When Trudy Jodka worked as an election warden 50 years ago, things were different ... and a lot slower.
There were no machines to tally up the votes, meaning Jodka and other poll workers had to figure out the final number for each candidate.
"When we were there at night, we'd be there for hours and hours after counting the ballots," she said.
Sitting in Town Hall, Jodka and other workers came together last Wednesday to recount their experiences working at the very core of American democracy -- the election polls.
THE BEST GROUP
For Town Clerk John Canney, running an election is like Christmas -- and he has a great group of Santa's helpers.
"We've got the best group of poll workers, constables and checkers in the state," Canney said.
Every election, these workers help check-in voters, keep an eye on the voting booths and count the ballots at the end of the night. The election warden works closely with the town clerk to help run the whole operation, swearing in other election workers for a fair and honest process.
Veteran election workers include Jodka and Dorothy Marino, but others have also worked over the past few decades, including Neville Markham, who started in 1964.
AN EXACT SYSTEM
Every part of working elections is neurotic, and with good reason. A recount can mean time in the spotlight, as some workers have learned.
"Each candidate has a representative there watching, and you have to read it out," said Marion Smith, who has worked as a counter and checker for more than 20 years.
"Checkers" come in two shifts as early as 6 a.m. to set up and check voters in at Town Hall. When a voter leaves, more checkers also write down their names to ensure they exit.
Whenever they can, checkers review the entrance and exit numbers with each other to make sure the numbers add up. If they do not, the churn of a busy voting crowd must come to a halt.
"If you're off, and you're in the middle of a presidential election, we have to shut the door and hold the people back," said Paul Boisseu, one of the current election wardens. "Sometimes it could be 20 minutes before you can let people start coming through again."
If the voting machines become too full, Boisseu has to open them in the presence of another person.
At the end of the night, "counters" tally up the votes. An old wooden box is used to count the number of ballots once they are cranked inside of it, but not what was written on the ballots. Now, a more savvy machine counts the content on the ballots dropped inside of it, but any ballots with write-ins are automatically separated into a different compartment inside. Counters then have to keep track of every name that is written in -- even if it's something like Superman.
MICKEY MOUSE FOR PRESIDENT
Jodka can remember people writing "Mickey Mouse" on ballots when the movie was popular. But humorous write-ins actually end up wasting a lot of time for the counters at the end of the night.
"If somebody writes something in and it's a wasted name that doesn't even make any sense, it takes longer in the evening to get your results out because people are writing these foolish names in there," he said.
"HERE COMES A DEMOCRAT!"
Quite a few workers can remember a time when a voter's name and party was announced upon their arrival.
"It was embarrassing if you were a voter," said Aline Migrants, who has worked as a checker for about 10 years. "You'd come in and they'd scream out your name, and then when you went out to check-out they'd scream it out again because they had to be heard from one end of the room to the other."
Now, party affiliations are not as public. But voters are still held to their registered party during the primaries, when they can only vote for candidates of their party.
"People do get mad when they think they can vote Republican and they're registered as a Democrat," Smith said. "Then they'll argue with you."
ELECTIONS TO REMEMBER
It was an exciting night for Jodka and Marino when John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960. The two did not get home from counting until 4 a.m.
"We were going home together, and at the time my husband and five kids were in the house," Jodka said. "But I said, 'I feel like my mother is going to wait for me and yell at me because I'm coming in at four in the morning.'"
The special election of former Sen. Scott Brown also drew a lot of people out to the polls.
"When they elected Sen. Brown, it was exciting," Migrants said. "Everyone came out. We didn't expect that but it was an interesting time to be there because people took the time to vote."
The issue of school regionalization also stirred some buzz when it passed in 2010 at a special Town Meeting, where some workers are also called for help.
"There were many people working to get out the younger parents to vote because it's their schoolchildren," said Louise Bresnahan, who has worked the polls for a few years. "That was interesting. There were many younger families, younger parents that came in and voted."
Some workers agree that the town's upcoming election will be exciting as well. Smith said the selectmen positions will draw the race out.
"There'll be lots of write-ins -- lots of them, and I'm going to get mad," she joked.
LET ME VOTE
Once in a while, there can be technical issues. Jodka remembers one time when there was a woman in uniform who probably came from Fort Devens to vote.
"She hadn't registered, and so the workers said, 'you can't vote because you haven't registered,'" Jodka said. "They couldn't find her, the name wasn't on anywhere."
Jodka told her she had to register in order to be qualified to vote, but the reaction was not pleasant.
"She said, 'I've been here and I've been there saving you people,' and all this yelling," Jodka said. "I wanted to tell her to get lost but I couldn't, and that's when I got over to somebody and they called Boston."
Whenever there's a voting issue, polling places across the state can call the Secretary of State's election office for help. The clerk also has access to a state-wide database that has information on registered voters. If a voter's information is not immediately found, the town can issue a provisional ballot that is not certified and counted until workers verify the voter's registration.
LONG HOURS, LITTLE PAY
"There have been a lot of people that have worked the polls," Boisseu said. "There's a lot that are very faithful and do it. There's others that say 'I don't want to work those long hours. That's too much. I've done it once or twice, don't choose me again.'"
But these faithful workers do it more than simply for the pay -- which is minimal. They do it for the camaraderie and friendships made in such a small town.
For Phillip Swain, a checker who moved to Ayer a few years ago, the job is a social opportunity.
"It's given me a chance to meet a lot of people that I would not ordinarily have met," he said. "I enjoy it."
"You're meeting people you just haven't seen in a while," Boisseu said. "Life is too fast and too busy, and you get a chance to stop and chat."
From Kennedy to Obama, Marino said, she is usually always in town when she is called to work.
"To me, it's a privilege," Marino said. "You're doing it for the town."