Dawn is just breaking and it’s chilly. I hug my jacket to me as I walk kitty-corner* to the house across the street from home. Here come the other three. We greet each other with subdued anticipation and file through a back door past the washer and dryer into the garage.
Only today it isn’t just a garage. Today, for a magic 13 hours, it will be transformed into that most American of all symbols–a polling place.
As someone flicks on a light, it doesn’t look like much yet.
Where the cars would be, four card tables and a few folding chairs are set up. Booths line the walls; volunteers assembled them last night.
We bring in the large plastic tub from someone’s trunk and unpack it. Inside are cardboard boxes of ballots; voting machines, including one for people with arthritis; an American flag, pens, red pencils, a pencil sharpener, light bulbs, tape, straight pins, thumbtacks, an extension cord.
We stand the flag outside. We tack up signs reading “Polling Place” and a notice which warns in capitals, “NO ELECTIONEERING. A person who violates [this warning] is guilty of a misdemeanor.” I marvel at this. Our jealously guarded right of free speech must be suspended when we come within 100 feet of this hallowed ground. That right must be yielded to a greater right–the right to vote without harassment.
We sign in and our leader reads aloud, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” With palms raised, three of us respond, “I do.” The fourth says gravely, “Amen.”
I wonder what enemies are likely to show up here in my neighbor’s garage today and how I will defend the Constitution against them.
Then we put up the garage door for business.
Within ten minutes, 20 people have filed past our table.
A dog pokes its nose in the door. Is it a registered voter?
There is the elderly couple from down the block. He has a hard time walking but he won’t vote absentee. He prides himself on coming in person.
Here comes that new single mom from two doors down. I can’t remember her name, but that’s okay. She has to announce it. Hmm, she’s a Democrat. I wonder why that fact isn’t kept secret, along with whom we vote for. It’s right there for us all to read. There are 190 Democrats in our voting district, 244 Republicans, 4 American Independents, 0 Peace and Freedom, 2 Libertarians, 43 non-partisan.
As I cross off the next name, I glance up quickly. It’s one of the two Libertarians and I want to see what one looks like.
During the lulls we workers talk about vacations we have taken. We get up and stretch, sharpen pencils, turn down proffered cookies and drink lukewarm coffee out of Styrofoam cups. We take turns voting ourselves. The ballot box clerk trades places with the index-roster clerk.
Here is a teenager voting for the first time. Here is a 90-year old woman, frail on her daughter’s arm.
“Your name, please?”
No answer. Then, “Oh, my name? Elizabeth.”
She consults the paper in her hand.
Here is a man who limps, with a heavy eastern European accent, He has just become a naturalized American. There’s a woman whose baby is due in four days.
Where does Robert Redford vote? Does he stand in line in a garage, like the rest of us?
It’s my turn for a half-hour break. I find myself eating the cookies I had resisted before. During the lulls we are now describing our pets, our health and what we had for breakfast. I figure out we are earning $3 an hour. The awe and patriotism I felt earlier is giving way to a stultifying boredom.
I take a turn at greeting people with “Your name, please?” Red letters at the top of each page of the ledger read: “WARNING: It is a crime punishable by imprisonment for anyone to fraudulently vote, fraudulently attempt to vote, vote more than once, impersonate a voter or attempt to impersonate a voter.”
How does one attempt to impersonate a voter?
There are women in sweats and women in heels bringing with them a cloud of fragrance. A man says his wife has been dead three years and they still haven’t removed her name from the list. Someone has punched the wrong hole and we have to void his ballot. A nurse from the nearest hospital brings 40 absentee ballots from patients.
Monotony blurs the time. It’s almost over. Of 492 voters, 290 voted. Where were the others? Did they forget? Were they called out of town? Or couldn’t they be bothered?
At a minute to eight, a sweet little lady ducks under the garage door as we are pulling it down.
“I sent for an absentee ballot but I decided to vote in person.”
“Where is that ballot? You need to turn it in.”
“I don’t have it with me.” She insists she can vote a “provisional” ballot: “I called and they told me I could do it that way.”
We stop rolling up the flag and unscrewing the voting machines from the shelves in the booths to let her vote. I can tell that our leader is exasperated.
When we finally are able to usher her out, we open the tub and count the ballots, removing them from the envelopes. The number of ballots doesn’t tally with the names on the index-roster. My heart sinks. Surely we don’t have to do it over! We count them three times, adding in absentee ballots and voided ballots before the numbers agree.
Then we have to X across all the unused ballots with a red pencil and put everything back in the appropriate boxes. The voted ballots have to be sealed in a particular way. We all have to sign two or three more forms. I’m too tired to be sure what they are.
The tables and chairs are folded, the booths disassembled. The magic is over. It is just a garage again.
I trudge home to find out how the election is going. I’m stiff. My mouth tastes like Styrofoam. I know I’ve gained three pounds. I’ve worked 14 hours and earned $35. I vow never to serve again. Never, never, never.
Just like I did the last two times.
(Published in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, June 7, 1988)
*I just found out it’s really “cater-corner” but that’s not how we said it in my family growing up. Or how I said it. Anyway, I like “kitty-corner” better. From Wiktionary:
Various corruptions exist, replacing unfamiliar cater with words related to cat (catty, kitty). An almost identical process occurred in Germanic, with many place names have Kat or similar components, which are not plausible due to relationships with cats (German Katze), but rather are ascribed as due to being crooked, in a corner, or otherwise curved.
- catty-corner, cattycorner, caddy-corner, katty-corner
- catty-cornered, cattycornered, caddy-cornered, katty-cornered
- kitty-corner, kittycorner
- kitty-cornered, kittycornered