There is nothing like working the polls to put you in touch with all that is best and worst about Americans, though interacting with my fellow citizens was the last thing on my mind when I signed up to serve as a board worker for the primary election a few years ago. When I learned I could earn a hundred bucks for a single day’s work, I seized the chance. Since there is never money to spare in my budget, I had no doubt I could find ways to use the extra cash.
In the black pre-dawn of Election Morning, I stuffed all the food I needed for the day into a cooler and hopped into my car. My battery had been acting up for days. I turned the key and the engine reluctantly coughed to life. The dashboard display read January 1. Not a good sign, considering the fact that it was late August. I prayed that the car would start one more time to get me home at the end of the day.
It was 5:30 a.m. when I reported for duty at the recreation center of the tiny mobile home park that served as our polling place. Ours was one of three different precincts crammed into the same room, something bound to cause confusion, even though we posted a map to help the voters figure out where they were supposed to go
The polls opened promptly at six o’clock, and people began straggling in to exercise that most sacrosanct of American civil liberties, the right to vote. Once things started rolling, our jobs were fairly straightforward. Most of the voters were congenial and business-like, even so ridiculously early in the morning. We checked their IDs, then gave them their ballots. Once they were finished, we explained how to feed their ballots into the Insight machine, and then sent them on their way sporting “I voted today” stickers.
The job wasn’t rocket science, and voter turn out was low, so we had plenty of time to chat. The most experienced members of our team were Becky and her sister RoJane, though health problems had kept Becky away for several years. She recounted the tales of her knee replacement surgeries and double mastectomy. Becky saw herself not as a cancer survivor, but as an overcomer. She said she enjoyed raising cockatiels and had rescued several baby hummingbirds.
The youngest member of our team was Miryam. She was a beautiful, black high-schooler, dressed in blue jeans and a Muslim headscarf. She was there to get credit in her government class. She had enjoyed playing softball, until she found herself on a team where she was clearly outclassed and ran the risk of getting hurt. At that point, she didn’t find it fun anymore. She said she enjoyed reciting poetry at speech competitions.
Miryam was stationed near the door, trying to intercept the voters and help direct them to the correct precincts’ tables, when this guy walked into the clubhouse. He was old and sinewy with an unhealthy tan and a mop of unruly white hair. One look at our young Muslim girl and he became loud and indignant.
“I’ve never had to flip a coin to figure out where I was supposed to vote before!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been voting here for years.”
Miryam, with her downcast doe’s eyes, attempted to show him the precinct map, but he became increasingly obnoxious. Soon, two older poll workers tried to intervene. I could understand the man’s frustration, but he acted as though they were all there to give him a hard time. By the tone of his voice, I guessed he believed he was being funny. In reality he was making an ass of himself.
Finally, he was sent to my table. I put on my “happy waitress dealing with tipsy customer” voice, intentionally brightening my tone as I said, “If you’ll just show me your ID, sir, we’ll see if we can’t find you over here.”
He imparted a few more smart remarks as I checked his driver’s license against the voter rolls and sent him down the table to get his ballot.
Before going off to vote, he made a crack about his T-shirt, which featured a pro-American symbol and sentiment. “Am I still allowed to be in here wearing this?” he asked.
Of course you are, I thought. We just wish you’d shut up.
When he finally finished voting and departed with his sticker, every poll worker in the room breathed a sigh of relief.
At the end of the day, RoJane took the memory cartridge from our Insight machine to election headquarters. As the rest of us went through our checklists and packed up, I mentioned to Becky that I was worried about my battery.
“RoJane can give you a jump as soon as she comes back,” she said.
When I got to my car, the starter emitted only impotent clicks. I trotted back toward the clubhouse, intercepting RoJane in the parking lot just as she returned. She drove me back to the side street where I had parked.
“I don’t have jumper cables,” she said. “They’re in Becky’s car.”
Just then, an elderly woman, hearing the noise from RoJane’s engine, poked her head out of the trailer across the street.
“You wouldn’t happen to have any jumper cables, would you?” I asked.
“Oh, sure,” she replied. “I’ll send my husband right out with them.”
In five minutes, the old man stood between my open hood and RoJane’s. He hooked up his cables, and I jumped into my car. I turned the key and the motor growled to life.
“Thank you so much,” I said to both of them. I slammed the hood and drove off into the night, grateful for the kindness of strangers, and for a story to tell as I pondered the unforeseen blessings of a hard day’s work in this odd yet wonderful place I call my home.