Electioneering: My Day Working the Polls
Chad W. Lutz
“Ask not what your country can do for you…ask what you can do for your country.”
- JFK (January 20th 1961)
In American politics, the big decisions are supposed to be left to the American voter. As a whole, we vote on everything from local legislation to the appointment of our President. We are supposed to be the deciding factor. But when election time rolls around, most Americans seem to be found snoozing on the issues and the electoral process in general. This leaves a wide margin of decisions that are supposed to be decided by many left in the hands of a few. They’re not stupid (politicians). They realize nobody votes. In Kentucky alone, voter turnout has been as low as 5% in the past and in Ohio, even though it was a presidential election, only 59.9% of registered voters turned out to vote Obama into office back in 2008. Between 1960 and 1996, the average voter turnout in a national election was a mere 48.61%. Prior to 2004, the national average for voter turnout in a national election hadn’t exceeded 50% since 1992. I don’t even feel like getting into the off year and primary elections, the numbers are too depressing (37% in 2006 instantly comes to mind). We’re basically living in a country where half the people that live here think fulfilling your civic duty only 25% of the time is supposed to heal all wounds and be some sort of magical social band-aid. Or maybe it’s that they just don’t care? Either way, it’s needless to say this creates a problem.
What this does is it allows for the not-so-honest Abe politicians and the always so lizard-like lobbyists lurking in the shadows the ability to hack and slash or slip in insane amounts of legislation unchecked simply by banking on the fact that no one will probably even notice or care. It allows for great ideas like high-speed rail systems that would connect all three major metropolitan areas in one of the most populated states in America, all while cutting down on fuel consumption by nearly 15,000 gallons of fuel daily, to fall through the political cracks and evaporate into the already and ever-so-thin political air. All that being said…
I arrived at the polls Election Day cursing the night sky. For those of you who don’t know, it’s still black out at 4:45 in the morning. Very, very, very black. And this, being the second full day of November, must’ve felt a more appropriate time than any other for Mother Nature to reintroduce us to winter. With the thermometer reading a frigid 27 degrees, I sat in my car debating whether or not I even wanted to get out. But as soon as a few more people filed into the giant churches community parking lot and spotted me hunched over like Gollum from the cold frantically fidgeting with the radio and my iPod, I knew it was now or never, and that either way there would be no turning back. Armed with a copy of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” (1513) and a bright yellow lunchbox containing a healthy packed lunch any mom would be proud of, I got out of the car ready, swelling with patriotic pride.
When I got to the rear entrance the doors were locked. Already you could see the grim look in everyone’s eyes, as if to say, “here we go.” The same way you might before walking onto a hot bed of coals. After exchanging brisk good mornings we filed into the building seven minutes after six, giving us a little less than twenty-three minutes to prepare. Luckily, the booths and voting machines were already in place. All we had to do was plug in the lights and the ballot machine and then turn them on. Simple enough.
After following through the checklist to make sure we had everything in its right place, we sat for a moment in silence. Maybe just to reflect, or maybe it just happened that way, but I was inwardly bracing for the storm. This was my first election, and I had no idea what to expect.
What I did expect was only based on assumptions. Among these are some of my favorite misconceptions about the election process that have been hotly discussed and debated for years and years and years. Most notoriously, and my personal favorite political bug-a-boo, is the use of the Electoral College. The Electoral College is that wonderful system of elections used in determining whom, ultimately, is elected President of the United States. Its basis is rooted in the ideals of Republic, with select members of an elected entity serving as representatives of a whole. By casting our votes, we determine the numbers of members elect who then (supposedly) cast a vote. Historically, the process was formally introduced and adopted in 1787, just 11 days before the ratification of the United States Constitution. Less than two years before the world’s supposed end (2012) it’s pretty apparent that we still haven’t perfected the system that elects our countries highest-ranking official. But this was just a mid-term election, so popular vote ruled.
Another one of the overly voiced complaints you might hear about the election process is the number of people turned away from the polls. Before, upon hearing reports in the news or reading headlines in the newspaper, I always used to get that angry lump in my throat.
“HOW COULD THEY DO THIS?”
My veins would boil; anger would tip the balance, as a political rant was soon to follow.
There were about five or six times we had to tell people to come back, but it was because they didn’t have proper I.D. Surprisingly, no one got mad. That might be because we were assigned to a precinct in a community whose per capita income is over $120,000 a household. Who knows? I’m not here to kick sleeping dragons in the grill. But we did have this one guy who wasn’t all-too happy when he found out his name wasn’t to be found on our list, the main list, or anywhere in the building.
The morning had gone off without any major hitches or glitches. The machines were running smoothly, the people were friendly, and the process, as a whole, was moving mechanically. By the afternoon I realized that the steady flow of morning traffic would be about as much of a “rush” as we would get all day. It picked up again after dinner, but at most we had six people standing in line, which only took twenty minutes to disburse.
One thing I did admire about the process is the attention to detail. Down to the very last movement, the Election Board procedural handbook they issue when you go through orientation graphically outlines everything an election board worker needs to know, and even provides checklists for easy reference (and probably, more likely, a way to rightly cover their ass). You’re provided with two giant zippered bags, one red and one blue. The red contains all the ballots and is also where the completed ballots go once the final tallies are crosschecked with all the numbers recorded. Everything is written down in duplicate, sometimes triplicate. It’s a very tedious affair. Not for the faint of boredom. But the rewards are fantastic.
For some it was their first election ever. Every other hour or so we would get a freshly registered voter who’d never voted before, eyes glistening, smile beaming. You couldn’t help but notice the pride they took in being able to cast a vote and have a voice. For high schoolers it was finally having a voice in their home country. For newly appointed, full and official U.S. citizens, a voice in America. We had one lady from Germany step up, and with the biggest grin I think I may have ever seen, announce that this was, indeed, her first United States election, her very first vote. I wish I were able to see that same glisten in everyone’s eyes.
Most people never got past, “hey,” with a few people enlightening me with the now tried and tired, “You can’t bitch if you can’t vote,” nugget of wisdom. I personally think it should read, “You can’t bitch if you aren’t actively trying to personally change that which you want changed.” But that’s just me, a Renegade to the core. Here these first-timers were excited about their chance to make their voice heard in the only legally significant way most of us can while practically everyone else looked like they rushed in, cell phones unable to report time moving fast enough, to get this over with as soon as possible so they could get on with their lives. Suddenly, all those beloved statistics of mine were beginning to make sense.
By the 13th hour everyone was starting to lose steam. At that point we had either been sitting or standing in one spot, in the same room, since 6:00a.m. While the work wasn’t overly tiring or strenuous, it was tedious, and like any other job that requires a lot of attention to detail, it had us all drained by the end of the day. Luckily, we didn’t hit any snags during clean up. I heard from a couple other people I know that worked the polls the same day that their ballot machine wouldn’t print the end-of-the-day ticket, which is basically like a drawer report at a restaurant or store. That meant calling the election board and waiting for someone to assess the problem, or come out to fix it first-hand. But we were so lucky, and all of the numbers in the two books, the hand count, and the number on the last, unused ballot, all matched the numbers printed on our ticket. After a quick sweep of our area to make sure we had every single little last article that was supposed to end up in either of the two bags we were provided with, we shook hands, congratulated, and parted ways.
Voting is a privilege that we all share as Americans. Before the Revolutionary War, we were all subject to lawmakers deciding our fates without the luxury of representation. It’s a privilege that many people have fought and died for, not just in our country, but in basically every corner of the world. After taking part in the election process and personally seeing how it’s carried out, there’s a sense of pride, I can admit, that comes along with it. If you or anyone you know is looking to make a difference or get more involved with their country, I highly recommend this as a life experience.
As this article comes to a close, I’m reminded of a quote from The Prince. In it, Machiavelli is famously quoted as saying, “tardiness often robs us opportunity.” I find it fitting that on a day such as Election Day, where the possibility for change is as endless as the ballot is long, and only a few bubble strokes away, the “tardiness” or over apathy of most voters “robs us” of the opportunity to move forward and see the change we seem to so desperately be striving for. While I won’t stand here on my soapbox and stress the urgency for mandatory voting or lottery participation in upcoming elections, I will wonder what legislation might have been if only voters weren’t so election jeering, while I’m out there electioneering.
For more statistics on U.S. Elections, visit IDEA
*Images courtesy of Google Images