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Morning voting in America

Queuing up like Brits, and maybe voting that way, too

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USA '08 The polls opened at 6am here in New York City, and the lines were expected to be long all across the city thanks (and I really mean thanks, because I like democracy) to very high voter turnout. Since my wife has been away stumping for Barack Obama in the rich suburbs of Pittsburgh for the past five days, being able to get to work more or less on time meant that my kids had to come with me to the polls - something they were adamant about doing anyway because we are a very political household.

I had to drag myself out of bed at 5:30, pushed it another five minutes as I always do, and Henry (who is seven and has no alarm clock) was already up and getting dressed, wondering why I was late. Ellie, who is nine, was still snoozing and had to be rousted, but don't get confused - she is the policy wonk in our house and she moved quickly.

The father being a systems thinker, we had all set out clothes early so we could jump in them, grab some fruit, warm up some coffee, pack up books and hit the streets in minutes. We wanted to be first to reach Christie Field House, the polling place for our area. We were not even close to first when we walked up to the gates at 5:45 - about 70 people were ahead of us. Thank heavens they are all our neighbors, because you always know someone in line. In our case, the former president of the co-op next door and I talked shop, since I am president of my co-op. (With my own election next week, if I decide to run again.) When the kids got impatient as we got closer to signing the rolls, she reminded my children that in other countries, children have to wait in much longer lines for food or water. Embarrassed, they settled down.

Our polling place handles the 63rd, 64th, 65th, and 66th district. The 63rd, which is our district, has heavier turnout, so it gets two machines. Those wonderful, mechanical New York City voting machines. How odd that these seem comforting compared to the touch screen, closed source cheating machines I know other people will be perplexed and frustrated by today.

As the line got longer outside the Field House - there are usually one or two people at the polls in Inwood at this hour - the poll workers rediscovered queuing theory. Nobody remembers their voting district, so no one knows which of the four lines inside the building they need to be in. With only two roll books for the four districts - yes, that is phenomenally stupid - the queues had a bottleneck. So the chief poll worker, who is not used to long lines, figured out that if she walked the line and got addresses, she could presort people for the proper line - multithread them, as it were. Once she did that, people quietly queued up and the lines started moving better. You would have been proud of us, Britons.

When our turn came, the kids and I stepped into the booth. You move a giant red lever to the right, which activates the machine with a big "kachunk" noise. The ballot is arranged with political positions in rows and political parties in columns. Each position has another smaller steel lever that you flip down to turn a white square into an X. That X is your vote. The Democrats get the far left column, followed by the Republicans moving right, and then the Conservatives, the Working Family Party, and one other I can't remember.

I checked the McCain/Palin lever, and it worked fine. I flipped it back up. When I tried to push down the Obama/Biden lever, at first it wouldn't go down. (This has happened to me before, so I know to check.) I wiggled the Obama/Biden lever a bit, with my heart racing a little because I feared it wouldn't work, but then up popped the X. Mission accomplished. The kids took turns pushing down levers for state senators, assemblymen, and other candidates I wanted to vote for, and when we were finished, I pulled the big red lever back to the left with another satisfying "kachunk". We walked out of the booth, then outside to the cool air after only 45 minutes. The sun was up, and my neighbors were happy and excited as we walked the line talking to them.

We were all still civilized. ®

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