Sunday, November 13, 2011

Voting Right

"What do you do with your time?" is a question former colleagues often ask when we meet after many years of "retirement." I usually talk about writing books and short stories and essays, or cutting firewood or working on old tractors and other necessary accessories to life in the mountains. I seldom talk about politics because I think that is a private matter and I’m not really the confrontational sort of person that today’s political world seems to breed faster than the wild rabbits that pop up when the dogs aren’t out. But here are some things about politics I will talk about.

First of all, on Tuesday last, I gave up my day (and night) to the political process. I was an "election official" for a day. Actually longer than a day, if you consider the half day I spent in class learning about my duties and responsibilities, and another hour or so a couple of days later helping clean up some of the paperwork details such an effort inevitably generates.

I worked in the precinct where we live, so I only had to drive the two miles from the house to the firehouse, but I had to be there at five in the morning. Among other things, I was the only one of the officials who knew the combination to the door. The polls open at six, and we had work to do before one of us could go outside and announce in a loud voice, "The Polls Are OPEN!" Well, that didn’t bring anybody in, but we were ready. We had opened the packages of paper ballots, set up the electronic voting machine (we still offer a choice), got the poll book ready to check people in, set up the ballot box to receive their paper ballots when they had voted. And made sure they got a sticky badge saying "I Voted." We were ready.

Throughout the day we welcomed neighbors and friends who live in the precinct, made sure everyone got a chance to vote without being hurried, and generally watched to see that things were done according to the rules. 71 people made their choices between "The Polls Are OPEN" and "The Polls are CLOSED," 13 hours later. Then the work began. Until then it had been a kind of extended reunion, helped along by snacks and even chili prepared by the other four officials (I provided the coffee, it being the one thing I know how to cook). Once the door was secured, however, we really had work to do.

I never realized how much paperwork is associated with voting, even if you vote electronically. At least in our part of the world (admittedly a small part), we have to count (and count more than once) every paper ballot and report the results on two or three forms. We have to verify the electronic votes and enter that information on a form or two or three. If a count doesn’t agree with the previous one, we have to keep counting until we are sure our numbers are true. It is a long process. When I was ready to lock the door behind us, nobody said: "Wait. Can’t we stay a little longer?"

What impressed me the most, I think, is how we as a people follow a process that is the foundation of who we are. Whether you voted on paper or on a touch screen, there were no soldiers standing by to make sure you followed the right procedure. If there was a challenge to a vote, it was resolved by a civilized and civil process. And it happened not just in our little precinct, but in hundreds of others, large and small, and it will again and again across this land and beyond our continental borders the next time we vote.

It is an orderly (if sometimes noisy) process that depends on trust and respect and not on purple thumbs. It is America and it is the world we have made, here as nowhere else. It was along day, but one I would not have missed for anything. It’s what you do in the country.

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