INSPECTING ELECTIONS: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TABLE — December 2006

By Buffy Calvert

B-ring! 4:30 am. The full moon is still riding a black sky as I snap on the radio. I hear that some early bird voters are already punching electronic voting machines that come up Republican when the voter chooses Democratic and vice versa.

Ann Liddle picks me up. Town Hall is alight, thanks to Janis Lynn. Doris Stevens is hauling our paperwork from the capacious black bag furnished by the Board of Elections. Fred Dabritz grabs a hammer and he and I tack up “GENERAL ELECTION” and “NO ELECTIONEERING BEYOND THIS POINT” signs. John Drew cranks open the big turquoise voting machines with their cute levers and reads out the protective seal and counter numbers to Ann and Thelma Ruff who painstakingly inscribe them on the numerous required documents. They carefully examine the printout sheet from each machine to be sure nothing is pre-inscribed. John inserts them in the back, snaps the whole thing together and invites two Inspectors, one from each major party, to step inside.

They face a ballot with 10 parties, from the biggies up top to WORKING FAMILIES, GREEN, and RENT IS TOO HIGH down below. The SOCIALIST EQUALITY PARTY, with one candidate for Senate, is tucked in at the bottom. They press the fat button on the side to open the machine and depress every lever to be sure it reveals the quaint check mark under the candidate’s name and then refuses to let you choose more then one name for each office. One Inspector steps out. The other wrenches the big, red, waist-level bar from left to right. With a satisfying “CH-CHING!” (like an old-fashioned cash register) the curtains swing closed. She casts her ballot and records it by thrusting the lever back. “CH-CHING!” the curtains open. Same procedure for machine number two. Two votes cast.

The five Inspectors (down one this year; we miss Barb Oles’ bright chatter) take their positions for the first two-hour rotation: two to punch the machines open for each voter, two for the election rolls, A-L, M-Z, and one to check off the master printout and make a list to be sure our count matches the revolving machine counters. Every signature is initialed and the count noted to ensure accuracy in the public record while preserving the voter’s privacy inside the booth. A transparent way to perform a secret act. In the book: name, address, party affiliation, if any, date of birth, date registered, and signature. In the booth: complete anonymity. You’re just a number. “CH-CHING!” the counter changes from 169 to 170, say, and your choices receive inaudible, invisible upticks.

At 6 am the first voter strides in from the dark street. All day, in spates and lulls, they come. In Andes, election day is a come-as-you-are party. Lay down your tools and drop over to vote. Jeans predominate, from designer to patched, ragged, stained and stinky, spattered with paint, car grease, sawdust, or barn muck, shod in work shoes, barn boots, holey sneakers. Occasionally, neat office wear and the pretty sweatshirts, pressed jeans and fresh sneakers of retired women. The top-coated man or high-heeled woman stands out.

Glitches? Of course. More than usual. People’s names have mysteriously disappeared from the rolls. Fred and Ann patiently call Delhi and seek redress. Disappointed would-be voters fill out affidavit ballots that may or may not be counted. One goes off to protest to Judge Becker. We watch for him to return with a Court Order to vote by machine but he doesn’t. One guy who lives on the cusp of the Andes-Bovina line has, after 10 years of voting here, been arbitrarily and without notice reassigned to Bovina. He dashes off, disgruntled but not dissuaded from casting his vote.

We assure a woman who has taken her new husband’s name and been told that she could not vote that of course she can. We note the name-change for the Board. In some cases couples have been split. One allowed, one denied, although their addresses and voting patterns are identical. Advocates for every citizen’s right to vote, we are heartbroken to see “motor-voter” registrations filed after the October 13th cut-off denied. “Wait ‘til next year,” we sigh.

One stormy presidential year we had a real challenge to the integrity of the vote. A serious high school student taking a law course came in eager to conduct an exit poll. Impressed by her enthusiasm and in favor of her project, we looked around at our site. One room: entrance ramp flanked by 2 voting machines fronting the Inspector’s table.  We couldn’t, in all conscience, have voters confronted with questions about their vote while still in the polling place and passing people who had not yet voted. But the student, who was lightly dressed, would shiver outside in cold sleet.

Tough decision. Our board decided we could offer her a parka but had to say no to an exit poll inside. She went off to District 2, which accommodated her, and later returned to hover outside near the door when the weather had moderated. I think we made the right decision but regret that because of the ongoing vote and the ephemeral nature of our board we never discussed the decision with her.

She came home from college to cast her first vote the next year with that first-time-voter glow. It is always a thrill to see. A bit unsure, eager for instruction, the newly enfranchised step excitedly into full citizenship. Once, a just-turned-18 hadn’t registered in time. He kicked the chairs, ranted and raved. No help from Delhi. We had to watch him storm out, pleased that he cared so much.

Toddlers “vote” year after year, sometimes thrust back through the curtains when their exuberant choices don’t mirror their parent’s. Couples make voting a ceremony, arranging to come together down the aisle, sign their names one after the other, then enter the booth alone. Does the outward harmony conceal a secret worry, “Did (s)he cancel my vote?”

Anticipating a 16-hour day, we lay in provisions: pots of coffee and a whole smørgasbord of goodies to keep us going. Continuously on duty we have to eat at the table. Not very professional. We do apologize.

The last minutes tick away. Someone dashes in to vote, breathless but in time. Poll watchers gather to hear the results.

The closing ritual begins. Someone reads aloud the votes cast for each candidate on every line while an Inspector from the opposite party watches. The other three record the votes on sample ballots. The count is reread and checked. We record raw data on two complete canvass packets, add and re-add the totals with our now very slow and weary brains. An hour and a half later, everything checks and is inserted into the black bag for the sheriff’s deputy now on his way. John dismantles the machines, seals them, and snaps them together for safe keeping, counters intact.

The moon dodges rain clouds in a dark sky as we gather our little coolers and Tupperware and pile into cars. A harmonious crew, we silently echo the voters’ thumbs-up, “O.K. Done our civic duty!”

P.S. Every voter who expressed an opinion voted to retain our mechanical lever machines. They work.~