At 12 minutes to six Tuesday morning, I lifted the backpack onto my shoulder, grabbed my cup of coffee and walked out the front door into the hot, humid, island dark. It’s half a dozen blocks and a five-minute walk to my assigned polling place, but I sure didn’t want to be late for my first time as a Key West election day poll worker.
This was first-day-of-school excitement with a spoonful of trepidation tossed in. I’ve wanted to work the polls since I followed my mother into a voting booth a lifetime ago. I was in wide-eyed awe of those huge, awkward books with worn pages and faded signatures presided over with extraordinary efficiency by grandmapas (go ahead; say it aloud. It’ll make sense once you hear it) who’d peer over their readers, alert falcons ready to swoop if one’s signature didn’t match.
OK, so, yeah, I’ll admit I’m a voting nerd who’s not missed more than a couple election days since I could first cast a ballot in 1972. For today’s younguns who can vote at 18, there was a time before 1971 that you had to be 21 to vote. Then around the height of the Vietnam War disaster, Americans figured out if one was old enough to die for America, one ought to be able to vote for America. And, so was ratified the 26th Amendment.
Election Day in the newsroom
I’m a giddy girl on election day and there was no place better than a newsroom. For more than four decades, I worked elections from the news-side. First as a field reporter calling in results from elections offices, a precinct or ward or a candidate’s headquarters. Field reporters stood in line for the one or two available pay phones, jostling for position, scrounging spare change and swearing at each other if one took too long.
Those were the days of paper and it took forever to tally votes. The newsroom walls were lined with rows of paper from newsprint rolls where numbers were tallied and scores were kept. Those rows were wall-size, albeit low-tech, at-a-glance predecessors of today’s online tallies.
(Side note: So fast, in fact, that Monroe County results were almost complete by the time I walked from my polling place to home Tuesday evening.)
As the years passed, I’d vote before heading into the newsroom on election day. By then my election day job was relegated to (1) being jealous of the cool things reporters and editors were doing and (2) ordering the pizza. No election day is complete without cold, dry, congealed pizza. There were occasionally those election nights when I got to make executive decisions like whether our next morning’s hanging chad headline was going to be “Bush Wins” or “Gore Wins.” We know how that turned out, right? And, I called the Obama v. Clinton headline in 2008. (Gaad, that was so long ago.)
Key West election day | August 2022
That’s heady stuff, but I still wanted to work the polls. This year, when Monroe County Supervisor of Elections put out a call for volunteers, I applied. I knew going in that the selection and training of poll workers was just this side of arduous. One doesn’t get to be a poll worker without hours of in-person training and close supervision. No slacker gets to be a poll worker in Monroe County; Supervisor Joyce Griffin makes certain of that.
Which brings me back to the o-dark-thirty of Tuesday morning as I headed to my neighborhood precinct polling place, heart beating a little faster than usual as one’s does when doing something for the first time. But, oh, was it worth it.
For those brief hours between 6 a.m., when we began setting up and wiping down the booths, plugging in the lights and taping up the signs, until shortly before 8 p.m., when we put everything back in place after the polls closed, something wonderful happened.
My precinct polling place, which draws from much of my own neighborhood, was a microcosm of what we want our world to be. There, wrapped around the serious work of voting, was a whole day of just plain normal. Normal like we all thought was good in the way back. Normal as in before our fears of staggering change out of our control made us suspicious of each other; normal as in before Covid-19 upended our ability to plan ahead for even the simply things like a birthday party.
I handed out Republican ballots, Democratic ones and no-party-affiliation ones. I matched signatures and addresses using the electronic voter ID database system. What a godsend that is for ensuring accurate records, eliminating any question about who voted, when and where. And, though I’ll admit to a certain nostalgia for the departed paper books and alphabetical lines, the electronic system is a powerful tool for in-person voting.
And, guess what? Every voter who took a ballot did so with grace, a grin, an engaged conversation, sincere pleasure and respect for being able to fill in the bubbles completely.
There was the twenty-something who raced in minutes before the polls closed saying as he ran across the room, “my mom will kill me if I miss this; she’s been texting me all day” and he showed the texts — complete with a dog wearing an “I voted” sticker to prove it. We took a picture outside afterwards of him wearing his conch sticker and sent it to mom.
There were wide-eyed children tagging along with parents who offered up first-class civics lessons in how voting worked. I know how those kids felt. I used to be one of them.
Among those voters were friends whom we welcomed by name and shared a hug or handshake and a let’s-catch-up story. There are no strangers in a polling place. We are there because we care about our future, because, though we will disagree on the details, often sharply so, we are committed to the most basic premise of democracy: My vote counts.
Look, I’m not so naive as to believe all is well in our democracy today; it is not. But. We are more closely aligned, more neighborly, if you will, than the unrelenting, misleading and disruptive spins may lead us to believe. Scratch the surface just a little, recognize our neighbors again and we will find we can, indeed, manage our dysfunction. We can be normal.
I hope I get asked back. Working the polls on Tuesday was everything I dreamed it would be. Plus, Ranger Ed ordered pizza for supper. It was cold when I got home. Just like the old days. Just like normal.