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  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    Virginia Nielsen, with George Neeley, who will work with Nielsen at a Folsom polling station, has seen many Election Day changes over the decades. When she started, ballots were counted by hand.

  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    Virginia Nielsen, with an assist from George Neeley, 19, heads to a training session for election precinct workers last week. Nielsen, 99, has been serving as a poll worker since 1946. "I always knew it was my civic duty to work on Election Day," Nielsen, of Orangevale, said.

Most devoted poll worker? At age 99, Orangevale woman a shoo-in

Published: Tuesday, May. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 22, 2012 - 12:47 pm

The first time Virginia Nielsen served as a poll worker, she was 34 years old, a young mother who had recently moved to Orangevale. Now she's 99, a few months shy of her 100th birthday – and for the June 5 primary, she will work as a clerk in a Folsom precinct alongside a first-time poll worker 80 years her junior.

"My mother always said you have to vote," said Nielsen, a retired nurse who still lives in Orangevale. "She never worked on elections, but I'd always go with her when she voted.

"I always knew it was my civic duty to work on Election Day."

Of the 2,500 precinct clerks and polling inspectors who will staff the June primary at Sacramento County's 467 polling places, Nielsen is the oldest: a veteran of more presidential and gubernatorial primaries and elections than she can remember.

Her commitment to the democratic process through precinct work isn't about politics. Rather, it's about what she sees as her responsibility as a citizen. She takes voting seriously: After all, until the ratification of the 19th Amendment when she was 8 years old, women nationwide weren't yet allowed to vote.

For the generations coming along after her, the growing trend toward voting by mail has changed the shape of the election landscape for poll workers. In 2008, 40 percent of the state's voters used mail-in ballots, according to the California secretary of state's office – and in the 2010 election, half of Sacramento County's voters cast their ballots by mail.

For this year's primary election, 53 percent of county voters have requested permanent mail-in voting status.

"Because more people are voting by mail, the number of poll workers is declining," said Jill LaVine, the county's registrar of voters. "But we're also declining in the number of polls. We're one of the very few fortunate counties that have enough workers to staff the polls."

The average age of the county's precinct workers – and this will surprise no one who's visited a polling place in recent memory – is in the late 60s, LaVine said.

And veteran poll workers like Nielsen and her friend, 72-year-old Sally Shafer, aren't necessarily happy with the growing influence of the vote-by-mail idea, even if it makes voting convenient for younger, busier generations.

To them, going to the polls instills a sense of community and a feeling of participating in a vital American tradition.

"If you go someplace and vote, it gives you the feeling that you can still make a difference," said Shafer.

Nielsen simply thinks things were better the way they used to be. "I liked it better back then," she said.

In 1946 and for many elections after that, she and her fellow poll workers spent the hours after the polls closed counting votes cast on paper ballots. They toted up the numbers by hand, and poll inspectors drove the results to downtown Sacramento from smaller communities on the outskirts, such as Orangevale.

"Virginia could teach this class," said Steve Demers, a county voter registration analyst who trained about 40 precinct workers one afternoon recently at the Orangevale Community Center.

Nielsen was there, along with Shafer and Shafer's grandson, 19-year-old George Neeley. They will work together on primary day at a polling place at Folsom's Empire Oaks Elementary School, along with one of Nielsen's grandsons.

It's a family affair.

"My family has always done this, so I've always been interested," said Neeley, a 2010 graduate of Folsom's Vista del Lago High School who tagged along to help set up equipment at the polls when he was only 10.

Even so, he's not the youngest county poll worker: People as young as 16 can work the polls, generally inspired by their high school civics teachers, and each election, some 200 students do, said LaVine.

The county's precinct workers make a $100 stipend for working more than 13 hours on Election Day, plus another $25 for attending the two-hour training. Inspectors make $150 on Election Day and $25 for the class.

Shafer began her own precinct career working alongside Nielsen a couple of decades ago at a polling place at Casa Roble High School. The two of them were in the same bowling league for 30 years, until Nielsen stopped bowling in her early 90s.

"Virginia is amazing," said Shafer. "When we worked at Casa Roble, she had such a gabfest with the people who came to vote. They'd catch up on what people had done over the years – the stuff that had happened in the past 50 years. It was interesting to watch and listen."

Nielsen also works at a booth at a local farmers market on Saturday mornings during the summer. But her work at the polls has more meaning to her.

"It means I participate," she said. "Maybe who I voted for didn't get in, but that's OK. I was part of it."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Anita Creamer





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