Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Recall, Recall, Let's Have a Ball

Gigantic...Gigantic...Gigantic...Our Big, Big Love

Today I served as Judge on the election board at a precinct in California. A "Judge" is one of four officials overseeing the voting process. We're the people who hand you out a ballot, check your name on the registration list, explain how to vote for one of 135 candidates, avoid hanging chads, etc. I got up at 5 a.m. and was at work at 6 a.m.; my work day was over at 9:45 p.m. when along with the Inspector at our polling place, I dropped off and got a signed receipt for our ballots and other voting material. My pay for the day, by the way, was $90 -- $5.71 an hour if you're keeping score at home.

The people serving on election boards are just citizen-voters. Generally they're retired people from the neighborhood; few are election wonk-slackers such as myself who can take a Tuesday off. But they are the salt of the earth and the foundation of our democracy in more ways than one. I've been doing this in one form or another in many of the places I've lived, the last two election cycles in my little coastal town in a punch-card county.

I live, coincidentally enough, within a short walk of the place where the California Constitution was drafted, and normally work out of the election polling place at the Legion Hall, seeing my own neighbors vote. This time, however, I somehow got assigned to a weird and fairly well-to-do wooded neighborhood of Carmel. We had an odd mixture of locals who'd inherited their property, retired Hollywood people, retired aerospace defense engineers, and Hollywood people married to retired aerospace contractors. I bet, for instance, not too many election boards had the problem of trying to figure out whether an a ctor had registered under his given name or his stage name. And to give you perspective, in a precinct of 305 registered voters, the only minority to vote today was the Mexican caretaker of the church where the voting took place. (The second one who tried to vote but couldn't I'll talk about below.) It was strangely representative of California in a way -- more liberal than you'd expect, but maybe not as much as you'd think.

The turnout was huge. Nearly half the precinct had requested absentee ballots; with the 123 people who voted at the precinct, figure maybe 75% of the absentee ballots were returned, that's about 75% turnout overall. I've NEVER worked an election anywhere in the five states where I've lived and worked on elections in various forms where turnout was above 60%. It's really difficult to imagine the circumstances that brought people out.

When you work an election board, you're not even supposed to mention the names of candidates, much less discuss politics directly. But in the course of the day, voters make comments, you get an idea of who's voting for what from their requests for help here and there, occasionally you see a demonstration of some sort (although this is also the first election I can recall where I didn't see a SINGLE voter come in with a political button of any sort). And I heard a very distinct split in the electorate: the people who were voting for Arnold on the basis of his name and a general sense of dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and the specifics of life in the state without any real logical connection between the one and the other, and the people who couldn't believe the rest of the people in the state were that stupid. Bearing in mind a solid minority of the latter people also voted for Arnold because they hate Democrats, period, that's where the surprising total came from.

I will say one of the oddest things about working the precincts as an election worker is you have no idea how the election is going until well after everybody else. The only news we got during the day -- were allowed to get -- came form the county election supervisors who told us virtually every precinct in the county was running over with people. Some had 20-person lines all day. Of course, our county couldn't afford this election so had to double up many of its precincts, and we were actually one of the smallest polling places left in the county. (As an aside, all joking about our punch card ballots aside, our County Election office and the staff did a phenomenal job getting this election together in short order. Unless you've worked on an election, you just can't appreciate the amount of work that goes into putting one on. To do it in less than sixty days with lawsuits flying over your head at every turn is pretty remarkable. The idea we could bring Democracy to Iraq in a couple of years when it takes a minimum of two months to run an election here under the best of circumstances should tell you how long the former will take.)

So it wasn't until we'd dropped off the ballots that I turned on the radio and heard the results that Davis got creamed and Arnold might've actually gotten a record plurality or even a majority. Well, the people have spoken. I think it's a stupid decision, but that's not the point. It's a thrilling thing to be one of the custodians of democracy. Our election panel, all retired folks except myself, worked a 16-hour day -- in the case of the Inspector, a day that started yesterday, and that's not counting the unpaid training sessions elections board officials attend -- essentially to take in 123 or so votes (absentee ballots are returned to the county directly, mostly). And we had not one armed person policing our election, we had no bomb threats, no fights at the ballot box, no disputes, no screaming, and only the most minor of bureaucratic problems here and there. My board was extremely diligent in both ensuring the security and integrity of the ballots and voting, but also in making every effort to make sure every vote counted.

There are a couple of examples that stand out from the day. There were quite a number of voters who had let their registrations lapse, some of whom hadn't voted since the 1996 Presidential Election. But thanks to the National Voting Rights Act and the Motor-Vote bills, plus the progressive approach California has made to ballot inclusiveness, we were able to document the right of all but one or two voters to cast ballots. In California, some of these are marked "Provisional" and are counted or not counted by the County Election Board, but by uniform standards which bend over backwards to make votes count.

One woman arrived with two absentee ballots for herself and her husband. I checked them before accepting them, and it turns out she had signed her husband's ballot, and her husband had signed her ballot. We called the County office, and they conferred and we spent five minutes finding out the best way to get both votes to count. We finally accepted the woman's ballot by having her cross out her husband's signature and sign it properly, and working it out so she could take the other ballot to her husband and get him to sign it in the right place. I felt really good about that one, because she was about two seconds from having both of the votes invalidated on a technicality, but an important one, but as an election board we caught the mistake and saved their votes.

The one voter I felt really, really bad about had voted in this precinct many years ago but since moved to a town about 30 miles away and failed to re-register. He was the second minority I alluded to above, and it seems he lived in the neighborhood as a handyman or caretaker on one of the larger properties and had since struck out on his own. He wanted to vote today, but was confused by where he should vote, especially since he was about to move to a third town. He'd made the effort to come out and vote. In this circumstance, we give him a provisional ballot, and the voter has to declare an affirmation of his eligibility to vote. We're supposed to get proper ID from the person in this circumstance. There's a list of acceptable IDs, the simplest of which is a driver's license with the current (correct) address on it. Even if normally the voter would be sent to another precinct, if the voter wants to vote in that spot, we're supposed to try to make that happen. But this voter's address didn't match up, we didn't have a record of his registration, and he wasn't voting in a precinct he'd lived in for at least six years. Yet we were trying to get him to sign the paperwork to at least allow him to cast a provisional vote. It's not complicated, but there's a registration form plus the ballot declaration, and something spooked this guy. Whether it was the observation of his ID not matching his declared address, or the complexity of the form, or maybe his English wasn't so good, I don't know. We offered several times to help him fill out the forms, but he refused -- too proud, perhaps. All of a sudden he stopped in the middle of this, said his hand hurt, and he would vote the next election instead and walked out of the polling place. I had a lump in my throat, feeling like we'd let the guy down somehow -- but what can you do? The paperwork and procedures are there to help people who would've been told in another era to screw off, and sure it's a problem, but you have to have some standards to establish the identity and ability of a voter to vote in a place. I'm pretty sure the guy was on the up and up and just got frustrated with the system, after having made a 40-minute drive to come vote. It felt like a small failure, even on a day when we had more voters come out than in any election in a long, long time.

I cannot help but note the differences in class and race between my success in helping keep two voters' votes counts, and the guy I -- we -- failed. I'm sure this isn't anything profound or statistically representative, and I have no idea what if anything this has to do with this election or any other. But it makes me think hard about the nature of our democracy and why and when people vote. Just showing up and being able to vote may not harbor any true convictions; not voting may not show any lack of same nor heartfelt desire to do so.

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