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Behind the scenes: A hidden routine for secret ballots in Concord

  • Concord city worker Ed Bisson puts voting booths together Monday at the Green Street Community Center ahead of today’s primary. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Concord city worker Ed Bisson works on putting the voting booths together for the primary election at the Green Street gymnasium on Monday, September 10, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Concord city worker Ed Bisson puts voting booths together at the Green Street Community Center on Monday ahead of today’s primary. Photos by GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jay Burgess, superintendent of the Public Properties Division for the city of Concord, oversees voting booth installation Monday.


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

By RAY DUCKLER

Monitor staff

You’ll see the blue tarpaulin first, as soon as you walk through the doors at the Green Street Community Center, spread before you like a calm, peaceful lake.

You’ll see aluminum legs anchoring rectangular spaces a few feet off the ground, all perfectly lined up like lockers, each with a red, white and blue vinyl drape for privacy, the gateway to something called the secret ballot.

You’ll see long white tables, the kind school kids sit at during lunchtime, and you’ll see voting officials at those tables, guiding, registering, participating.

And on your way out, to the left of the gym doors, will be a machine, sitting on top of the ballot box, that sucks your ballot from your hand like an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner.

Those basketball hoops at the Green Street Community Center, high on the walls and important to the city’s jocks for decades, meant nothing Monday and will mean nothing Tuesday.

On Tuesday, at this place, it’ll be time to vote in the primaries, not shoot jumpers.

“This is the Super Bowl of what we do,” said Jay Burgess, the city’s superintendent for the Public Properties Division. “It’s one of those things that goes on that nobody knows about, but it’s very important work. This is the hard part, today.”

Burgess looked like an office guy, with neat hair, sharp vest and notebook. He oversaw a group of three – crew leader Larry White, Ed Bisson and a young man with a neatly trimmed beard who wished to remain anonymous.

“He’s a member of the witness protection program,” joked Bisson, the comedian in the group.

Bisson was older, more of a grizzled-looking veteran, with a light, scraggly beard, a thick goatee that looked like it had been growing for months and a ponytail jetting out from the back of his baseball hat. He had a pack of smokes tucked into his shirt pocket.

They formed one of two crews who would build the voting booths and add all the trimmings. Ten wards, 10 voting stations, each crew handling five.

Normally, White is in charge of the city’s swimming pools. Bisson paints. The young, shy member is the maintenance technician. They all pitch in to plow snow off the runways at the Concord Municipal Airport.

But this wasn’t a normal day. This was a day to prepare for Tuesday, to make sure the city’s voters would feel comfortable after entering gyms and churches scattered around Concord so they could do what we see as a cherished privilege.

Vote.

“This is probably the most important thing we do,” Burgess said. “We’re in the background, behind the scenes. But there’s like 240 years that has led up to tomorrow. You can’t mess it up.”

This was their first of five stops, beginning at 7 in the morning. St. John’s Church, Havenwood Heritage-Heights, the Bektash Shrine Center and the West Street Ward House would follow.

“It’s a redundant process,” White said.

Most everything at the center that was connected to voting day was white – the tables, the chairs, the posts and chains that will show voters where to line up, the privacy-providing, makeshift coverings on the sides of each booth – made of the same tough, vinyl fabric as that deep blue tarpaulin. Even the name of the No. 1 guy fit in nicely.

White, Bisson and the third member of the team met behind the handicap booth, which was wider than the rest of the booths to allow wheelchairs easy access. They put paperwork on a table and mapped out the rest of their day, where they needed to be next, how much time they had, what equipment had already been packed into their two general services pickup trucks, when it might rain later in the day.

“We’ll have to do the exact same thing four more times today,” White said. “Then on Wednesday it will be the complete opposite.”

Once the unidentified member of the team rolled out the ballot box, pushing it up wheelchair ramps and on into the Green Street Community Center, everything was in place at Site No. 1.

Everything except the machine that sucks the ballots into the box and the ballots themselves. The machine instantly recognizes write-in votes and separates those ballots from those filled out by darkening the circle beside the candidate’s name.

Those items were under lock and key, Burgess believed, and wouldn’t be put into place at the 10 voting sites until early Tuesday morning, before the polls open at 7.

City Clerk Janice Bonenfant is responsible for the machine and ballots, the two most important pieces to the integrity of the process. I couldn’t reach her on Monday, by my deadline. She no doubt was busy.

So was the crew I met. White left in one city vehicle and headed to the next stop, St. John’s Church. Then, a few minutes later, after the ballot box had been put into place, the other workers left the all-brick section of town, where the community center is sandwiched between City Hall and the police station.

“Okay,” Bisson said. “We’re off.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed to reflect the crews clean the runways at the Concord Municipal Airport.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)