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?”
“I DON’T KNOW!”
“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.
An entire list of rules for how to walk in the hallway? Hallway passport? Follow the most direct route?
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.
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.
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.
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.