Sloppy Democracy: A Tale of Election Woe

I set out for the polls at noon with a light heart that now has sunken. At the end of short walk in sunshine of a glorious autumn day, I arrived at my designated polling place -- the Peter Roujet Middle School in Brooklyn -- and approached the information table, excited to exercise this most sacred of American duties. I told the woman my address; she looked in her materials and told me to get in line for the 20th district. I did.

Immediately in front of me in line were three young, Latino Brooklynites, voting for the first time. They were excited about it. But when, after about 15 minutes, they reached the table to get their voter cards, they found that not one of them was in the list of registered voters. They were offered paper affidavit ballots instead. They refused, thoroughly unconvinced that such ballots would be counted. They stormed out. During the minor fracas, a middle-aged Latino came to back the young men, saying he'd been turned down the previous year -- despite his having lived in the same house in that neighborhood for the past 30 years.

"They're trying to keep out votes out," he said, half-yelling. "But that's okay. The black man is still gonna win. White man trying it again."

This rattled me. Then I stepped to the table.

"He's in the wrong place. He should be at 15."
"The information table sent me here."
"She'll take you over to the front of the line."

Another poll worker appeared and led me to the front of the massively long line for district 15 and offered me to the three workers there. They told us to wait. She told me, "I'll be right back." She never reappeared. The workers at the table snapped at me, told me I had to get in the back of the line. I explained the situation -- they'd already heard it from the worker who'd brought me to them. They resisted. Told me I was being unfair. I started to step towards the back of the line, when one of them said, "Fine. I'll take care of you after we take three more people."

After two people were processed another poll worker approached the table.

"The computer fixed now?" they asked him.
"Seems to be."
"Take him," they said, laughing and gesturing to me. "Take him. You, go with him."
"Just go with him. You want to vote on the computer?"
"Why? And is it even working?"
"It's fine. It's fine," he told me. "If you don't like it you can come back and get in line."

What was this? Testing mattresses?

I went with him. Woodrow, a very affable, elderly African-American, seated me at a small desk with slight blinders on the sides and fed a voting form into the machine on the desk.

He said, "You can read, right? Just read the screen. Ask me if you have any questions. It will be fine."

I looked at the machine, made by a company called AutoMark. I realized it was essentially an automated way to fill out a 'handwritten' affidavit ballot, the kind given to people who don't appear on the list of registered voters. Would my vote go into that pile? Would it then even get counted? And would this happen just because I'd been sent to the wrong line and the poll workers didn't want to deal with me?

I stepped easily through the two-way, linear, touch-screen process. It was a simple system that notified you if you tried to move onto the next race without having looked at all the choices for the previous one. And it double checked if you tried to skip a race altogether. But I balked at the multiple listings for some of the candidates. What happens if I voted for Obama/Biden as the Working Families Party? Would that vote stick to the people or the party? Why were Obama/Biden Democrats at the top of the list, followed by three listings for McCain/Palin (Republican/Conservative/Independence)? And why were those four the only choices visible on the first page?

When I finished making my selections, the machine proffered a summary page to review my choices before finalizing them. It then spit the form back out, now blacked in at the appropriate places. Woodrow handed me an envelope -- just like those I'd seen given to the affidavit voters. I filled out my name and address on the envelope, dated and signed it. But what to do about the section that said I "MUST" mark one of three choices, explaining why I was filling an affidavit ballot? I wasn't. None of the choices applied to me.

Woodrow said, "Just write 'BMD'. Even though it says you must choose one, you don't have to."
I thought: Isn't that a surefire way to have my vote disqualified?

I questioned him about it, but he smiled and tried to reassure me. I folded my printout, sealed it in the envelope, after folding it awkwardly because it didn't fit, and handed it back to him. He told me then he'd take it back over to the table, the one with the workers who'd snubbed me.

Dazed, I stood in the hallway of the middle school for a few minutes. What had just happened? When I managed to wander out, I started talking to a young man who had used the computer right after me. He had no idea what had just happened.

He said, "The guy just came over to the line and asked if anyone knew how to use a computer. I raised my hand, and he told me to go with him."

He seemed even less clear than I on how we'd just voted and if we'd managed to disqualify our votes unknowingly and at the hands of the poll workers.

Woodrow was helpful and honest with me. When I asked, he told me he and his wife had had a four-hour training with this BMD ("Ballot Marking Device" " I discovered when I got home and Googled it) and then had operated one during the primaries. He seemed confident. I'm less so. I hadn't even filled in a Voter Card. Would my vote be tossed in with the affidavit ballots of people not on the registered voters list? Does that mean it will be counted? Will it even get into the system? Did this particular BMD make an internal record my vote and store it on its hard-drive? Does it have a hard-drive, or was it just an easier way of marking a 'hand-marked' ballot?

Look, I know that here in Brooklyn a few votes here or there probably won't make a difference nationally. But my experience illustrates some of the grave problems with our hodgepodge election system. Even within one polling place, I witnessed at least three different forms of casting ballots, and at least minor chaos resulted. What could be the result of millions of such places, multiplying each others' errors all over the country?

I also saw three young voters storm out, possibly forever, soured on the whole idea of voting because of the inefficiencies of the system that suddenly seemed to line up with the oppressiveness they'd experienced in previous interactions with the state. And, I had just literally attached my name to my vote. So much for the privilege of the secret ballot.

Yes, this may have taken place in a district that was probably already in the bag for one candidate; but if it happens here it can happen in states with a much closer margin. Obviously, these things degrade our democracy. They depress voter turnout and threaten the chance that the will of the people really be done. This was not voter suppression (though my general impression has been that, historically, Democrats try to get more votes counted and Republicans try to get more votes discounted) but it might as well have been. It may be worse. It's our own incompetence.


Anonymous Mickey said...

Two things come to me after reading your depressing account of voting, Jeremy.

One, in Oregon, they NEVER have these problems because all voting is done by mail.

Two, my friends that I mention the various voting snags too ALL AGREE it doesn't matter because NEW YORK's electoral votes are going for Obama anyway.

Talk about feeling like your vote doesn't count; particularly if you're "blue" in a red state or "red" in a blue state.

Perhaps, finally after this election, we'll be able to go to the popular vote so that a vote from Vermont will carry the same weight as a vote from Ohio.

Anyway, hope your voting experience during the mid-term elections go a little smoother.

3:46 PM, November 04, 2008  

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