In the early to mid-2000s, I was one of those people who sat behind a desk, instructed voters to sign a ledger, pointed them to whichever booth was available, and told them to pull the levers and vote for their favorites. The voting machines were probably better off in a children’s museum by this time, both old-fashioned and sometimes broken, having been in use since around the time I was born. But these creaking things were there for a very important reason. They were helping to define the future of our nation. After their momentous duty was complete, we would smile and hand them a sticker boasting that “I VOTED.” Most people refused. This was a humiliating job.
At the time I was living in a very large east coast USA city, heavily Democratic, and spitefully filled with judgment of anyone who did not believe as they did. And it’s not like even the party loyalists, those people who would punch the button for a straight-ticket vote, agreed with one another on anything. They were simply a clan. They were not like-minded. They were only members of the same self-defined race.
Now of course a Republican-dominated town is no different (somehow, after moving, I found myself trapped in a mostly moderate R community). They tell the same lies about their opposition and sit in the same smug judgment, condemning everything the other side has to say without bothering to listen to what it is they are actually believe. There is a fussiness, an irritable impatience to any sort of party loyalist, like an orthodox believer who likes to imagine they have the world all figured out. In our Democratic community the Republicans were always on the defensive, sneering at their opposition as though they were desperate, trying their best to save all of our lives.
So there I was, sitting, watching the process of Democracy play out before my eyes. I would sit there for more than thirteen hours, from 7 AM until after 8 at night, sometimes even longer in the major election years. It was a tedious job. Most of the time we spent in nervous silence, the occasional housewife or husband, college students, or the unemployed sauntering in, frequently drunk and/or high, and they would take far too long in the voting booth, as though they were the only people actually considering the merits of who they should vote for.
At other times there was a mad rush, lines curving out the door as people voted before heading to work, during the brief stretch that is lunch time, mid-afternoon when school lets out and teachers had their brief chance to vote. Then we had the usual high traffic rush an hour after five o’clock work and then the panicked people rushing in as the polls were about to close, out of breath but still having more than enough time to vote. These people would always ask if they’d missed their chance and always breathe out a huff of relief. If anyone really was too late, it was rare that they did not accept this. Showing up that late proved that they truly did not care. Most people just walked away, dejected, whether they voted or not.
Let me try to recreate the atmosphere of the dingy basement of the church where our tables were set up. Since it was November, and since we did not live in the South, the weather was usually cold. As a matter of fact, most of the years that I did this it was raining. The church was about a five minute walk from my home. At six-thirty in the morning I walked out the door into the hazy gray chaos of the day awaiting me.
When I got to the church, sometimes I was the first one there and I would have to wait in the rain until the judge-in-charge arrived. Often before the judge was there, the volunteers for politicians and the political parties as a whole wandered up, fliers in hand, mumbling their pitches to themselves about why it was so important to vote for whichever candidate they were supporting.
Once we got inside the basement, our first priority was not to check out the voting booths. It was making coffee. Of the other pollsters, most of them were either not yet there yet, or were outside smoking. Coffee was my job. This allowed me to hoard the freshest first cup for myself.
The judges were usually fussy, and they would race around the room, checking on everything. Inevitably they would find something wrong with one of the booths and would be on the phone shouting at whichever local administraot was responsible. Within half an hour some workman with a wrench would show up and fix whatever was wrong (sometimes it simply was not plugged in), and we were ready for 8 AM, when voting began.
Our church was the spot for two separate districts in the community, and the other group was every bit as out of breath as we were, with their own nervous judge and their own exhaustion and private troubles. Usually we did not communicate with the other district, as though they stood for a different, fouler sort of Democracy as far as all of us were concerned.
The people working the tables on my side were mostly the same year after year. We had the cranky judge, or the other cranky judge depending, on whether they were up for re-election that year. Then there was the old man, not particularly bright, who had been a modestly successful theater actor years before. His boyfriend had died sometime in the distant past, and this was all he ever really talked about, alongside whichever middling musical performance he was once involved with, in many cities other than New York. Also there was the usually pregnant house wife of a wealthy lawyer. It was always suspected that the husband would run for office at some time in the near future. He would frequently show up to visit his wife, and would spend whatever time I saw him pounding something into his phone (or blackberry–remember them?) while he glanced around the room, counting the number of voters and trying to figure something out in his head.
The other pollsters volunteers were pretty random. A teacher taking the day off (while students were not in school on this day because schools were also places to vote, teachers always had professional development days, those wasteful meetings that seemed to be designed to keep the them from voting). There was always some young guy, house husband or trust fund baby, who brought his two to five children with him, assuring us that there would be intermittent screams of boredom throughout the day.
More interestingly, some of the local candidates would show up. Ours was one of the more influential communities in the city, perhaps because there was a great deal of money there, but there was also a large population.. Not everyone was rich. Hardly anybody liked one another. It was the age when neighborhoods were breaking up, and the people were living far more solitary lives, mostly online.
The candidates for whichever office were always very well dressed and coiffed, big, bright smiles on their faces. They would shake hands and be charming while their minions handed out straight ticket fliers, showing the grid inside the booth, and checking the names they wanted you to check. Often when the voter would finish with these people, they would be given a tiny American flag pin, then they would stumble forward to wait in line.
Many people walked past these young and old people trying to get them to vote, ignoring them as though they were a homeless person openly asking for drug money. Sometimes angry people would confront them, calling the candidate a criminal, or blaming them for the crumbling infrastructure all over town. There were even conspiracy theorists who would take their paranoia past these worried folks and straight up to the desk and shout “THIS WHOLE ELECTION IS A SHAM!” They would accuse me of stuffing the ballot box, or taking bribes to change people’s votes. And when I told them that even if I wanted to do this, I was neither savvy nor capable of knowing how, they expanded their conspiracy theories and called everyone in the world liars. Then they would throw away their pin, walk up to vote, angrily flip the curtain when they were done, then refuse the I VOTED badge, stomping away and calling people still waiting in line fools.
There were often rumors that the election was not legitimate, and I know for a fact, at least in our spot, that this was untrue. I was later one of the smaller crew who would help the judge gather together all of the votes, make a final count, and submit it to the election committee, where the numbers from every district were tabulated. Nothing was ever changed from the results we submitted. None of us ever suppressed a vote. The elections were legitimate. These were the George W. Bush years, in the days after 9/11. We were, as I said, a very Democratic city (numbers often put us close to 80%). I did not vote for Bush, and neither did the judge, but that did not keep us from acknowledging in 2004 that he had won our district.
The voters who arrived all throughout the day were generally pretty sullen. They were our neighbors and we knew some of them personally, but when they met with us on this day it was like a professional encounter, or a job interview they needed to be silent and respectful towards. We were somehow the officials, and were treated with a distant sort of respect. We would all still smile and be chatty, but we only got was nods and single syllable responses. Then the people would vote and leave without saying goodbye.
We were paid a flat rate for our services, something like sixteen or eighteen dollars for the day, the judge after the polls closed opening up the change purse given to them by the city, and handing all of us our tens and our fives and our ones. Those of us who stayed after to count would get another two dollars, and the lights would dim and the night would somehow never end.
The variety of people who showed up to vote were not really discernible. However, there was one homeless man, who was actually registered, and who would show up stinking of booze, and be taken seriously as a human being for the first time in quite a while. The politicians buzzed him, shaking his cracked and filthy hand, and looking him in the eye like a person worthy of respect (I often spoke to this man when I would see him, occasionally giving him the change from my purchase at a local convenience store where he planted himself, sometimes in a wheelchair. I liked him. He had led a fascinating life.) Most people gave him nervous eye-contact on this day, but no one would give him a cent, or anything else that might be interpreted as a bribe to make them vote a certain way. Election Day was one of the best days of the year for the homeless, because, at least for a short time, they were accepted into the larger community.
Among the Republican volunteers who showed up, they were often sitting on the curb and smoking, or talking on their phones. Most people refused their fliers and sometimes they would take the blame from an angry Democrat who blamed the Republicans for everything. These young people would be screaming, the words ‘fascist’ and even ‘Nazi’ getting thrown about. This was probably a regular occurrence for these kids, being college Republicans in a liberal city. They were used to being taunted, used to the jeers. Sometimes young liberal activists, wearing shirts with blunt political messages–“FUCK BUSH!” or “REPUBLICANS ARE ASSHOLES!”–would get in the Young Republican’s face, threatening them, so angry just by the sight of this shirt-and-tie person, that some of them were on the verge of taking a swing at them. This was usually broken up by whichever candidate was skulking around, but not always. And the Republican candidates never showed up, our districts being a lost cause. Sometimes I had to break them up, or a local cop was summoned. Occasionally the fights would break out, and they would be pretty bloody.
We were usually treated to lunch by the city election council–pizza or hoagies and cheese steaks, and we were allowed two half hour breaks throughout the endless tedium of our shift. There was still a lot of talk about rigged elections, no matter the importance of the year, and every year this was wrong. No one I knew ever cheated, and I certainly never did. This is not to say that it did not happen at other spots, but in our town it would have been pointless, hardly any of the elections in doubt for the past twenty years.
The whole experience was chaos and boredom. There was a chance to meet a few important people, and a great opportunity to observe a community’s opinion of Democracy but, in the end, there was no satisfaction to be taken from this (I always brought a notebook with me to scribble observations and draw up character sketches, but this would be abandoned as the day wore on and my job became more like an assembly line). We could easily have been replaced by a machine that people would stick their IDs into. And those few corrupt people who had more than one ID, or were not actually registers, were always found out when they tried to vote. There was a satisfaction to having these people arrested, watching them plead with us about whatever it was they believed was ‘the good of the nation. For the good of the World!”
Yes, these elections were corrupt in one way or another, but no different from the small, everyday corruption of our own lives. This corruption came mostly from the voters themselves, the stink of the dissatisfaction with government and unhappiness that has expanded every year until today. Often we would notice how empty our ledgers were, how few people actually came out to vote. One year–and this was a year of the vote for only judges, city councilors and a variety of pointless, lumped together ballot initiatives, we hit 26% of registered voters..
For some voting was exciting (I was among this small crowd and I always made sure I was first to vote), but for most it was a bitter obligation that interrupted the value of whatever they did throughout the rest of their lives. This experience helped to form my view of the great American public and our enduring ideas of Democracy. What it ultimately taught me was that hardly anyone believes in anything.