Universal Suffrage

Meet the folks who tend to democracy's pesky details

6:56 a.m., Election Day "We're opening in four minutes!" shrieks the agitated voice of one of my fellow election judges. There is a frantic dash--as frantic, that is, as possible for a crew of not-quite-awake people whose alarms went off at 4:30 a.m.--to organize rosters and put out stacks of registration cards and ballots and pens and folders. People are already sitting in the front vestibule here at the Office of Indian Ministries in south Minneapolis, waiting on this gloomy morning to cast their votes. Quickly, our chief judge orders us all to stop what we're doing, raise our right hand, and take an oath that we will uphold the proper rules and procedures of this election.

Suddenly it's 7:00 a.m. and people pour through the doorway. Democracy is in full swing. My first-ever job as an election judge is to sign in registered voters here on Park Avenue South in the Fourth Precinct of the Eighth Ward; I'm in charge of the L-to-Z roster. The steady stream of people--hurried people, agitated people--is like an electric jolt, and I scurry to keep up with them. I ask for names and addresses, flip the book for them to sign in, point to the oath at the top of each page that states they are at least 18 years old and citizens of the United States. All the while, swirling through my mind are all the rules, regulations, and procedures that were laid out for me in a two-hour training session last week.

It's like working retail on Christmas Eve--everyone is impatient, and when there's a problem and we pause for a moment to look up the correct rule, we are secretly terrified that a riot is imminent. Several citizens opine, "You people don't know what you're doing." Or something more or less rude to that effect.

Stand up and be counted: Minneapolis voters exercise their constitutional right
Craig Lassig
Stand up and be counted: Minneapolis voters exercise their constitutional right

Throughout my shift, I'll see a few glitches here. But overall, everything works out relatively smoothly. Yet over the next 24 hours, as I watch, amazed, the news reports filter in about possible election misdeeds in Florida--confusing ballots, lost ballot boxes, counting errors--I realize how many tiny technicalities have to go right in order for democracy to work.

 

9:05 a.m. The pre-work rush has dwindled, and although voters are still coming in steadily, the volume has trailed off. I've slid down the table to my next job, doling out ballots and explaining how to fill them out. It's the first lull of any kind since I arrived, at 6:00 a.m., clutching a giant cup of coffee and an umbrella, in time to set up tables and put together the plastic voting booths. There is still plenty for us to do in the downtime. We can count the absentee ballots (though we can't open them until there are no voters in the polling place). We can place ballots in the "secrecy folders," a fancy term for the file folders that keep people from viewing each other's ballots. A couple of more experienced judges--one representing the Democratic Party, the other the Republican--sign ballots; only ballots with both of their sets of initials are true and legal. I look around me. There are seven of us election judges here this morning. Six of us are women; one woman is African American. The vote is such a powerful thing, we muse. It was denied most of us for so long.

Here in the Central neighborhood, the electorate is a diverse group. Older couples come in together, as they've done for decades. Young mothers arrive with babies in tow. It's an integrated group--yuppie white couples, African-American men in hip-hop clothes. One young woman who registered this morning grins at me as I hand her a ballot. "I'm so excited," she whispers. "I've never done this before."

It's heartening, this display. At this hour we still have no way of knowing how close the presidential election will be this year, how clear it would become that despite today's tone of cynicism and apathy, every vote does count. But from the seat of the election judge, it doesn't take long to understand that democracy doesn't reside in sweeping rhetoric; it lies in the minutiae of the rules, regulations, and details of the system.

 

2:00 p.m. Wednesday, November 1 Everyone hired to work as a Minneapolis election judge (it's a quick process; I sent my application over the Internet and a scant four hours later got word I was hired as a "Gatekeeper of Democracy") must participate in a training session. By the time I walk into the classroom on the third floor of the downtown Minneapolis library, there are only a few empty chairs amid the 40 or so other eager-beaver trainees already seated. Scanning the crowd, I see mostly women, the majority of them silver-haired. Our teacher launches into a spiel she has clearly given a thousand times. Her emphatic tone is that of a middle-aged mom at a church potluck, offering up fruit-filled Jell-O or marshmallow bars, but here she's intoning the state laws that govern the election process. She waddles around the front of the room, pulling out boxes from an industrial gray cabinet in the corner. This is the official ballot counter. This is the case with the ballots and voter registration cards. This is the case with the pens and tape and highlighters. Here's where you'll find the rosters of preregistered voters, the sign-in sheets for people who register on Election Day. After she pulls out the supplies, she shows us how the machine works.

Then it's on to the duties. There are five different jobs: polling-place roster judge, registration judge, demonstration judge, ballot judge, and ballot-counter judge. Each judge must rotate through all five positions during the course of the day. The first two are the most complicated, and our trainer spends most of the session on them. We must be sure to tell voters they are affirming the oath at the top of the page when they sign in. We must hand them a receipt, which they'll take to the ballot judge. ("One receipt equals one ballot," she enunciates.) We must check to make sure each person has not already voted by absentee ballot, and that the word challenge does not appear by their name. That means there is a question about the voter's address, the voter has lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction, or the voter may be legally incompetent. There are rules and questions for each of those scenarios, and our instructor buzzes through them at breakneck speed. A handful of trainees busily scratch notes on their handouts, while others stare off into space. Our teacher assures us first-timers that there will be more experienced people there to help us, especially the chief judge at each precinct.

 

4:00 p.m. Before we leave, we're told that we have to sing a song. Our instructor unfurls a poster with the lyrics on it and tells us to sing to the tune of "Take Me out to the Ballgame." The reluctant voices of this crew rise to a tinny mumble: "Take me out to go voting. Take me out to the polls..."

 

Voting is a right, not a privilege. That's the unofficial election-judge mantra. It's our job to do all we can to make sure that the people who by law are allowed to vote are not prevented from doing so. But mistakes can happen. Sometimes a judge may hit the wrong button on the ballot counter, and instead of returning a mistakenly filled-out ballot to a voter, accepts it and sends it through the machine. Once that happens, the voter cannot receive another ballot. Two ballots may accidentally be slipped into one of the secrecy folders; when this happened at the Office of Indian Ministries this Election Day, the scrupulous voter notified a judge and returned the extra empty ballot.

In the first early-morning rush, a woman came up to my table. Her name was in the roster, but challenge was written next to it. My co-roster judge and I were unsure what to do; we should have asked her questions--whether she was under guardianship or had been convicted of a felony. But, despite the claim that experienced judges would be there to smooth these glitches, everyone else was just as busy. I tried to explain to the woman that she could take her ID and re-register that day, but without a word she grabbed her driver's license and stormed out. We never found out what the challenge referred to, and we all felt awful that we couldn't sort it out.

 

12:45 p.m. Election Day I rotate over to the voter registration table. There's a new rush of people, and we try to move them through the process as quickly as possible. But it's complicated. Deciphering the rules is hard enough; committing them to memory seems like a task for Rain Man. One man has a photo ID with an old address, but no utility bill bearing his new one. The man he's with, however, has a current Minnesota ID card, so we register him first, and then he vouches for the other man. Another man gives me his address. He's in the wrong polling place, so I direct him to Hosmer Library. Another man's ID has his old address on it, and he doesn't have a bill with him, so we can't register him. We ask if he can come back later with a bill. "I came in to vote," he growls. "I'm on my way to work."

It's hard to turn people away, especially those who have bank statements or pay stubs with addresses on them, because those don't count as valid forms of ID. One of my co-judges says it best: "Who will you play God with today?"

 

2:00 p.m. I finish my shift at the ballot counter, watching people slide their ballots into the gray box, listening for the gentle whirring sound of the paper dropping inside, or the plaintive bleat of an error message. I hand them the coveted "I voted" stickers. When my eight-hour workday ends, 358 people have voted here. There are 1,176 registered voters in this precinct, and the turnout here so far is lower than in some of the other areas of town.

But there are still six hours before the polls close. A long line has once again formed in front of the voting booths and people are waiting eagerly. As I walk out into the snowy afternoon, I can almost hear the tune follow me: "Take me out to go voting. Take me out to the polls..."

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