Democracy ain’t for sissies

polling-place

A CHURCH MEETING ROOM, LANTANA, FL —We met before dawn, a dozen or so people who under no other circumstances would have been likely to spend an hour together, and certainly not the 14 hours we had pledged.

Having signed up to work the polls election day, and take an inadequate three-and-a-half-hour class to learn what we’d need to know was all we had in common. We represented every decade from 20s to 80s among us, a span of livlihoods, geographical origin, beliefs, and, someone pointed out casually in the midst of the day, political orientation.

That last, pivotal to how each of us would see the events of the day, was the one subject we couldn’t discuss, as we settled into familiarity with each other’s ways through the day. It was a good thing, as dispute would have made a long day excruciating.

It was a marathon-like trial as it was, beginning before 6 a.m. with voters already gathering outside as we turned a roughly 20-by-20 foot room off the church kitchen into a polling place with the contents of two metal cabinets on wheels.

Then at 7 a.m. we put it to use. Problems in our design, or lack of, showed immediately, as voters lining up for ballots crowded the space where voters fed ballots into machines, as “privacy sleeves” to shield the ballots ran short, as the elevator broke and voters started wandering in and out of a back door, and as we worked like restaurant help during the early-bird rush, “in the weeds” as ones I used to work with called it.

It was a view of the sausage factory of democracy in the glimpse it gave us of what we knew from history was none to pristine a process to begin with, but from the inside is even sloppier, with a massive and confusing ballot to tally one of the most significant elections in history. We got through those first few hours grateful to each other for how well it had worked, though.

The work slowed then to a time-stretching drip of voters. One, a cheerful young mother who with her hair in pigtails that stuck out below an engineers cap looked like a teenager, but who was 36 pointed out the halfway point would be 1 p.m., when we would have but 7 hours to go.

We noted a pattern — first time voters, mostly white, in their 30s, 40s, older, asking if they had to complete the whole ballot. “All I want to vote for is president.” Trying to figure out their motivation scared me. All day, would-be first time voters were turned away — they had registered too late, not at all, come to thhe wrong place. That scared me too.

More than that it stirred a panic in me, born in part of too little sleep, too long inside this place with too little to do in the yawning middle of this double day. The horrible thought seemed more like knowledge of a fact as I grew certain that a lynch mob of racists were racing to the polls to show their numbers there. And that was in part because of the tenor of the campaign we had all watched, but also because of what sufficient numbers of Americans considered tolerable enough to willingly vote to bring it on themselves in 2004. And while it would only be worse than what happened before, because it happened before, the specter of a future “President Palin” made my vision of the post-apocalyptic world we would emerge from this polling place into if ignorance, meaness and fear gained victory through democracy, with a McCain win.

I don’t know how the others felt — the church-going 21-year-old girl working next to me feeding ballots to the inspectors, the middle-aged woman, who with the L-M list of names seemed the busiest, the woman with a Southern drawl who actually did know all the rules because she had paid attention in class all remarked on these patterns, without conclusion.

Alone in the kitchen a woman in her 60s, one of the veteran poll workers said she had never seen it before — all these first time voters, all only wanting to vote for president. I wondered aloud what it could mean, and she said only that “nobody” ever discusses politics there.

The church-going girl got into a conversation with the responsible boy her age, who said obliquely he had figured out that as complicated as the issues in this election were, he had figured out that it came down to “the one issue” and “whether they are for or against.” There were allusions too, to having to guard against voter fraud, “because of ACORN,” and in turn, the octegenarian man who was a veteran poll worker and I got into a conversation about the uncounted and miscast votes on the butterfly ballot in 2000, but that was as political as any of it got.

At times I was chilled by thought that some of these hardworking and cooperative people had ignored, missed, or been too biased to understand that the very message of the Obama campaign was of how much we could solve together.  But without conversation to confirm my wonderings on which of my coworkers that thought applied to, and new voters streaming in at the end of the day, I spent most of the time enjoying the relative seamlessness of work well-shared.

As I said, that was a good thing, and at the end of the day when we worked together to count ballots and fold the polling place back into its metal cabinets, it seemed  any talk of politics would have created only another false division.

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