- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

Donna Patterson opens the training session with a statement of purpose.

“If you were wondering if we need you on Election Day,” she tells the packed auditorium at Arlington Central Library, “We definitely need you.”

Standing before an army of volunteers, Ms. Patterson, Arlington County’s deputy registrar, reads aloud an oath for the few first-timers in the crowd before moving on to an Election Day list of “do’s” and “don’ts.”

“Be respectful — whether it’s too much cologne or not enough of something else,” Ms. Patterson jokes, eliciting giggles from the audience.

“What time do you arrive at the polls?” she asks the crowd, an assortment of mostly elderly retirees.

“Five a.m.,” they answer in unison.

“When do you leave?” she asks with a grin.

The response to the second question was more mixed.

The correct answer: Only after the results have been certified and called in.

After reviewing some other basic guidelines — no talking politics inside the polling place, no clothing or accessories with any messages, no personal electronic devices — Ms. Patterson refers the volunteers to their “Election Day Guide” packets for additional information.

Ms. Patterson then unloads what looks like two oversized briefcases. They are touch-screen voting machines.

Two officers are needed to unload the machine, she explains, taking the monitor out of the briefcase, into which she inserts metal rods to serve as legs. Each polling place has between three and eight voting machines, she notes as she places the privacy shields over top and on the sides of the voting station.

“Don’t forget your demonstration ballot,” she adds.

Ms. Patterson turns on the machine, which then prints out a report.

A man in the front row raises his hand with a question: “Have we had any criticism for not having a paper ballot trail?”

Ms. Patterson’s colleague, General Registrar Linda Lindberg, handles the query.

“You will probably have people who will come into your polling place and ask that question,” replies Mrs. Lindberg, advising the volunteer to hand such a person a handout containing “myths” and “facts” of electronic voting. “You can say, ‘Here’s some information you might find useful.’ ” she says.

Virginia has used electronic voting since 2003 with “no incident or problem,” according to Mrs. Lindberg, unlike Maryland, which experienced a rocky primary election, mostly because of a lack of volunteers and glitches with the electronic poll books.

This year, the Arlington County has about 530 volunteers, enough for between nine and 15 workers at each polling place. Although that is enough, Ms. Patterson says, “We could always use a few more.”

“Part of my job is just being nice to people working at the polls,” she says, stressing kindness as the most effective strategy for retaining poll workers, who get paid $130 for their efforts.

The two-hour-long training sessions, led by Ms. Patterson along with Mrs. Lindberg and Madolyn Keller, the outreach coordinator, start each year three weeks before an election. They are three of a full-time staff of seven who prepare all year for elections.

Ms. Patterson, a 47-year-old Arlington resident, volunteered for two elections before taking over as deputy registrar in May 2003. Before that, she worked as a freelance photographer and an adult-education consultant, traveling across the United States.

“I used to be on a plane every week,” she recalls. “Then I said one thing I really needed to get back into” was working in elections.

“I’ve always been interested in making sure everyone votes,” she says. Her interest started back in the 1980s, when she volunteered for a campaign that was decided by 41 votes. “Every single vote surely does count.”

On Election Day, Ms. Patterson, who admits to being a night owl, shows up at her office at 4:30 a.m.

“The common 5 a.m. call Linda and I take is that people can’t get into the polling place,” she says, adding, “At least five people will call in sick.”

Despite working 14-hour days before and during an election, Ms. Patterson says she thrives on the excitement.

“You just do what you need to do to get it done. You’ll kind of give up your life for a little bit, but it’s fun.”

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