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Election officials early to rise on primary day

By: Sara Kandel | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published March 6, 2012

 Rich Steenland, Roseville city clerk, is at the office hours before the sun rises to prepare for the primaries on Feb. 28.

Rich Steenland, Roseville city clerk, is at the office hours before the sun rises to prepare for the primaries on Feb. 28.

Photo by Sara Kandel

ROSEVILLE — It’s 5:30 a.m. Feb. 28 and Rich Steenland has already been at the office for an hour when his phone begins to ring.

He answers — his tone, polite but stern.

Before he hangs up, his cell begins to chirp. He ends one call and goes to the next. Before he even says hello, the desk phone rings again. This time his deputy clerk and right-hand woman, Jennifer Gamarra, answers.

It’s going to be a busy day. Election days always are.

They field calls, about one every two to three minutes, while organizing absentee ballots for counting.

At 6:20 a.m., Steenland takes a call from Eastland Middle School. The woman on the other end of the line tells him there are no secrecy sleeves there.

“We go over everything, but things like this are just going to happen,” he says. “Human error.”

Polls will be opening soon, and the secrecy sleeves need to be there when they do. He grabs a handful from a filing cabinet in the basement of City Hall and takes them to the nearby school.

When he arrives, the workers there tell him the AutoMark machine, a handicap-accessible ballot marker, isn’t working. AutoMark machines are required by state law, one at each precinct, at $6,500 a piece, but they rarely seem to work, Steenland says.

He used to spend all day trouble-shooting them. Then, he realized it was a waste of time.

“We’re one of the biggest precincts, but it’s only been used once in the five years since we’ve been required to have it,” says veteran poll worker Rose Kuechenmeister.

He’s looking at it anyway when a call comes in from the Recreation Center — they have to move locations, from the gym to a smaller room at the front of the building.

“You don’t just move a precinct, especially once you set up and voting is about to begin,” he says. “This is set up ahead of time, pre-scheduled.”

Gamarra gives Steenland the lowdown when he arrives at the center. There’s no one there from administration, but a maintenance worker shows him that the gym is booked for later that afternoon. They hurry to switch rooms.

When a man arrives to vote at 6:59 a.m., one minute before the polls open, Steenland lets him in, but not everything is ready yet.

A poll worker greets him. “I apologize about the delay sir; it will just be five minutes,” the worker tells the voter.

“Oh no,” Steenland says, shaking his head. “Right this way, sir.”

Steenland hands the man a ballot.

“You can’t let anything impede the voting process,” he explains. “It’s the most important thing about Election Day. That’s why we do all of this.”

Just a few minutes later as the man is feeding his ballot into a tabulator, a machine that counts ballots, a caller tells Steenland there’s a problem at Roseville Middle School.

Both tabulators there are down.

Once there, he determines one of the tabulators wasn’t working because two ballots were stuck together and caused a jam. Problem solved. The other one just isn’t working, though.

“We check all these machines before we send them out,” Steenland says. “It was working fine yesterday, but that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

He runs back to City Hall and picks up a backup tabulator, then returns to the middle school to set it up, sticking around to make sure it fires up.

It does.

He signs the polling book, making a notation of the new serial number for the tabulator in use andv then reminds the workers to sign the tape inside the machine.

“Everything has to be accounted for,” he says. “There are checks and balances we follow to ensure every vote, and everything we do is accounted for.”

After a few more stops, things begin to slow down. Steenland still has a long day ahead of him, though. He’ll keep busy visiting precincts and answering complaints from the occasional angry resident displeased with their voting experience until the next 11 or so hours pass, the polls close and sequestered ballot counters come back with some final numbers.

Then he’ll double-check the books once or twice, before dropping them off at the Macomb County Clerk’s Office.

By the time he “clocks out” for the day, he’ll have logged about 20 hours. There’s no
overtime, though. And no long night’s sleep awaits him.

Steenland is in the office at 7:30 a.m. the following morning cleaning up and organizing for the next big election day and all the other work that lies ahead, because in the clerk’s office work doesn’t stop when elections are over — it just goes back to normal.

It’s the nature of the job.

“If I had a job where I had to sit behind a desk all day, I’d hate it,” Steenland says. “That’s the beauty of this. The elections keep you hopping. It’s a job that keeps you on your toes, keeps you flowing, keeps you thinking. I love it.”