Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Yesterday's Primary ... Thoughts from the Inside

I like to say I became an election official by drinking with the wrong people. During the summer of 2004, I was at a friend's party, drinking and talking with a group that included a man who had worked at my local polling place for as long as I’d been voting there. He said that he was “retiring” because his knees no longer allowed him to stand up all day, and somewhat jokingly suggested I take his place. Someone else said she would love to do it but, as a teacher, she didn’t get enough leave time to take a day off for something non-personal. After another glass of wine, I said what the heck, I’d give it a shot. I filed the application, did the training, and reported for duty on the morning of the presidential election.

As I was taking the oath of office that morning, it hit me like the proverbial brick that I was about to help run an election. Me. A mom. Just another person off the street. There I was, with a husband and wife who both worked for the federal government and several retired people (including another husband and wife), and we were about to put on an election. There wasn’t a government official from any level, a police officer, or anyone “real” in the room. Just regular people, some taking a day off from work, with the responsibility of ensuring that the election in our little precinct corner of the world was conducted properly. It was somewhat humbling.

Since then, I’ve worked every election we’ve had here. It’s exhausting—get up at 4:00 a.m., arrive at the precinct at 5:00 a.m., get everything ready to open the polls at 6:00 a.m., keep the polls open until 7:00 p.m. with only short breaks for snacks and responding to the call of nature, undo all the morning’s preparations of signs, etc., then prepare the official statement of results and other paperwork. Because the core of our team has been together now for four years, we close out pretty smoothly and are usually on our way home between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m. We do get paid, but on an hourly basis it’s not what I’d want to earn on a regular basis, especially for 15-hour days. Every election, I spend the day before wondering why the heck I’m doing it again, when it totally kills one day and leaves me too tired to be very productive the next day. And then when I’m doing it, when I’m actually running a voting machine or recording a pollbook, it makes sense. Some people put their hearts into supporting a specific candidate. I guess I put my heart into supporting the electoral system.

Don’t take that comment to mean that I’m not active in terms of politics. I contribute to the campaigns of folks I support, and I wear “vote for” buttons and affix “vote for” bumperstickers to my car. But when I sign a statement of results or a zero tape (the tape that comes out when we turn our voting machines on, the one that indicates the totals at the start of the day were all zeros) as an election official, I’m signing in support of all the candidates, and the right of each of them to have all the votes cast in their favor recorded and counted.

Yesterday was the presidential primary in Virginia, another long election day made longer by the fact that since school was in session, our polling place was moved from an elementary school gymnasium to an elementary school “learning cottage.” This means we were in a double-wide trailer on school grounds, but at a distance from any amenities of the school building such as bathrooms. We were also down one official due to illness which meant that if any one person took a break or walked to the school building to use the bathroom, someone else was doing double-duty on the voting machines or the pollbooks.

As primaries go, it was a busy one. Before the polls open, we usually jokingly predict how many voters we will see during the day. Yesterday, I predicted 500, lower than someone else’s guess of 600 but above another person’s 300. As the second hand neared 7:00 last night (if you’re in line when the polls close at 7:00, you’re allowed to vote), the 500th, and last, voter walked up to the check-in table. Our 500 voters was way under the number we had when the ballot included an amendment to our state constitution that would ban gay marriage, but well above the 65 or so we had for a state primary election one June. We got lots of reading, knitting, and chatting done that day, with about five voters coming in per hour that we were open. With yesterday's 500 voters, we saw about 35 percent of the registered voters in our precinct, which was a higher turnout than was expected and also higher than the turnout at many other precincts in the county.

There were some surprises yesterday. We had more “first-time” voters than usual, teenagers voting for the first time. Seventeen-year-olds who will turn 18 before the general election can register to vote in the primary, and it was fun to see my own son and several of his classmates from elementary school come in to vote. It also seemed as if we had more African American voters than we usually do. The increased youth and African American vote was likely due to Barack Obama’s presence in the race, or at least to the combined presence of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Voters do not register by party affiliation in Virginia, so anyone can vote in the primary of either party, just not in both primaries. We had several people I know to be pretty die-hard Republicans (including one who displayed an Oliver North sign in his window when Oliver North and Chuck Robb competed for a Senate seat in 1994) vote in the Democratic primary. One, who came in near the end of the day, wondered aloud whether he should vote Republican or “screw Hillary.” He ended up voting in the Democratic primary. I wonder how much of Obama’s two-to-one victory over Clinton, at least in our precinct, was due to the “screw Hillary” factor. I also wonder if the Republican desire to “screw Hillary” results from looking to the past and the success of the (first?) Clinton administration or from looking to the future in terms of which Democratic candidate they think they have a better chance of beating and would rather run against.

There’s no word yet on whether we’ll have a state-level Democratic primary in June, so my next election official gig may not be until the November general election. I’m thinking it will be a good one, with turnout over 50 percent. Besides the presidential election, Virginia needs a new senator since John Warner is retiring. I know already that I’ll wonder the day before the election just why I’m working again, but the day of and the day after, I’ll know. When it comes right down to it, it’s pretty darn awesome to help run an election. Besides, the man who talked me into taking his place said he'd done it for 16 years, so I figure I've got a few still to go.


Chris said...

This was a great post, Jean! Thanks for all you do :) I know that this must be hard work and it's people like you that keep things running smoothly! It really must be fascinating working these things. I'm sure you get some great stories!

Debi said...

Wow, Jean! What a tremendous post! Seriously, I plan to read this post again and's just a feel-good post about a good part of politics, about the people who go out and work so hard to make sure everyone's right to voice their choice is respected. And like Chris said, Thank You!

Rich said...

Hey Cuz,

I really enjoyed this post. We are ALL lucky to have people like you who work the polls, especially people like me who forget how to use the damn voting machine in between elections. It is interesting and a bit disturbing that more people will come out to vote about gay marriage than other issues.