…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Thursday, June 08, 2006

electoral college flunkies

“I think we should volunteer as poll workers for the next election,” I announced to my partner Tuesday night after we voted* in the California primary.

*Or maybe we didn't vote. No, we definitely voted. But our votes might not count, contrary to the popular slogan.

For the first time in my 20 years as a registered voter, I seem to have fallen through the cracks, the cavernous faults, in the system—my partner too, the both of us. Neither of our names were anywhere to be found on the roster at our polling place, the same polling place that has received us for every other election in the four years since we moved into our house, which also seems to have been sucked into a time-space vortex: Our address couldn't be located on the Roster of Last Resort, where poll workers can do a reverse lookup to try to match an eligible precinct property with its disappeared residents. But even our house wasn't eligible to vote; our address was within the precinct boundaries, but it may as well have been in Yazoo City, Mississippi.

Funny, that, because the Democratic Party certainly knows where we live. We've been wallpapered with mail urging us to vote this way then that in the ridiculously close gubernatorial primary. We also received our sample ballots, complete with the address of our polling place in the Twilight Zone, an otherwise bland elementary school auditorium. The Dems know our phone number too. Assemblywoman and state senate hopeful Cindy Montañez's minions called so many times I was ready to tell them that even though I had long ago decided to vote for her, if they called one more time, I would break ranks and join the Peace and Freedom Party—because they have the nicest logo.

So, what happened? We got all the mailings and fielded all the phone calls, but we were unlisted come election day. Did Bush manage to pass some last-minute secret legislation barring the gays from voting? Imagine the scramble to scrub all those names from the rolls. And what of closeted people? Ferreting all those folks out would demand a level of forensic aptitude similar to that of the hanging-chad posse. When I mentioned my Bushwhacked theory to a bisexual friend she asked whether her vote would only be counted as half, or maybe it would count fully, but only when dating a man—or, presumably, thinking lustily after one.

We voted “provisionally,” which made me feel like a bad voter, like I had let my subscription to Democracy lapse or something. I kept telling poll workers—who numbered 10 at my precinct, fully two of whom were working in any meaningful way—that this had never happened to me, that I had always been on the roster before. I grew especially defensive when asked whether I had voted in the last election. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I pride myself on coming back again and again, bravely voting for the candidates who never win. When I fall off a horse, I climb back on immediately—or maybe a couple years later when the next election calls, once my internal bleeding has stopped and my scars have begun to tan and my therapist tells me it's safe to feel hope again.

We had pink ballots, and pink envelopes to put them in, lending credence to the antigay idea—all those pink envelopes going straight to the shredder. Confused about what to do with them in the meantime, the poll worker who accepted ours tossed them onto a messy pile atop the table—not a pile of other pink envelopes, mind you, just a pile of random crap. Near the pile of crap sat a woman working the roster; she seemed deeply confused by the alphabet, smiling as voters said their names then blankly leafing through her log as if it were a picture book. While we were there, not a single voter's name was located without their intensive assistance—“Go back a page. Go back another page. There, I'm three from the top…there [pointing at name].” Another man sitting at the table was charged with presenting to each voter his or her partisan ballot. Though he had only five possibilities in front of him and the vast majority of voters identified more narrowly as Democrat or Republican, he was vexed by the presence of Green, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom Party ballots. He kept handing them to people, hoping to get lucky.

Early morning confusion? Nah. We voted after work; it was 7 p.m. And the polling place wasn't busy either. California posted a voter turnout of around 30%. (Has W. been nothing if not a cautionary tale about the consequences of electoral complacency?)

Worried about the future of our pink ballots, we sought the most competent poll worker in the room and asked if our envelopes, having been tossed onto a table, had been handled properly. She rolled her eyes, clearly not for the first time that day, and retrieved them, assuring us that she would take care of them. She gave us slips of paper with a number we could call in 30 days to make sure our vote was counted. It's not clear what, if anything, could be done at that 30-day mark if we found that our ballots had been thrown out, but she seemed like a good cookie, so we entrusted our pinks to her and left the precinct.

“That was a fiasco,” I said to my partner as we were leaving.

“Yeah, but they made damn sure I got my 'I Voted' sticker,” she grumbled.

Come to think of it, poll workers do seem awfully focused on sticker-giving. Is that emphasized in poll-worker training? Maybe Democracy is a sham and we're being bought off with penny stickers to think we're somehow participants in this thing.

I know that polling places are manned by volunteers, and that precinct crews are cobbled together from a coalition of the willing, but is it so much to ask that they also be a coalition of the able?

Polling places used to be run, it seemed, entirely by retirees, and while our elders often exhibited, say, a lack of urgency about their duties—and sometimes a dash of officiousness since, after all, it had been years since anyone had actually listened to them when told what to do—they usually knew what their duties were by the time we were an hour or so into the morning hours. I miss the olds! They were cute in their little red-white-and-blue-banded Styrofoam boaters, sitting behind card tables with patriotic bunting. And they volunteered, I imagined, because it seemed to them important and fun at the same time.

By contrast, Tuesday's poll workers acted as though they had pulled short straws and had gone on intellectual strike to protest their lot. Why else would someone pretend not to know the alphabet? I wonder how many tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of votes are mishandled and invalidated in elections because poll workers don't know what they're doing. Or don't care. Maybe Election 2000 wasn't so fluky after all.

I bristle a little bit whenever I hear someone joke that juries are made up of 12 people too stupid to get out of jury duty. I think jury duty is important and I really don't mind doing it, and I don't think that makes me stupid. Maybe it's time I felt the same way about working the polls. Elections, however sparsely attended in the U.S., are important: Do I really want my vote handled by someone who can't pick a Democratic ballot out of a lineup?

The Election Assistance Commission, whose slogan is “Making every vote count”—all this emphasis on our votes “counting” raises a red flag or two for me—lists Chris Walker at the Office of the Secretary of State, (916) 653-7244, as my contact should I want to pursue becoming a poll worker in California. Following his contact information are the words “Languages Needed: None.” It's all coming clear to me now.


Blogger sporksforall said...

I want to speak no language and forget the alphabet! Alphabet lady had to convinced that the names that started with "Ag" were PRECEDED by names that started with AA, AB, AC, AD, AE and AF. She was very susupicious of that idea. Very.

Hey, look folks, Honey and I blogged about the same thing! Read mine too!

7:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi scout,
yea, i think the same about the stickers. i had that exact thought the last time i voted. we're placated with a little sticker, and our vote means nothing. what a nightmare. i wouldn't be surprised though, if this were the case...good thing i like stickers.

8:47 PM  
Anonymous lupe san rio said...

above comment is my own. dunno what happened to my name...

8:48 PM  
Anonymous hopskipjump said...

Luckily, I've had nothing but very positive experiences at my voting places and have left them with very proud feelings about my fellow citizens. Why don't you volunteer next time? It's truely awful to think that voters could get any more apathetic. As every knows by know, more people voted for their favorite American Idol than in the last presidential election.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Slangred said...

Yeah, I miss the olds, too. My grandma was one them until the year she died. She marched for unions and knew her way around a civil rights issue or two. (I found a ca. 1936 postcard in one of her books when we were going through her things that showed an espadrilled foot on a cobblestoned ground with words in Basque that translated to "Stamp out Fascism!") If I hadn't believed in doing my democratic part by voting, just the thought of not showing up to be greeted warmly and proudly by her at every election would have gotten my ass to the polls.
You story is horrifying, especially after reading Rbt F Kennedy Jr.'s article in the current Rolling Stone about the 2004 election and the nefariousness that most likely took place in Ohio...
A guy at my work was handing out stickers that cynically said "I think I voted" on election day this year...

11:35 AM  
Blogger bryduck said...

"I think I voted"--that about sums it up, doesn't it? Jesus freaking Christ--this is abominable, but 100% unsurprising to me. California being one of the last really strong bastions of Democratic electoral votes, it has to be a major target of Republican "Get the vote out" (as in, toss those votes out, geddit?) skullduggery. Paranoid? Perhaps. But look at the story here and prove I'm not also correct . . . Niiiiiiice.

8:50 AM  

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