November 4, 2010

Watching voters try to save the world: Election Day through the eyes of an election judge

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by Cassie M. Chew
Special to MarylandReporter.com

“Did you save the world?” I asked some of the voters who arrived during the first hour of voting on Election Day randomly as they dropped off the smart cards on which Montgomery County’s voting system encodes a voter’s electronic ballot for the touch screen booths.

“I tried,” or “I did my best,” some replied with a laugh as I handed them an “I Voted” sticker and wished them a good day at the office. Those well wishes set the tone for the rest of my 15-hour day as one of a dozen election judges manning one of the polling sites in Takoma Park.

I don’t know what it was like at other polling places, but we kicked butt. Most of us, including our high schooler, were repeat judges–so we knew the ropes. The maximum amount of time folks spent in the check-in line and then waiting for a voting booth at Piney Branch Elementary had to be under 15 minutes—even for those who had to vote provisionally on paper ballots.

Perhaps word of the quick turnaround was the reason for the precinct’s fairly decent turnout. Out of 2,701 registered voters, 1,139 bundled up on the first chilly day of the season to cast their votes in the mid-term election.

While a few members of the super smart and super creative Takoma Park community questioned whether the machines offered enough privacy, what would happen to the information on their ballot cards, and whether there was any kind of paper trail for their individual vote, there were no unsolvable problems with the equipment or disturbances erupting inside the polling site.

In the words of Ann, our chief judge, “The day was uneventful.” I’ll admit, this is not the stuff of a great news story as what usually ends up on the 11 p.m. broadcast is murder and mayhem. But uneventful doesn’t mean that we were bored. From the time we opened our doors at 7 a.m., we were met with a steady stream of voters that was maintained through closing time at 8 p.m.

At various times throughout the day, the polling place took on a festive atmosphere. Takoma Park residents have an affinity for each other politically and socially. There were lots of “hello”s, “nice to see you”s and “how are you”s going on. Parents arrived with their kids thereby helping to educate the next generation of voters. Additionally, the school’s parent teacher association hosts a bake sale every Election Day. The promise of a treat after casting their votes brought some party to the purpose at hand.

I started the day escorting folks to the voting booths, and migrated over to the provisional voting area after lunch. All morning, provisional activity had been light. As soon as I took on the job, it picked up.

The provisional desk got so busy that Jeff, the other chief judge, crowned me with the title “Provisional Queen” at the end of the day. “Great,” I said. “Maybe that’s something I can post on my LinkedIn page.”

Yet it was there that I experienced the highlight of my day. I met a very cute older lady—in every sense of the word—who spoke little English, walked with a cane, took public transportation to the polls and ended up at Piney Branch Elementary, which was about a mile from her assigned poling place. As I helped her fill out the Spanish language version of the provisional ballot application and watcher her slowly and deliberately sign in all the required places, she helped reinforce to me what the right to a free and fair election process is all about.

Other people who sat across from me at the provisional desk included a police officer who appreciated me saving her paperwork until she could get off duty and return to the polls, a young man who admitted he was “too lazy” to go change his address with the Board of Elections, a young woman who in this economy purchased a new condo, a woman whose workplace kept calling her while she was trying to vote, a lady with glaucoma—we were able to recruit her daughter to serve as her assistant, and a young man who was hearing impaired—we used handwritten notes to communicate with each other.

I don’t know if they saved the world with their votes, but I have loads of respect them all for keeping the faith.

Cassie M. Chew is a multimedia journalist who served as an election judge Tuesday.