I got to be a poll worker in Brentwood Tuesday, 6:05 a.m. until 9:23 p.m. As a lesson in democracy, it was simultaneously inspiring and a bit horrifying.
It was inspiring in that all of the ballots, machines, instructions, systems, and people came together in a Presbyterian church hall (Angela Lansbury's church I was told) to create a one-day democratic institution, a world unto itself, just like thousands and thousands like it across the country, and from that we got a tally by which we govern ourselves. You see old people in walkers and wheelchairs, recent immigrants, mothers and fathers who bring children into communion with self-governance, and first-time voters of all ages. It's truly moving.
But it was also horrifying to experience the confusion and cluelessness of a decent slice of the electorate, as well as among us poll workers at times. It wasn't entirely anyone's fault. We had a plethora of parties and ballots--Democratic, Republican, American Independent Party, Non-partisan, Green, Peace and Freedom. In the case of California, non-partisan voters could not request Republican ballots. Non-Partisan ballots did not have presidential slates, and independents who voted Democratic had to mark a separate Democratic Party bubble. There was also the old California problem of people who move from out of state, register as independents, or so they think, and then find themselves part of something called the American Independent Party, and learn in the booth that their candidate for president is a wing-nut named Donald Grundmann. A delicious basso-profondo "WTF" echoed beautifully from the "independent/green/freedom booth behind me at about 10 a.m.
I had the excuse of not having gone though training, having volunteered after it was offered, but even those who had been though training were confused. I read the instructions and updates myself during the morning and found them slightly helpful, but the most important updates and alerts never got to us. So we improvised as best we could. Some of the poll workers (like me) felt a responsibility to try to explain this all objectively to voters who seemed befuddled. Others just stared blankly back at questions; others thought it was against the law to try explain anything; and one I overheard at another table solved problems by authoritatively explaining things back-asswards and upside down, and handed out God knows which ballots.
The three retired women at my table, I must say, were wonderful company and wise counselors. I made a few mistakes, but nothing in the category of preventing a voter from casting a ballot. While not perfect, we were well-intentioned, put in an exhausting long day, and seemed to do enough of the trick to preserve The Republic for another plebiscite.
It's also worth mentioning, however, from the poll worker's perch, a lot of dopiness witnessed that I am sure carries over into electoral decision-making. One voter knew not only her previous address, but also her former last name. A few were incapable of inserting a card into a slot. My friend Doc, who captained our table with the wry tolerance of a Pop Warner referee, proved adept at the upside-down-slide-bang to free stuck, unproperly stuffed ballots.
We also had a moment of excitement and a brush with infamy after one of the machines refused to suck in a Republican ballot (solution: deposit ballots manually) and the voter called FOX News, which actually sent someone to sniff out the conspiracy. They found none. (How much time did FOX News spend on the ridiculous voter identification lines in Georgia? Selective hounds they are).
And still somehow, voters were polite, gracious, and understanding. Many thanked us for doing our bit. At the end of the night, we efficiently completed a tally that made sense against the numbers of addresses crossed out, packed up all the stuff, and drove the ballots to the county counting place.
It was, I gotta add, a bit of an odd sensation to drive away listening to radio reports of the California results, while knowing our precinct's votes were still in the passenger seat of Doc's old Volvo only a block ahead of me. But no matter, Super Tuesday came and went and we made it happen. And the net result of caucuses and primaries in 22 states and American Samoa, engaging millions of voters nationwide, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars in election costs and political advertising, seems to have been a nudging of Mitt Romney towards the exit. That's probably a good thing. He didn't really seem a good match for the job anyway, except for the hair.