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One Man’s Plan: Volunteering at Ward 7 showed me the true face of democracy

Last modified: 11/9/2014 5:42:03 AM
Feeling a little cynical these days? Frustrated with your fellow citizens for choosing that bozo or reelecting such a nincompoop? In the surge toward this year’s election, I’d been swimming in a sea of cynicism, drenched by negative ads and images that made me wonder if America’s Biggest Idiot was running against the World’s Greatest Liar in every race across the country. Every two years I note the Facebook posts, watch the ads and read in the papers how my candidate is awesome while yours is not only terrible but also a fool and probably a cheater, too. And it feels like it’s always been this way. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson accused John Adams of being a hermaphrodite while Adams labeled Jefferson an atheist, which in those days was like referring to someone as the cloven-hoofed Fallen Angel himself. (“You’ve got man parts and lady parts!” “Well, you’re the Devil!” “Let’s be famous Americans!”) Go figure.

Lately it’s felt like politics and elections are like a big bag of Doritos, promising things they can’t deliver (“real cheezy flavor!”) and ruining my health (disodium guanylate, anyone?). The initial interaction is great – even inspiring. Biting into that first chip is always a glorious moment when I think I’ve found a new way of snacking – all the Doritos in the past were nothing like this one special chip, the one I chose from this bag. But midway through, that familiar, pedestrian taste returns, my belly feels uneasy and I won’t dare put the bag down for fear that everyone’ll know I made a bad choice. And of course, if these Doritos were from Connecticut or Louisiana, they’d go to jail for corruption and influence peddling, but that’s a story for another day.

I’ve found a way out of this cycle of self-inflicted misery. I volunteered to help on Election Day in my local ward, convincing the moderator, Dennis Thivierge, to let me join the 10 or so elected officials and volunteers in Ward 7 for this year’s big day. Dennis invited me to be a ballot inspector, to sit at the front table as part of a two-person team checking in voters against the registration rolls, and I accepted immediately.

I arrive at 6 a.m., an hour before the polls open, and the place is in full swing. Sample ballots to post, tables to arrange, pencils to sharpen, rules to explain and re-explain, voter rolls to prep, machines to power on and ballots to stack. Dennis swears me in with an oath that I may, “Under God, uphold the Constitution of the state of New Hampshire and of the United States.” This feels kind of cool, like I’m part of something that matters.

A line’s forming outside as we race to get everything ready. Dennis and Jim Fowler, Ward 7’s election clerk, show me the Accu-Vote, a laptop-type scanner that accepts the ballots and counts them as they fall into a huge locked bin beneath. Dennis reminds us about the need to see a photo ID and what we can and can’t ask for. As the clock strikes 7 a.m., he announces in a loud voice, “The polls at Ward 7 are now officially open for business.” And from that moment on, save for an odd 10 minutes here and there, the line of voters doesn’t stop for 12 straight hours, voter after voter standing in line, waiting for his or her turn to have a say in our democracy.

The tone is friendly but official – John Hattan, Ward 7’s supervisor of clerks, reminds me I need to repeat each voter’s name aloud twice while also stating the address. I follow a strict protocol about what pencils to use, how to mark someone’s name as registered and where to send them if they don’t have an ID or choose not to share one. Every few minutes or so John or his colleague Margaret Gegas interrupts to add a new Ward 7 voter to the rolls – in red pencil only.

I’m paired with Jemi Broussard, a veteran of this ballot inspecting game, and I follow her lead. Hour after hour, voter after voter, Jemi and I greet neighbors, strangers, friends and family members, asking them for IDs, confirming addresses and handing them ballots as they breeze past us to the curtained booths. Jemi chats with people she knows while voters in line connect with each other, little kids goof around under and between their parents’ legs, and people catch up on each other’s lives. “Did you hear Liz is getting married this summer?” “Kevin’s at Fort Hood so he won’t be voting today!” “Still teaching piano lessons?” “Where’d you get your firewood this year?”

A few voters roll their eyes at the request for photo ID, and one irate gentleman slams his license down on the table in disgust. Moments later a woman waits for me to ask for her ID and proudly produces it, saying, “I’m happy to do it! I think it’s a great idea.”

A parade of people comes to vote – teachers, tutors, cops, doctors, lawyers and politicians waiting to choose their own names, presumably. We see moms and dads; grandparents and grandkids; heavyset voters; skinny voters; voters with pierced ears, noses and lips; voters in their teens, 80s and 90s; voters who can’t see, can’t hear and can’t walk, followed by sweaty voters who stop mid run to cast their votes. We even see voters who talk so much that we politely ask them to take their ballots and move along. I see my wife’s brother-in-law, the local rabbi, the woman who walks her tiny dog past my house, my son’s Little League coach and the guy who makes the best egg and cheese sandwich in town. I see men and women who have served in the wars we’ve fought since 1940, including one man in a USS Midway cap who’s been voting here since 1961, his daughter helping him to the voting booth. Every time a young adult casts a ballot, Jim shouts out, “We have a first-time voter!” and the entire place erupts in applause, smiles creasing everyone’s faces. I even see and shake the hand of the son of one of the soldiers who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima.

What a way to spend a day!

The polls close at 7 p.m. Dennis closes and locks the door, and we take a few hours or so checking our rolls and providing counts of party affiliation as Dennis and Jim run and re-run the Accu-Vote machine for the final Ward 7 tally. At the back table, the others pour over the write-in ballots. Although David Bowie, Megatron and Santa Claus seem like reasonable write-in choices for County Sherriff, such suggestions are neither practical nor particularly helpful.

On the short drive home it hits me – this is what makes democracy so special. Not the money wasted on negative ads, not the tedious speeches filled with hollow hopes, not the vitriol or the winner-take-all attitude. Our democracy is about community, about taking one day out of the year to spend a few minutes with our neighbors to choose something, whether it’s hope, or the promise of a better tomorrow or a distant future. Whether we’re there out of fear, faith, speculation or security.

I spent 15 hours surrounded by engaged people who suspended their cynicism for a little while and contributed to the democratic process. So the least I can do is hold on to this optimism for a while.

I may never think of Doritos the same way again.

(Email Tim at timcoshea@gmail.com)


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