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American Pie: Political Awakening - Part The Second

...It was a high price to pay for my newfound interest in politics, and I wasn’t even sure that I’d be able to rouse myself at 4 am to be at the polling station on time. But on the day, there I was, still half asleep, being driven by my wife through an early morning mist to the Southern Baptist church that was loaning its facilities for the occasion. Other than two or three gas stations, the church was the only place showing any lights in the pre-dawn blackness, but as we approached, other headlights swung into the driveway, and soon a gaggle of bleary-eyed volunteers was waiting at the church door...

John Merchant volunteers his time and does his duty as a polling station worker.

His reward for a tough day on the voting front line? "My back and feet were not happy.''

In a column dated January 30, 2008, I wrote about the awakening of my interest in politics, after a lifetime of cynical indifference. The extent of my commitment to my new enthusiasm, up to writing that column, had been to volunteer as a polling station worker. At that time I had received a one-hour orientation at the County Election Center, and was a week away from the next step, a three-hour training session.

From what I had observed as a voter, I found it hard to believe that it would take three hours to train me for hanging around the polling station to show voters where the machines are located, and to ensure there was no finagling, but the training soon disabused me of that idea. Ten or so of us volunteers were grouped in a “U” shaped arrangement of tables, facing our instructor for the day. He was a rather fine-drawn, slightly hippy looking man in his forties, with a ponytail and a pleasant southern accent.

He very quickly dispelled any negative impressions we might have had of him based on his appearance, and emerged as a knowledgeable and expert instructor. Over the next three hours he described the various tasks we might be asked to perform, and acquainted us with many of the glitches that get in the way of a smooth voting process: voters coming to the wrong precinct; not having valid identification; having an address that didn’t match the voter rolls etc. etc.

He also made very sure that we knew what we could and could not say to a voter; what questions we could ask and what questions were verboten; how we should greet and treat them; how to deal with people who are disabled, belligerent, confused; or exhibiting any other phenomena from the vast catalog of aberrant behavior. And at that point we hadn’t even discussed the operation of the voting machine or how to register a voter. We eventually got into that, and were also informed about the responsibilities of the various polling station jobs.

At the orientation we had been given a written test, and based on the results and any experience we possessed, we would be appointed to the position of Clerk, Deputy, System Specialist, Inspector or Station Technician. Contrary to what I had imagined, the Clerk was the boss, and the Inspectors were the low guys on the totem pole. With some chagrin I later learned that I had been allocated Inspector status.

At the end of the training session my head was spinning and I had grave doubts about whether I could do what I had let myself in for. It was at this low point that we were told that we would also be responsible for setting up the polling station, and that to do so we needed to report to the precinct no later than 5 am on Election Day, now ten days away. Once there, we would not be allowed to leave before the station closed at 7pm, and only then if we had dismantled the equipment and returned the furniture. My heart sank.

It was a high price to pay for my newfound interest in politics, and I wasn’t even sure that I’d be able to rouse myself at 4 am to be at the polling station on time. But on the day, there I was, still half asleep, being driven by my wife through an early morning mist to the Southern Baptist church that was loaning its facilities for the occasion. Other than two or three gas stations, the church was the only place showing any lights in the pre-dawn blackness, but as we approached, other headlights swung into the driveway, and soon a gaggle of bleary-eyed volunteers was waiting at the church door.

Once inside I was immediately struck by the size and facilities of this place of worship. Like many modern churches in Florida it embodied a giant auditorium, kitchens big enough to cater for the thousand congregants, offices, meeting rooms, a modern control room for the sound and lighting of services and performances, and a stage that would do many a Broadway theater proud. We were told by the Clerk, an understandably tense, but pleasant middle–aged lady, to set up the equipment in the auditorium according to a prescribed layout.

The Ivotronic voting machines used in Florida are somewhat sophisticated, electronic event loggers, not computers as many people think. Because they are electronic and therefore inscrutable, they have spawned much controversy in a State that is notorious for its suspect presidential election in 2004, and their use will be discontinued after this election in favor of paper ballots, despite the fact that paper ballots were part of the 2004 problems. Be that as it may, the Ivotronic is a well-designed and reliable machine and we soon had them ready to go.

As 7 am approached, voters were waiting at the door, and the anxiety I had been experiencing since the training session blossomed into full-blown stage fright. There were so many ways and opportunities to make mistakes or to say the wrong thing. The registration process alone was like a minefield. Ask the voter for a photo and signature I.D. If it’s a driver’s license, check that it is valid. Ask the voter to say their current address and check that it matches the I.D. If it doesn’t, send them to the System Specialist.

If you get that far without a problem, find their name in the voters register and get them to sign the entry and then check that the signature matches the I.D. On one of my sessions at the registration desk I had the E to J’s. You wouldn’t believe how many Evans and Jones there were. Having passed those hurdles, complete the voter registration receipt and get them to sign it, then sign off on the register entry. Ask them to confirm their party affiliation and send them to the voting machine. Meanwhile a line of impatient voters, who have taken time out from their busy day, is waiting to be processed.

At the end of a day that seemed like a week, the doors were finally closed, and the inexperienced among us started to gather our things together. “Not so fast,” cautioned the Clerk. “We have to match the 690 receipts with the tally of the voting machines before you can touch a thing.” With a groan we sat down again, and I for one anticipated that the receipts and the machines would never tally. I had visions of spending the night in the chapel, praying for release.

But, amazingly, the records were quickly reconciled, and after the dismantling and packing was over we eventually left the building at 8.30 pm It had been a long, and for me, stressful day that I’m not anxious to repeat. I was beyond tired, and my back and feet were not happy. I resolved that if my political conscience ever awakens again I’ll find some other way to quell the pangs. Surprisingly, most of my colleagues expressed a willingness to do it again, but then they were all younger than me. Sometimes being old is a great excuse.

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