A California voter stuffs her ballot
in the box after sorting through
a kazillion candidates
How the recall looked
from the inside out
By JOYCE KIEFER
As soon as the polls closed the night of the California voter earthquake, my four election officers and I had an hour to tear down and pack up the booths, take down signs welcoming voters in five languages, and check close to 600 punched card ballots for hanging chads.
We had to count the cards and separate any cards on which voters wrote in their choice for governor. In case the 135 names on the ballot were not enough, an additional two dozen certified write-in candidates increased their range of choice.
Exhausted from a 16-hour work day, I delivered the ballots and equipment to the Return Center 15 minutes after the deadline. I wasnt the only one late.
On the way home I turned on the radio. Governor Gray Davis was just ending his speech of concession. The recall was a done deal before anyone looked at our votes.
As I peeled off my badge, I thought how discouraging, sometimes futile, my job as inspector can feel. Counting prep time for the election, I put in a total of 22 hours. At a stipend of $115.00, I made $5.22 per hour - considerably less than the California minimum of $6.75. Governor Arnold should fix this.
But the job can be fascinating in a surreal way. I wanted to become an inspector ever since I was a little girl and my dad, who was an inspector, brought home a huge book of voter affidavits that had the real names of the nuns who taught at my school. No Sister Hyacinth or Sister Esther Marie. Instead, these ethereal beings had surnames that grounded them to the world with families and ethnic origins. The best part was knowing their birth dates so I could figure out how old they were. My dad swore me to secrecy and I think I actually kept my word.
Inspectors knew everything. I wanted to be one when I grew up.
The first time I headed up a precinct was when George McGovern ran for president in 1972. When I phoned my board members ahead of time, I sensed they were older, so I thought Id give them--and the conservative precinct where I worked that year--a bit of a shock . I dressed like a McGovern Kidlong hair tied with yarn in two pony tails, tank top, bell-bottoms, sandals. I looked younger than I was, so I could pull off the look. It was November and I was freezing, but I did have the desired effect. People looked with disbelief when they saw my badge. Maybe it was the off-season clothes.
The job of inspector is a means to really know your extended neighborhood if thats where you work. How many adult kids still live at home? Which spouses party affiliations will cancel each others votes? Dead time in the long election day is an opportunity to catch up with the voters on their lives and those of their children. In case anyone was interested, I placed a small album of pictures of my sons new baby next to the ballot box.
When I got a regular job I still took days off to work the elections. But over the years it became harder to fill the boards. Often Id be short-staffed or have workers cancel out. Several times the county sent someone who was senile; once they gave me a homeless woman who kept calling me afterwards to see if I knew of a place to live. I think she had my house in mind.
I decided Id work only the elections with historic significance, so I dropped out for a while and returned for the 2000 presidential election. Although it was the first year of the 21st century, my Santa Clara Countythe heart of Silicon Valleystill used punch cards. For years I regarded punch cards as a boon, because I remember my fathers late nights of tallying hand-checked paper ballots. But now I wondered why our brilliant citizens who started the computer boom didnt demand computers in the voting booths or simply donate them in the same spirit as they donated equipment to Stanford University and to their former high schools.
Joyce gets along well with her
fellow precinct workers, even
though she's now the oldest. Nobody
in this drawing is Joyce.
When the polls closed the night of the presidential election, I checked each punch card for spoilage and wondered how to call those faint dimples and barely punched holes. When I got home I heard this problem was making big news in Florida.
About two months ago I was asked to serve as inspector for the October gubernatorial Recall Election, if indeed it would be held in October. How could I resist another history maker? This election would be the last time Silicon Valley would use punch cards. Santa Clara and five other counties out of the 58 in California were the last holdouts. Next month, when we have another election coming, well get computers.
As for my board, I was oldest person this time. The other three were young professionals who are out of work. One had been my sons classmate in grade school. I was the only one who brought cookies.
Our polling place was the Salvation Army. Its location in our middle class neighborhood defies its association with skid row. As I walked in to inspect the site, I noticed their crest says Blood and Fire and thought of this admonition in the election rules:
Possession of a firearm within 100 ft. of a polling place is punishable by a fine or imprisonment. This does not apply to security personnel hired by the owner/mgr of the facility in which the polling place is located, unless they were hired solely for Election Day.
My friend Katy, who lived in Portugal during its socialist revolution, says it brings tears to her eyes to think that a mutual friend and I help run elections in this country. She recalls the armed soldiers sent to keep order at the polls in Lisbon.
I knew I was in good hands with the Salvation Army, especially if we got hungry. When I checked out the room for voting, it was filled with bread and pastry from the supermarkets. The staff assured me they would make room for the voting booths, that we could share the space. Voting among the birthday cakes made as much sense as anything else in this election.
But the Big Day held several surprises that made my job, well, actually a delight.
When I arrived at 6 a.m., all the bread was gone. The facilities man had placed a rose in a vase on the table where our board would sit. The county surprised me with a college student sent to help out in the afternoon as an assignment for her political science class. One of my board members, a British immigrant, gave out the I voted stickers with vigorous enthusiasm. Its advertising for democracy, he told everyone. Best of all were the voters themselves. They came in droves. As late as 10 a.m. they lined up beyond the door: elderly people in wheel chairswe never assisted so many voters--parents with kids, telling them all about voting; young people who said they were voting for the first time. Just before the polls closed, a young woman arrived, begging us breathlessly in halting English to help her find her voting place. I called the Spanish-speaking hotline and put her on. Her precinct was across town. I think she made it.
Many voters thanked us for running the election. I dont recall anyone doing that before.
Ive signed up to work the election next month even though I have no idea what will be on the ballot.
©2003 by Joyce Kiefer. The illustrations are from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
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