The True Confessions of an Election Official
Inside the machinery of the 2008 vote
I love the voters. I fight for their right to vote. Iowa, unlike many states, believes all residents have the right to vote, unless proven otherwise. I've worked at voting sites of all socio-economic groups: ghetto areas (I didn't know we had ghettos in Iowa), university buildings, shopping malls, hospitals, grocery stores, and libraries. I love all voters. But some of them I love more than others.
One of my vicarious pleasures as a writer is observing people. Another of my vicarious pleasure as a bachelor is observing women. I remember one day I was working at the local hospital, I had worked for nine hours straight and was losing my voice. I called hoarsely for the next voter in line, and a stunningly beautiful woman in a white lab coat appeared before me. I asked for her voter information, and no words came out, just a hoarse rasp. I cleared my throat and turned red in embarrassment, and asked her if perhaps she worked in otolaryngology and had advice for laryngitis. She responded, "why yes, I am an oto surgeon! Is the problem that you're talking too much? Drink lots of water and stop talking so much!"
Alas, I cannot chat up the voters while wearing the cheap plastic badge bearing the Seal of State - it would be a violation of my Prime Directives. Sometimes I must protect the innocent voters from ME. I fell into routine and processed her records, and she vanished into a voting booth, never to be seen again.
At another hospital, I met another beautiful woman. She appeared to be over 80 years old, pushed before me in a wheelchair, hooked up to IV drips and monitoring machines. She said, "Oh, I'm so glad you're here! I was going to vote yesterday at the grocery store, but I fell and broke my hip and couldn't go. Now I'm in the hospital and you came to me so I can still vote!" She beamed at me with the energy of a young girl, and I thanked her for allowing me to serve her. I felt young again.
When I am tired and at the end of my shift, sometimes I will get a reminder of why I do this job. I was working at an overloaded site at a grocery story, the workers were falling behind and the lines were growing, it was taking too long to process voters and they were frustrated by the time they got to vote. When the shift was over, I was exhausted. I went outside the door for a quick smoke. A young African-American man with a missing front tooth, dressed shabbily in mud-smeared work clothes came up to me and started asking me questions about voting a straight Democratic party line and if he had to fill in the spot for Obama too, in order to make his Presidential selection count.
"Whoa," I said. "I am prohibited from talking about specific political parties, but let's say you vote a straight party ticket for Party X (I winked and gave a knowing smile). That vote counts for President too, since he belongs to Party X." He smiled broadly when I winked, like we were silent conspirators to make his vote count. His enthusiasm for the election rejuvenated me instantly.
I had lots of very young, poor black kids at our ghetto site, they'd march in and declare this was their first time voting and they were here to vote for Obama and nobody else. I'd raise a finger to my lips and go "Shh..." and say "we can't talk politics in here, we're just here for the election," and then I'd look them in the eye and wink. They'd burst into a broad smile, they couldn't believe this old white guy, The Man, was on their side, helping them vote. I'd take extra time to explain how the ballot worked. I hope they become lifetime voters, whatever party they choose.
And then the site chairwoman would come over and chastise me for being too helpful. She asserted that I was supposed to just hand out ballots and let the kids screw them up if they didn't know any better. I disagreed, but I kept silent, I never dispute the chairwoman. I just follow my Prime Directives as I understand them. I serve the voters, more than the voting officials (even if they sign my paycheck).
There are many dedicated workers in the office and at the voting sites and many of us have become fast friends. The office is a strange place where an open process of government is open to public inspection, but privacy of voter information is paramount, and everyone is anonymous to me. I know their faces, but I rarely know what they do, or what I am supposed to do for them. Everyone is overworked and running on pure adrenaline and caffeine. We are often unintentionally testy with each other, but I try to be courteous to everyone. But I inevitably run into problems, especially when I'm out working at voting sites.
The Auditor's office is decorated with dozens of art prints by Grant Wood, the most famous Iowan Artist. But there is one of his most famous paintings that is conspicuously absent: Daughters of Revolution.
It is a satire of a bunch of blue-haired old ladies, sipping tea in front of a painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. Grant was clearly satirizing these self-appointed protectors of the morals - he thought they were an obstacle to social progress. And I run across such old biddies every once in a while; it's difficult to find workers who will accept such low wages for a few weeks' work every couple of years.
Like the chairwoman at the ghetto site, for example. I saw her turn away a black girl who clearly could have voted, if she had wanted to go to the effort of doing some extra paperwork. I suspected her motivation was racism, but she outranks me (everyone outranks me, here) so I could not intervene. The Deputies tell me the worst thing I could possibly do is disenfranchise a voter, to turn them away from the polls when they had the right to vote. But that is exactly what she did.
But I got even with her. I was working at a site that was getting overloaded. The workers were mostly elderly and inexperienced and couldn't keep up with the workload. I came in and saw an old biddie turn away a young black girl from a nearby low-income housing project, she was not registered. I overheard the conversation and I knew how to register her with a new procedure we'd been testing in the office for a week. I stood up, and stopped the girl from leaving.
"Miss, I know how you can register and vote," I told her. "Stay right here and I'll explain when I finish with this voter." She looked at me wide-eyed, and stayed riveted to the spot. I returned in a minute, explained the procedure, I gave her forms to fill out, told her to go home and get some documents, and then she ran out the door. She returned with the proper papers, and I got her to vote.
And this is my problem with some of the old biddies. Many of them have worked these elections for so many years, they feel they are entitled to be gatekeepers, that they alone determine who can and cannot vote. They think are above the law. I think they're a menace.
I believe officials like this violate my most secret Prime Directive: make the voters trust our system, give them faith that we have everything under control (even when we don't), and never give them any reason to believe their vote will not count. But I find old biddies (both male and female) that constantly undermine our efforts.
They bitch about how badly the computers don't work. They tell voters too much information about voting systems, freaking them out. I've heard voters react to their antics by saying "Now I'm scared!" and I am crestfallen. I feel like I have to work four times as fast, so that four times as many voters come to my station instead of getting into their clutches.
Unfortunately, this means I also have a tendency to be an old blue-haired biddy myself. I've become the self-appointed gatekeeper, except I hold the gate open for people to crash the party. And that's the law: all residents have the right to vote and crash the party. I have a little speech I give sometimes when people ask why we don't ask voters for identification. I tell them that historically, stringent ID checks and literacy tests have been used to disenfranchise the poor and minorities, we don't do that in Iowa, that's the law. This speech gets a great reaction from minorities and the poor. One day I told this story to a soccer mom - her reaction stunned me. she said: "yeah, whatever."