As a poll-watcher for the 2004 election, I had a second-row seat for one local slice of the election, even as I was insulated from news of any sort. It was too busy where I was, Precinct 81's polling place set up in the small lobby of McKinley Elementary on the West Bench, to even collect word-of-mouth updates. The dilligent team of white-haired ladies running the show where I was worked more than 10 hours with at most a single, short break to use the restroom, during a rare quiet moment of a busy day.

There were no police or security forces involved, the only uniforms seen were a handful of troops who came to cast their own ballots. No metal detectors, no voters challenged for not being duly registered or who they said they were. (I guess it would have been me to make such a challenge?) More than 150 people were registered where I was, and from 5pm on, the registration line was the longest of any. I can only trust that what happened after I left and after the polls closed was honest and proper, but everything I saw was carried out as diligently as possible, given the technology at hand (punch card ballots, those villians of the 2000 Florida story). We had a pregnant chad that a voter caught herself, went back to fix it. Two people slipped their ballots into the box themselves, rather than handing it to the receiver, during the one moment when she got up to move around a bit. The first person knew enough to tear off the blank tab used for a comparison count, the second did not, and had spun on his heel and just about got to the door when I called out to him and got him to come back and get his name checked off, at least. The ladies knitted their brows about that counting stub in the box, made a note of it somewhere.

My embossed pollwatcher badge The most exciting moment for me came in the 8am crush of early voters when one ignorant fellow took it upon himself to question my legitimacy.

"Who's this guy?"

One of the election workers answered him about the same time I did, saying "a registered poll-watcher."

"Registered by who?"

Since he was looking at me, I carried on the conversation. "By the county."

"What county?"

Ooo, a trick question, nice try, butthead. "Ada County. Would you like to see my credential?" I asked, pointing to the name tag I was wearing prominently.

"That's not a credential, it's just a typed paper nametag."

"No, actually, it is notarized by the county," I said, and he had to retreat to just giving me the stink-eye for the rest of his time in the process. Good thing he didn't notice my name was spelled wrong.

The Republicans sent poll-watchers, too, a series of them working 2-hour shifts and done soon after 4pm. None of them had ever done it before, and the hapless first fellow sat on the far side of the hall for a while, straining to hear the announcements at the ballot box ("So-and-so has voted.") before finally pulling up his chair and claiming some of the aisle for his duty. As an old-hand (I'd done it once before), I knew to park myself as close as possible to the ballot box without being a nuisance. I also had a considerably longer attention span than any of my counterparts.

More than 450 ballots were cast before noon, and it was 12:05 before there was a brief minute with no one in line, or voting, for the first time of the day. At 2:30, 625 ballots cast, the ladies thought it might be "more than ever" in this precinct, already.

One young, pregnant woman rubbed her belly after helping her husband (?) in a fast food sort of uniform to register and vote for the first time. They were both grinning ear to ear. "Did you have any problems?" one of the ladies asked. "None at all, heh, heh, wouldn't that be awful if we voted the wrong way?"

Another guy, turning in his ballot, "I think I just registered." You think?

An older couple, "Yeah we're registered—for like 25 thousand years.

3:15, the lady at the registration desk announces loud enough for us all to hear, "You're number 100 to register today."

3:18, classes are out, 4 teachers are lined up across the hall making kids take a U-turn and use a different door for a change. During the school day when they had had to traverse the aisle between the office and "our" lobby, the teachers had queued them up and sternly admonished them to orderly quiet, which they all obeyed, curious about this very adult activity that had mysteriously entered their realm.

3:50, one kid, barely 18 by the look of him, gave himself a little applause for having voted.

3:55, ballot line's backed up, it's crowded again. My list is getting way more hits than the Rs are (including the guys in uniform!)

4:30 A quiet moment. A voter, in a booth: "Uh oh." Silence. Ladies (and I) start echoing "uh oh" one by one, the gal says "I punched a yes and a no." (For a question of judge retention, the only yes/no items on the ballot.) They gave her some grief and a fresh ballot, with a stern "watch what you're doing!" Moments later she turns in her ballot, "sorry for the screwup," and the lady taking it says cheerfully, "we forgot!"

At 4:50 there's another quiet moment, the team chats a bit. "They must run 2 shift in the midwest—'cause they start at 6:30!" We all creak a bit when we get up to stretch or move around for something. At 4:54, it's crowded again, everybody's busy.

6:17, One new registrant was asked, "Have you voted before, do you know how to do this?"

"No, but I read the instructions (posted in the back of the voting booths) while I was waiting in line."

"Good, 'cause if you screw up, you're going to have to wash the windows."

"Well, it wouldn't be the first time, I went to school here...."

I got up to use the restroom for just the 2nd time all day, when I came back the ladies turned and said "We'd thought you'd left without saying goodbye!" I packed up my stuff, got permission to take another cinnamon roll that one of the husbands had made ("take two, take another one for your wife!"), said my good-byes and gave my thanks, drove over to precinct 69 to pick up Jeanette, and bring our last—4th—copies of "the list" to HQ, share pizza for dinner and the excitement of Election Day before we knew how it had turned out.

Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

Wednesday, 03-Nov-2004 11:46:14 MST