Tuesday was a thrilling, but deeply busy day. Now that I have two nights of sleep, I’ve recovered in part. Tuesday morning I was filled with the brand of excitement of a kid before a big event the next day. I went to bed about 11, but didn’t get to sleep for another hour. Then I awoke about 1:30am, sleepless again for another hour. By 4am, it was hopeless to continue. I got out of bed, surfed the net a bit, got dressed early, and assembled my food to share with my coworkers and it was off to the polls.
Because of redistricting, my wife and I vote in a different place. And by coincidence or design–not sure why the auditor’s office makes the decisions it does to assign workers–I was designated to work in my home precinct for the first time in seven elections. It happened to be one of the churches in which my parish has worshiped since our recent fire. So I was pretty familiar with the building. I could find the men’s room fast, and little did I know, I would need that piece of info later in the day.
By 6am, our team of seven had arrived. The heavy equipment had been dropped off the previous day, so we set about with ballots, voting tables and their privacy screens, various paper forms, and, for the first time, two laptops with the voter registration books and software. Another Iowa county developed Precinct Atlas a few years ago. It was my first time using a computer on Election Day. I made a very serious error on my very first voter, and I was feeling very dismayed. A roomful of election workers today looks very much like the bridge clubs I used to visit once a week: nice but sharp older people who like doing things the way they’ve always done it. But I got my comeuppance, and then settled down to go through the software much more carefully with the next several voters.
Not only was this our first presidential election, it was the first after redistricting. Our county auditor cautioned us at the school for officials last week that it would be a demanding day. Many Iowans bristle at change. Much of our city was redistricted. Long-time voters showed up where “they always voted,” and having waited in line, they found out they were in the “wrong” place. Add in that my precinct stretches from my neighborhood in a five-block width all the way to the middle of Campustown, and it shouldn’t surprise you that one-fourth of our voters registered as newbies, and another fourth had moved from their previous casting of a ballot. I think we sent another hundred people to another location.
Iowa polls are open from 7am to 9pm. We had a five-minute pause just before 8am. We had a line waiting to vote for the other 835 minutes, plus nearly another hour for the people who were in line at the moment of closing.
There was much less friendly get-to-know-you banter among the workers. Two people I didn’t even talk to–they were at the other end of the table where I sat. We were nose-to-grindstone all day. And despite a 35% advance turnout, it was a very heavy day for person-to-person contact for us.
What are the sorts of challenges we face?
Some voters request absentee ballots but show up anyway. They tell us the ballot didn’t come in the mail, or they decided they wanted to bring it to us in person (they are supposed to mail it), or they changed their minds.
If a person comes to vote for the first time, they must prove they are who they say they are and that they live where they say they live. They sign a public oath, witnessed by an election official. We give them a long list, in advance, of the kinds of documents that prove their address: a lease, a paycheck, a government check, a government document, a utility bill, a cell phone bill, and a few others. One person had a piece of mail from a political party–that wouldn’t do. One poor guy had his lease, but just before he moved in, the landlord switched him to another unit. We couldn’t accept the lease, even though it was in the same building. Most students brought something we could use, usually a utility bill or a paystub. A handful did not, but even then, if a registered voter (usually a roommate) was willing to attest for their address, we would accept a registration. One student had no paper bills–she kept all her statements on her smartphone. Strangely enough, we can only accept printed statements, even though we give them back after we’ve noted the address and name listed.
I don’t think our computers speeded up the process very much. The software was very good, very intuitive. The design of the front and back screens and placement of options was rather awkward. But maybe if they were closer together, there would be more opportunity for the fingerfehler–mistakes.
While I was feeling generally discouraged by all the federal candidates this year, I did have a strong patriotic swell in my heart on Election Day. We reelected a fine county auditor and a number of good local people for our county and state. People seemed generally cheerful after waiting an hour to vote, and I appreciate the special connection helping to facilitate their participation in public life. So when I began to read Catholic commentariats yesterday (“Goodbye America.” … “I’m starting to look forward to the inevitable collapse … but I intend to enjoy it.” … “america is dead to me.”) I was truly wondering about the disconnect between public life and the reinforcement of narcissism on the internet.
At the end, I took heart from a conversation my mother and I had a few days ago. She’s been dropping all sorts of secret family revelations on me the past several weeks. But some nice news was that her recently deceased sister, my favorite aunt, was an election worker for several years. What heartening information. My late older brother was deeply active in party politics, and I thought of him often on Election Day.
The last voter cast his ballot shortly before 10pm. After a quick break, we workers disassembled the booths, gathered forms, turned off our computers, reviewed procedures, and carefully packed everything away. My wife came to pick me up just before 11. She said the young miss had been watching election results all night at home. That was one of the most heartening pieces of news I received all day. On Monday I had told her that I was going to be working all evening at the polls and that I was counting on her to monitor things in my absence.
“Where will I find that?” she asked.
Now she knows.
Another citizen ready to take up the mantle of freedom, self-determination, and civic pride.