Four longtime Orangeburg County poll workers rely as much on manners as they do manuals to make all voters feel welcome and appreciated.
With more than seven decades of experience among them, they know a thing or two about keeping lines moving, dealing with varying levels of belligerence or confusion and making sure everyone’s rights are upheld.
“You greet every voter with a smile. A smile breaks through everything,” said David Smith, who works as a poll clerk in the Ward 3 precinct.
He began his 12-year service as a poll manager in 2006 and quickly became a clerk.
“No matter what kind of frustration someone might have before they get to you, if you greet them with a friendly smile and show that you really care about getting them in and processed to vote for the candidate of their choice, that melts all ice,” he said.
The South Carolina governor’s race was supposed to be a wide-open contest this year, with Nikki Haley limited from pursuing a third term in office.
Janice Kemmerlin said, “I don’t raise my voice at anybody. If they have a problem, I make sure that they understand what the situation is. There could be some eyebrow raised sometimes, but the people are really nice in my area.” She has worked for 10 years as a poll manager in the Ward 1 precinct.
Leon Sistrunk has served 35 years a poll worker, first serving as a poll manager and now as a clerk.
He works out of the Ward 2 precinct and remembers the days before the advent of electronic voting machines, when ballots were counted by hand.
Sistrunk also relies on good, old-fashioned manners to get him through the day.
“I love the job. You meet and greet people and talk good to people. You run into all kinds of different people that you’ve got to deal with, but you’ve got to be able to communicate with them,” Sistrunk said. "I really enjoy it, and even better now since you don’t have to do hand counting and stuff."
Ann Epps also remembers the days of hand counting ballots and has served as a poll worker for 15 years, first as a manager and now as a clerk. She is stationed in the Ward 10 precinct.
“We can make it hard for the voter, or we can make it easy. I think that’s where our training comes in. If you treat people the way you want to be treated, we don’t have a lot of trouble,” Epps said.
“There’s just some people who have a tendency to want to create a problem, but I try not to. I could be on the other side of the table. How would I want to be treated?” she added.
Epps said her business background has helped. She and her late husband, Don, ran Servpro of Orangeburg for 34 years. She and Don had also “tag teamed” at the polls, both serving as poll managers in Orangeburg County before his death in 2013.
“I think being in our business has helped me a lot because the customer is always right. And we have certain guidelines. I don’t have a problem in saying, ‘Well, this is what the rule is. Here it is in the book. Let me explain it to you,’" Epps said.
She said she enjoys meeting everyone at the polls, including the same people she served in her business.
“I just like being able to see and talk to the people. I just like to be busy anyway. So any kind of opportunity I can get to do something within the community, I’m for it,” Epps said.
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Kemmerlin said, “It’s very interesting just seeing who is interested in voting and who’s not interested in voting. That’s why I keep doing this. I mean, you have so many people on your book, but there’s some that show up and some that don’t.”
“I enjoy doing it and have no problems in my area at all. I’ve had no problems with the workers who work with me at all. I enjoy working with the people,” she added.
The poll workers are trained to assist voters who may need assistance in the voting booth, but they know their limitations.
“In training, we’re taught that they’re allowed three minutes. If there appears to be an issue, we are to say, ‘Is there a problem?’ And that’s when they start opening up and saying, ‘Well, I can’t get the ballot to open up,’ or any other reason. But we don’t encourage anyone to vote for anyone in particular,” Smith said.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but the job of a poll worker can begin as early as 6 a.m. and can last as late as 8:30 p.m.
Smith said, “For a clerk like myself, we have to be there at the polling place at 6 o’clock. That gives us an hour to set up the machines” and do other prep work.
“My day ends about 8 or 8:15 p.m.," Smith said.
Smith has a few suggestions of dos and don’ts for voters at the polls.
“Just bring proper documentation and be prepared to stay for a minute. Sometimes the lines can be very long. If you need handicapped assistance, make sure that you ask for it. Don’t just assume that because you pull up outside on the curb that people know that you have a disability or a handicap and need curbside assistance. We might assume somebody might need that and they don’t, and they might get upset.
“Do not show up late. Do not show up at 7:05 p.m. thinking you’re going to vote. And don’t show up at 6:15 a.m. thinking you’re going to vote because you were out and saw the lights on,” Smith said.
Sistrunk said, “If voters obey the rules, it would be a lot easier. Don’t bring any signs or weapons. You’ve got to follow the rules. Some of them want to walk in there and go right to voting, but you can’t do that.”
He said while times have changed in the way votes are processed, some things never change.
“You’ve got to come in there and do your job like it’s supposed to be done. It’s different now but once you get to learn it, it’s great. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t be here this long. I would have been gone because I can’t stand to be aggravated. But me and the other workers get along good together,” Sistrunk said.
Epps said, “One of the things that I have enjoyed in the last few years is college students, or even a high school student, being brought in to work. I feel that this is one way of teaching young people what is going on in the political world.”
She added, “And I’ve seen the complete improvement in the process of our voting techniques here in Orangeburg County. I worked with three different directors and they all did a good job. As technology has improved, we’re ahead of a lot of places. I’ve seen a good growth process in technology.”