Posts for Category Politics

Scenes from an election

In which Bill helps make Democracy work and explores middle school
Nov 192014
Bill's head in a jar with an election officer name badge

Aside from donating blood (which I haven’t done in awhile because last time they botched the procedure–not in any dramatic way that was a threat to my health or had blood spraying across the room, but they had to throw away my blood, which left me faintly annoyed) my chief contribution to my community is working as an Election Officer–“Election Officer” being the formal title for “those old people who volunteer at the polls on election day,” except that I’ve found there are far fewer old people doing it than I’d always thought, probably because you work at least a 15-hour day and have to use technology like computers and touch screens and ballot scanners.

Usually I get assigned to my own precinct, so I get the fun of seeing my neighbors come in to vote, and of secretly judging the ones who don’t, or who vote the wrong way. Not that I actually know how anyone votes, mind you, but you can generally guess based on which party’s sample ballot they’re clutching when they come in. I wonder sometimes if, really, you should be voting if you’ve done so little research that you don’t even know the name of the person you’re supposed to vote for when you cast your party-line vote.* I have noticed–anecdotally and definitely subject to my own confirmation bias–that I see more people holding Republican sample ballots than Democratic, which could mean that Republicans are more likely to need to be told whom to vote for, or maybe just that the Republican operatives outside the polling place are more effective at getting people to take their handouts (which is strange because usually Republicans are against handouts).

Still it’s nice to see your neighbors and people you recognize from the grocery store and whatever, and–if I may be serious for just a moment–I think it probably helps instill some confidence in the process, if you’re there to vote and see that it’s people you know who are running things. Even if you don’t like them, or you don’t like their politics, at least you recognize them and know they’re not evil strangers scheming to steal the election from Good Americans like you. Well, not strangers, anyway.

This year not enough citizens from the S—— North and S—— South precincts were willing to work the polls, so most of us poll workers came from elsewhere. I like to imagine I was asked to go there because I’m on a list of super-awesome Election Rapid Response Officers, but probably it’s just because when I filled out the form I checked the box that said I was willing to leave my neighborhood. The big problem with being assigned to this location–aside from not being able to check up on my neighbors (though I did see the FedEx driver who’s been delivering to my house for at least 10 years, whom I’ve had more interactions with than I have with most of my neighbors)–was that it’s a good 12-minute drive from my house, which doesn’t seem like a lot except that I had to be there by 5am, and minutes count at that absurd hour.

The S—— North and S—— South precincts were operating from the cafeteria and gym of the same school, which adds some confusion to the day, as voters tend to know that they vote at the school but nothing beyond that. I wish I had a little video montage to show you, of a day’s worth of momentarily-flummoxed voters standing in the hallway, digging through their wallets and purses for their voter registration cards, or trying to find their house on the precinct maps that, oddly, omit the names of many of the key streets, making it quite difficult to orient yourself. The best moment came about two minutes before we were going to shut the doors and close the polls at the end of the day. I walked out into the hallway and there was a poll worker practically yelling at a guy who had just rushed through the outside door and didn’t know which precinct he belonged in.

“You have to be in the check-in line by 7 o’clock! Try to remember! Were you North or South last year?”

“I can’t remember.”

“Do you think you went to the cafeteria or the gym?”


“Quick! There’s no time to look at the confusing map! Just pick a door!”

It worked out fine for him, though, and also for the couple with two crying infants who came in right after him, even though the woman seemed like she was about to pass out and couldn’t recite her home address without a lot of help from her husband. At first I thought this might be my first case of voter fraud of the sort the Republicans are all lathered up about, but it turns out they had moved recently and she was hopped up on cold medicine. I doused myself with hand sanitizer as soon as she moved away from me, just in case she had Ebola.

Speaking of Republican vote suppression efforts bogeymen, here in Virginia we had a new voter ID law to eliminate the non-existent problem of in-person voter fraud. We had to demand from each voter a “valid” photo ID, though the definition of “valid” was a bit arbitrary and impractical to adjudicate on the spot. For example, an out-of-state driver’s license is not acceptable, but an employer-issued ID badge (from any employer in any state) is. As if election officers can tell the difference between a real employee badge from Acme Corp. and one you just printed up yourself that morning for purposes of voting twice and stealing the election by casting the one vote that swings it. I can’t even name the 11 Native American tribes recognized by the state of Virginia, much less guess what a valid tribal enrollment card from one of them might look like.

The ID requirement did not supersede the requirement to have voters state out loud their full legal name and residence address, which led one impatient citizen to complain that it was stupid for us to be asking for information that we could read from his driver’s license. I think so, too, but I’m not allowed to express an opinion on election day, so I tried to explain that we are only volunteers and don’t make the rules, and anyway the photo ID is only to verify your identity, while stating your address is used to verify your address and to make it easier for the partisan poll watchers (absent that day) to challenge your right to be there if they think you look suspicious or non-white, but that didn’t appease him. You know the type–a lot like me, probably. He said, “It’s not even a very interesting question to ask.”

I couldn’t tell if he was just was annoyed that we were wasting an extra 15 seconds of his time, or was trying to make a point about the stupidity of the ID requirement, or what, but I lost control for a moment and said, “Sir, what color is your underwear?”

Well, that got him sputtering. “What do you mean? What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Nothing,” I said, “but you wanted a more interesting question and that was the first thing that came to mind.”

He didn’t answer on the grounds that it had no relevance to voting. Or maybe he was voting commando. I hope he didn’t report me to The Authorities and get me fired from my thankless volunteer job for insubordination or lack of seriousness. Actually the county pays me for my volunteer service, and this year the pay is up to $175, which, even for a 15-hour day plus a few hours of training, is more than a lot of people make for a much harder day’s work. And it’s not thankless: a fair number of people make a point of thanking us for being there and making the whole thing work–which, by the way, it’s sort of amazing that it does.

I’m always thrown off by the people who read my name off my name badge and thank me by name. “Thanks for volunteering today, Bill.”

“Thanks for voting, and how the hell do you know my name?”

It just would never occur to me to address a stranger by name like that. Though once the idea was planted in my head, I was tempted to start reading people’s names from the work ID badges that a lot of them wore to the polls, and addressing them by name so they could experience that moment of doubt and confusion, too.

I know this all makes it sound like an exciting day of making Democracy, but mostly it was just a long, boring day of telling people to “slide it right in” the ballot scanner, which for some reason a lot of people have trouble figuring out how to do. You’ve got a ballot. There’s a slot. Not so complicated. This is another place where I need a video montage; it would be even funnier than the the first one.

* * *

On my breaks I spent some time wandering the halls of S—— Middle School, which had more rules, yearbook ads, and fonts than I remember from my time in school.

Sign telling kids not to use their electronic devices Sign reading "Live by the 3 R's in the hallway" with a lot of damn rules for walking in the hallway Sign reading "Yearbook. The original Facebook." Sign reading "Band Participation respect, honesty, teamwork, growth, creativity, and commitment excellence..." in a lot of different fonts Sign reading "A picture is worth 1000 tweets" with two absurd girls looking shocked and/or excited

An entire list of rules for how to walk in the hallway? Hallway passport? Follow the most direct route?

Sign reading "A picture is worth 1000 tweets" with two absurd girls looking shocked and/or excited. Plus Bill

The yearbook ones are a little clever, with the tagline “Social media captures the now, your yearbook preserves the now forever. Like yearbook!” I don’t know about the “forever” part–I think I’ve thrown away most of mine, unless they’re still boxed up in my parents’ attic. But at that age you can be persuaded that they’re important memories.§

When I saw the last poster I couldn’t resist getting in on the fun. I’d love to know what they’re looking at on that phone, though. The girl in green looks horrified, while the girl in white is all, like, “oh, yeah!” which makes me think maybe it’s a picture of White Girl making out with Green Girl’s boyfriend. Or worse: maybe some of that sexting stuff the kids are into.

Sign giving hashtag for submitting photos to yearbook

A little later I saw this sign, encouraging people to tag their photos on Instagram for possible inclusion in the yearbook. I thought long and hard before deciding not to tag a bunch of pictures of me posing around the school. While it would have been funny to you and me, I suspect the kids on the yearbook staff wouldn’t have been amused. Though their adviser might have been, if she or he had a sense of humor at all and didn’t report me to the police. Also it’s not clear where you tag your selfies if not on Instagram, so that “or” maybe isn’t appropriate, and I don’t know how to use Instagram.

There were also these banners, painted by student artists and depicting the school’s panther mascot.

Creepy paintings showing lurking, smarmy, possibly psychopathic, panther dressed in human clothes pretending to be a student

I thought they were a little creepy when I saw them, and I still think that, looking at them now. I’m pretty sure the one on the right is about to kill those two kids and is carrying the remains of some other kids on his lunch tray.

Go Panthers!

* * *

I have some serious thoughts on all this (the election part, not the wandering the halls of a middle school part) and even some pride at being part of the process, but I’ve run out of space and this is no place for that sort of earnestness, so maybe I’ll follow up after the next election when it’s all fresh again.


In 2012, when turnout was high (in U.S. terms, anyway) and lines were long I had to help a husband-and-wife pair who rushed in toward closing time, a bit frazzled because they hadn’t looked at the new voter registration cards they’d been mailed and therefore didn’t realize they’d been moved to a new precinct, so they’d already been to their old polling place and stood in line for awhile, to find out they were in the wrong place, then driven to the new polling place, where they got to stand in line all over again to check in, and then stand in line a bit more to wait for a spot at the ballot-filling-out table, where they were confused because their sample ballots–which they brought from the first stop–were telling them to vote for candidates who weren’t on the ballot. After I explained that they were now in a different Congressional district than their old precinct, they asked me to give them a sample ballot, which as a conscientious and strictly neutral Election Officer I am not allowed to do, so they asked me if I could tell them which ones were the candidates from their preferred party, at which point I gently pointed out that there were “(D)” and “(R)” indicia next to the relevant names on the ballot.
That’s all I knew about my assignment, too, and I only realized I had reported to the wrong room that morning because the Chief Election Officer introduced himself, and I couldn’t remember the name of my Chief but did know she was supposed to be a woman.
I finally had to ask someone what middle school is. I thought it was something like 5th and 6th grade, but in this school system it’s 7th and 8th grade, which were called “junior high” when I did them.
I found the designer who created the posters, who says that the purpose of the campaign was “to express how yearbook is just as if not more important than social media,” which is a comforting thing to believe if you work for a yearbook company. Also I learned the word yerd, which is a yearbook nerd but also means “to beat with a stick,” so watch the context.

Abraham Lincoln on the government shutdown

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us.
Oct 022013

James Fallows posted this excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address:

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events. This, plainly stated, is your language…

In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool.* A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”

To be sure, what the robber demanded of me – my money – was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle….

Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong…

Fallows also brings to our attention this graph from Voteview, demonstrating how the Republican party has been getting more extreme in recent decades than the Democratic party:

Graph showing movement of political parties away from center

Visit the Voteview site for more graphs and analysis, including this:

we should be careful not to equate the two parties’ roles in contemporary political polarization: the data are clear that this is a Republican-led phenomenon where very conservative Republicans have replaced moderate Republicans and Southern Democrats….Moreover, the rise of the “Tea Party” will likely only move Congressional Republicans further away from the political center.

And, finally, this has all brought to mind a 2011 article by Mickey Edwards (How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans):

Ours is a system focused not on collective problem-solving but on a struggle for power between two private organizations. Party activists control access to the ballot through closed party primaries and conventions; partisan leaders design congressional districts. Once elected to Congress, our representatives are divided into warring camps. Partisans decide what bills to take up, what witnesses to hear, what amendments to allow.

If it weren’t for party control and safe Congressional districts, extremist nutbags wouldn’t be able to get elected to Congress and hold the government hostage.


I really enjoy picturing the statue at the Lincoln Memorial booming out (or squeaking out), “That is cool.”

Link: Occupy Wall Street protesters should pay more attention to the ballot box

To bring about real change in a real democracy you also have to do real politics. It just takes work—and enough people who think like you.
Oct 172011

Recent Lexington column in The Economist on the problem of getting from “protest” to “movement,” and why the current protests are not likely to succeed at that. Lexington notes that “to bring about real change in a real democracy you also have to do real politics. It just takes work—and enough people who think like you.” Also at The Economist, The Democracy in America blog makes some similar points and includes this:

It is likely that few of the protesters have actually taken part in the more mundane aspects of the system they’d like to take down—for example, only 24% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the 2010 mid-term elections.

 Posted by on October 17, 2011 at 5:11 pm  Politics

Link: Why have the Apostles behind Rick Perry’s prayer rally been invisible to most Americans?

Examination of Rick Perry's links to the New Apostolic Reformation movement.
Aug 152011

Examination of Rick Perry’s links to the New Apostolic Reformation movement.

Imagine if Gov. Rick Perry’s prayer rally had been an all-day procession of Roman Catholic priests, or perhaps pastors from the Southern Baptist Convention. The sectarianism would have been obvious. It wasn’t, at least to most people, because Americans are not familiar with the New Apostolic Reformation
Aug 182010

Mother Jones has posted an essay by Chalmers Johnson (author of Blowback, among many others) based on his new book Dismantling the Empire. In it he argues that America’s century of dominance is coming to an end whether we like it or not, and argues for dismantling our empire ourselves, and spending all the money that we are wasting overseas to solve our own domestic problems.

Let me begin by asking: What harm would befall the United States if we actually decided, against all odds, to close those hundreds and hundreds of bases, large and small, that we garrison around the world? What if we actually dismantled our empire, and came home? Would Genghis Khan-like hordes descend on us?  Not likely.  Neither a land nor a sea invasion of the U.S. is even conceivable.

Would 9/11-type attacks accelerate?  It seems far likelier to me that, as our overseas profile shrank, the possibility of such attacks would shrink with it.

Would various countries we’ve invaded, sometimes occupied, and tried to set on the path of righteousness and democracy decline into “failed states?” Probably some would, and preventing or controlling this should be the function of the United Nations or of neighboring states. (It is well to remember that the murderous Cambodian regime of Pol Pot was finally brought to an end not by us, but by neighboring Vietnam.)

Go read more.