A Lesson in Civic Civility

8 Nov

I worked a 19-hour day at the polls yesterday. 19 hours. That’s long, and I’m still tired today. I was the Republican Judge at Precinct 11 in Mecklenburg County, a primarily black precinct in downtown Charlotte. Besides one other middle aged white woman working the PAD machines (and if your voter registration data didn’t match up with your current residence, you should be quite familiar with waiting in the PAD line to vote yesterday), I was the only white volunteer for precinct 11. In fact, I was only 1 of 2 volunteers under the age of 45. I first volunteered with the Board of Elections for the May Primary. My sister-in-law passed along an email that they needed volunteer judges, and I thought the money was nice (although yesterday it worked out to about $9 an hour, but still), and I’d get a day off of work, so why not? It turns out I just loved the experience, and loved the people, so it was a no-brainer to work the Presidential Election on November 4th.

This is what I learned: November 4th was altogether a different election than May 6th. The economy is different, the candidates are different, the race is different. Emotions ran incredibly high. But in being at the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, in a place where I’m probably the only one of the volunteers who holds my views on politics and the candidates, there was a sense of respect and of working together. I can think of a handful of people that I work with in my job who are lazy, irresponsible, or refuse to pitch in and help out when needed. They will only do just enough (or not even that) to keep their supervisor off their case. But yesterday, every one of the volunteers (and there were about 10 of us) pitched in to set up the polling place, rotate around the different areas of the polling location, give people breaks when they were standing too long, cover for others taking lunch, etc. It was a unified group made up of diverse people (well, not really—I pretty much supplied the diversity in the group), and many of us just met each other for the first time Monday night. There was a sense of respect for differing opinions and positions, because we were working for a common cause: to be an efficient polling place with helpful, cheerful volunteers where people can cast their ballot in confidence and security. This is a big deal. This is democracy. And I was so happy to be a part of it.

Every precinct in Mecklenburg County has 3 judges—the Chief Judge (in my case, Brenda, a large, no-time-for-your-bullsh!t 40-something black woman), the Democratic Judge (Mrs. Kirk, an 80-year old tiny black lady who is called Miz Kirk by everyone, even people 65 years old), and a Republican Judge (…me). Then you have 2 volunteers who work on the computerized voter machines to fix problems if their information doesn’t match up right with the Board of Elections. Then you have the remaining volunteers showing people how to use the voting machines, and volunteers manning the tables where you checked in with your Voter Authorization form. Excluding helping with the PAD machines (I wasn’t trained with that, so I let Brenda handle it), I was responsible for making sure everything was fair, and I signed off on all the cast ballots rolls that we submit to the BOE. And I generally served as Brenda’s right hand and made sure things were moving smoothly. I was told numerous times how well our precinct was run, and for that I give credit to Brenda, who just knows everything about the election process for precinct 11. As she said, “I ain’t truckin’ down to the Board of Elections tomorrow to tell them how Precinct 11 screwed up the votes. Y’all better not unplug anything or break anything before the end of the day. Let’s get to it!”

We had over 1,900 people come through our doors and cast their votes. That’s a lot. Until noon, we had a line that snaked through the church gymnasium to vote. But everyone was pretty cheerful, and I think the wait was at most an hour to an hour-and-a-half. After lunch, it slowed way down to a trickle, even at 7:30, to what I think can only be attributed to the power and importance of early voting.

A little story about the different campaigns: a law was passed last week that each campaign could have poll watchers—people who could register their names with the BOE so they could check on the process and the voting authorization documents at various precincts. Two young white gentlemen from the Obama camp got there at 6:30am when the polls opened and left at 7:30pm when they closed. Brenda told Mrs. Kirk and I to hang with them when they were reviewing our voter authorization forms, which they checked off their master list of registered Democrats. 13 hours is a long time to hang with someone without getting to know them, and they were funny, nice, patriotic guys. I just adored one in particular, a redhead with a strong handshake who I found out later was 25 with a live-in girlfriend (my hopes were dashed—but how nice would it have been to say you found love at the polls!). But these guys were respectful, unobtrusive, and polite. Hours later, a McCain poll watcher showed up, and totally changed the vibe of the place—he exuded an air of anxiety (well, understandable), and irritation. He was totally anal retentive. He had issues with the volunteers (including me) spending too much time with the voters in the polling booths; he had issues with us answering voter’s questions; he had issues with the long wait in the PAD line; I think he even had problems with me hanging out with the Obama guys—he was just a pain in the ass. He was exactly where stories get started and then blown out of proportion of Election Day misconduct. At one point, I told him (in so many words): Listen, I’m the Republican judge. If something doesn’t look right, I’m going to say it. If a voter asks for my help, I’m going to provide it. I’m not seeing any problems here; in fact, I think most voters leave feelings satisfied we assisted them the best we could. I don’t really care how it looks to you, and if you want to call me on my behavior here today, I’ll defend it. End of discussion. It just aggravated me that he was one of my (McCain) people, and he’s questioning my judgment, especially when things were running so smoothly. I took it personally. He didn’t leave until we counted the votes, which wasn’t until 10:30 that night—why? I don’t know. To look important? To be useful? Brenda was pretty much—“Whatever.” Even the ladies working at the tables were like “Erin, who is that uptight men in that brown suit? He needs to chill out.” I just thought it was ironic that I identified so much with Cameron and McClain, the Obama volunteers, more than this guy who shared my political views. See, you can find common ground on opposite sides of the aisle!

The thing I came away with most yesterday, besides being proud of my adopted precinct and the work we did, was a sense of appreciation for the process, as well as the utmost respect most people have for the process. But I also grasped a better understanding of another group’s world view. I didn’t vote for Obama, and it’s not because I’m a racist asshole (although a lot of Dems would say that’s the case). I just don’t believe in bigger government, I don’t believe he has the executive experience (or really any experience worth the presidency), and I think his associations are seriously questionable. The Change for Change’s Sake argument just doesn’t work for me, and fundamentally I don’t believe America needs that kind of change—I don’t want to become Europe. But I do see that Bush has sold out a lot of truly conservative principles, and he’s disappointed a lot of people. And McCain just couldn’t compete with the country’s fascination with Obama. I’m curious to see what Obama does with a new energy policy, gay rights, the economy, and education. We’ve had 8 years of Bush, so now the liberals get their shot. I want to see what they can do with it—and I hope he doesn’t crumble under all that pressure. I accept the outcome gracefully, and I’m so glad McCain didn’t win the electoral college—it was divisive 8 years ago, and it would be just awful today and not what the country needs. The people got the man they wanted—I just happen to be in the minority. But hanging out with all those sweet, hopeful women yesterday—they were just so excited about an Obama presidency. And I’m glad they got a chance to see it, finally. Seeing how personal it was for them softened the blow of the McCain loss. The next 4 years will be interesting, to say the least. I have hope that we can get through it with a little more dignity, class, and respect than we’ve seen in the last year. That’s the kind of change we really need.

And to Miz Kirk, and Claire, Nevada, Judy, Karen, Bob, Anita, especially Brenda, and all the other volunteers yesterday at Precinct 11—working with you was a pleasure. Good luck to you all. You helped me keep the faith in good people working for a good cause!

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