not any work people should be afraid to try.”
Potential election inspectors will be taught how to use voting equipment and other election day procedure in a mandatory training given by Shuster and her office, beginning on Oct. 24.
Applications to be an election inspector are due to the City Clerk’s office by Oct. 19 and can be found on the city’s website.