Sunday, November 4, 2012

Memories of Election Day

I remember having “that talk” in my high school; no, not the one about the birds and the bees, the one in Civics class about the responsibility to vote. I remember sitting in class realizing when Coach Gazdick spoke about the responsibilities of voting, that my parents took voting seriously, they never missed an election. I remember going with Mom on election afternoons down to the local polling place at the Lake Shore Baptist Church hall to vote. There were 10 or 12 large voting machines in the precinct, each complete with a curtain and a cast-vote lever with a large red handle. I was so young that red handle was almost chest high to me. I gazed up in awe as she swung the handle closing the curtain behind us and began flicking the levers marking her ballot with the candidates of her choice. Finally she was done and she told me to pull that big red lever down. I felt empowered as the curtains swung open and all the levers reset to their starting positions for the next voter. I had cast my first ballot. Well, to be sure it was her ballot but I was proud to be the one to pull that lever.

By the time I was old enough to vote myself, I was living in South Carolina. As soon as I turned 21, I registered to vote. I saw in my first election that South Carolina used the same lever type direct recording voting machines that I was familiar with in Florida, although it was a newer model. I’m proud to say that since that day, I have never missed an election. Sometimes the lines were really short and I was in and out of the polling place in just a few minutes, other times the lines were really long and it took hours to cast my vote. Rain or shine, long or short lines there I was, voting!

When the lines were longer, there would be plenty of time to talk with the other folks nearby. These were my friends and neighbors all out doing their civic duties. We talked about lots of things while waiting, the weather, how everyone’s kids were doing and what was going on at work, school or church. It seems that there was only one topic that was never discussed, politics. I got to talk more with my neighbors whose last names started with letters near the end of the alphabet than those who has names that began with “A” through “L”. This is because I lived in a large precinct where they split the voter roll in half and each voter lines up with their part of the alphabet. Somehow, it seems that the other line always moved faster than mine did. But I know that was just a perception because I could see that each half of the poll book was the same size when I got up to the registration table. In recent elections, the two lines have merged with one because the county has converted to an Electronic Voter Registration List that is on computers so each voter could sign in at any of the registration stations. That seems to make it go faster too.

During the 80s, I would have Election Day off, so I volunteered to be a poll worker. During that decade, I got to know those big grey voting machines inside and out, how to set them up, open them up for voting and then how to shut them down and count the votes. It was then that I became aware of a thing called ballot styles. This is when jurisdictional lines started crossing precinct lines. This meant that some of the voters in the precinct were voting for some contests; house and senate seats, county council districts, ETC and others were voting for candidates in different contests. Each distinct grouping of contests was called a “ballot style”. This meant that we had to know which of those big old grey monsters were set up for which ballot style. Back in those days, each precinct had one or two ballot styles. So we grouped the machines along one wall for one ballot style and along the other for the second style. It was easy to manage, when a voter signed the roll. He or she was given a slip of colored paper that indicated which bank of machines they were to use. But tallying the votes at the end of the day was a pain. When the polls closed at 7 pm, each machine produced a large 36 inch wide sheet of paper that had the vote totals printed on it. The poll managers, in view of the public read the totals from each machine aloud then added them together to produce the precinct totals that were also read aloud. Then we locked the machines, transported the poll materials; including the poll books, the machine printed totals and all of our calculations to the county election commission where our precinct was added to the others in the county producing the county totals. That sometimes took until one or two in the morning; a 17 hour day. I never realized how much work that took.

Those old monster machines remained in use for about 15 years after my stint as a poll worker. I remember one big election, I showed up a few minutes after the poll opened on my way to work; three of the six machines were still closed up. The poll manager spotted me way back in the line and knowing that I was qualified to work on the machines, he asked me if I could help get them online. I agreed, went to the registration desk, took the poll manger’s oath and within 10 minutes had the three balky machines whipped into shape and ready to vote. That got me a round of applause from those in line and a spot at the head of the line. Worked for me! I got to work on time that day.

The grey monster voting machines have been replaced by much smaller electronic machines that can quickly tally the ballots at the end of the day and get results out. No more 17 hour days! This year, like one year in the past, I qualified for absentee voting, so I voted several weeks ago. I was in and out in less than 5 minutes. But this year, those who waited later in the absentee period to vote are facing much longer waiting times. It also looks like long lines on Election Day. But remember, long lines or not, if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain later! Oh MY!

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