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Voter News Service, World Trade Center, 2000.

Working as a data entry clerk during election night 2000 in a skyscraper that’s no longer there.

World Trade Center, 1992. Courtesy: Wikimedia user Sander Lamme.

When I was 19, I worked as a temporary exit poll data entry clerk on the 2000 presidential election. I’ve hustled at a variety of strange jobs in my life… but that was one of the strangest.

On Tuesday, November 7, 2000, I had no idea George W. Bush was about to prevail in a highly contested national election. I had no idea that aftershocks from the 2000 election would help lead my employer, the Voter News Service, to disband a few years later.

I just knew I was feverishly working phones in a cavernous, barely-decorated office high up on the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center. I knew it was 4am, and I really wanted to go home and sleep.

Enter The Political Temp Job

As these things so often did, my night in the belly of the beast started with a Village Voice classified ad. The advertisement read something along the lines of “Data Entry P/T Temp Work For Voter News Service Working On Presidential Election Election, $8/Hr.”

The Voter News Service was a consortium of many of the major media organizations of the time; they would then pool exit poll results across the nation. Members of the consortium included ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, and the Associated Press. I was a broke student in the journalism program at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn who needed rent money. It was a perfect match.

I dialed the number in the ad, and quickly spoke with the woman on the other end. The conversation basically consisted of “Hi, I’m calling about the data entry — “ “Can you come in Tuesday 3:45 PM” “Sure — “ “Great. See you then.”

If you’re young and don’t remember the 2000 election firsthand, this video explains just how weird it was.

My expectation was that the organization handling exit poll results — and, by extension, the way America’s most respected media sources called the election — would be running everything, well, efficiently.

Expectations, of course, are made to be broken.

VNS’ human resources office was in a mid-height building near Penn Station, in one of those small offices-and-smaller yet elevators setup that covers so much of the numbered streets in Midtown Manhattan. The directory at the doorman didn’t list Voter News Service, and the HR office was hidden behind a warren of small travel agencies and tiny law firm offices.

My biggest memory was this: “Voter News Service” was typed in 72 size letters across an 8 1/2" x 11" piece of paper hastily taped to the door. That, and the ungodly amount of McDonalds’ and Wendy’s wrappers stuffed into the clear garbage bags.

Orientation began a half-hour behind schedule, and we received introductory booklets about the VNS. They explained the service’s goals, methods (a small army of exit pollers at voting sites and another small army of people like us in back offices around the country), origins (news entities merging their polling departments during a wave of media industry cost-cutting), showed a whole lot of stock photos of voters, and explained the voting process without mentioning hanging chads — which would dominate the American news cycle in just a few days.

My impression was that the VNS was just rushing to get as many bodies as possible into the back office for election night. I received a green card with pay rates, a description of job duties, and a date to travel to the VNS’ World Trade Center offices on floor 93 of Tower 1 for training.

The World Trade Center’s shopping mall, pre-2001.

Four days later, I travelled into the World Trade Center for orientation.

Since the building I worked in would be destroyed in a terrorist attack less than a year later, and that clouds memories, I’m just going to recycle what I wrote to myself way back when in 2000:

The World Trade Center has one of the better lobbies in the city. A tall ceilinged monster of a thing with elongated windows that looks appropriately enough like a cathedral to capitalism, repeated twice, with a shopping mall in the concourse in-between the towers just in case anyone forgets the ‘Trade’ in ‘World Trade Center’. Mostly empty on a weekend, a VNS table floated in the middle of the lobby. “Last name?” “Ungerleider.” “Neal?” “Yup.” And just like that, I was handed a day pass for the turnstiles and it was time to head up to the VNS office space on the 93rd floor.

Unfortunately enough, the 93rd floor was too spartan for anything you might have expected, like, uhhh, windows? Walking zombified past a help desk through what appeared to be a just-leased setup of raw office space, I hit a large room filled with computer and a bunch of kids once again reeking of Pol-Sci majorness. They were fairly surprised, since I stepped into the wrong office. I walked down to the right office with my brand new co-worker, a caustic Medgar Evers College undergrad who I traded the usual gripes about insomnia and school with for the next two minutes. The data entry room was a cavernous thing, filled with rigged on a fix computer setups, long junior high cafeteria looking tables of brown formica for them to rest on, and nine employees sitting in a row at the end of one of the tables, with supervisors looking over them for all the world spitting images of junior high school cafeteria aides.

Training itself consisted of entering exit poll results into data entry terminals. In Fantasy Election 2000, Ralph Nader was beating Al Gore in suburban counties, and George W. Bush was putting up a spirited fight. I just remember a lot of typing. For forty-five minutes worth of work prepping for the election, I earned a mighty $36.11 after taxes. Which wasn’t bad for an hour of data entry, really.

There was one more training round taking place before Halloween, this time with us calling the actual exit pollsters, and then it was election day.

The Longest Election Night

The author, Election Night, 2000.

Election Day finally rolled around. I voted in the morning, went to class afterwards (Kingsborough Community College, for all its remoteness in southern Brooklyn, rewards students with a tiny on-campus beach of its own), and took the subway to the World Trade Center in the afternoon.

I remember hearing a strict litany of rules — no playing computer games on shift. No smoking inside the office. I particularly remember getting scolded for using the numbers above the letters on the keyboard, rather than the numeric keypad to the right, for data entry.

Before the lecture on election night rules even finished, the calls started streamed in. Precincts in West Virginia and Oklahoma were closing early, and the harried poll takers kept on calling in.

Now, here’s the secret: While television viewers had a clue about who was ahead in the election, and who was winning each state, we had no idea. I was picking up the phone, listening to a disembodied voice read me numbers, and entering those numbers over and over again for more than 12 hours.

Most of the polling places I was assigned were in rural areas. I was aware of that, but kept hearing of Bush and Republican victories. My immediate seatmates were also working on similar geographic areas, and also got similar returns. We were intensely curious about the big picture on these tiny election results we were featuring, but there was no time to check.

My job was to talk to the far-away, rural areas. Apart from a few Boston suburbs and one return from a district in Minneapolis, nothing came past my computer from an urban county. As corrupt as a bowlful of Jefferson Davis pennies. And then there were the miscounts.

As the night went on, our task turned to just making sense of things. VNS required all districts to call in twice. Certain districts and certain states registered constant miscounts where the vote totals from each call significantly differed. Every time a miscount showed up on our terminal, we had to call a supervisor. Many supervisors were called all around the office that night.

I ended up leaving at 5am in the morning; other people were still working, but my eyes were too tired to stay open. Although I lost my paystub somewhere along the way, I do remember entering the office more than 12 hours before. I left the office sure George W. Bush had soundly won, and would have no idea of the contested Presidential election results which all of us in the WTC data entry pits had no idea about. That was all ahead… the feeling in the afternoon, when I made a coffee and turned on the television news, was very weird.

Working At Ground Zero

You try explaining to other people what happened to your old office, and even though the words make sense… It’s hard.

This all happened 16 years ago. In the 16 years since I worked as a data entry temp at the Voter News Service, I ended up carving out a respectable career as a journalist and a writer.

Of course, the World Trade Center is no longer there. September 11th would happen a few months later.

Like many New Yorkers of a certain age, I have personal ties to the old World Trade Center. My mother worked there as a child, and I remember visiting her there for lunch. I thought the escalators going into the PATH station below were the coolest things in the world.

Neighbors of mine, FDNY and NYPD, passed away in the chaos of September 11th. I worked many other temp jobs, mainly as a temp copy operator, at offices in the World Trade Center before and after VNS. A good number of those coworkers passed away in the 9/11 attacks.

I had no idea what the future would hold when I was working those phones in 2000. No clue that the iconic skyscraper my workmates and I were sitting in would be destroyed in a massive terror attack. If more than a handful of the hundreds of employees in the office knew who Barack Obama was then, I would have been very surprised.

2000 was a long time ago, and I remember having a collection of the temporary ID badges from the World Trade Center I’d accumulate on temp jobs. My friends and I liked them because the older ones were brightly colored stickers; they then graduated to plastic bar-coded visitor badges shortly before the attacks. I lost my badges when moving apartments years later. I see other people selling their old badges on eBay every now and then, but buying them just seems wrong.

Being a New Yorker means realizing how impermanent things are. It also means writing an essay about a weird job you had 16 years ago, and ending up realizing how you miss the skyscrapers the job was in. Realizing how you miss the people who worked there. Because that happened, too.

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Original Thoughts & Writing By Neal Ungerleider

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Neal Ungerleider

Writer who does consulting-y things. Journalism work seen: Fast Company, Los Angeles Times, Dow Jones, etc. Child of the Outer Boroughs.