Friday, November 5, 2010

Still Life with Robin: About the Election -- But Not About Politics

by Peggy Robin

All week long you’ve been reading about the election. Pundits weighing in on the meaning of the results. Talking heads analyzing the trends till they’re blue (or red, depending on their slant) in the face. Well, here’s more about the election, but this time it’s not about the meaning of the vote.  It’s about the actual physical act of voting. I’m talking about what it’s like to walk into your neighborhood polling place, sign in, get a ballot, and mark it. There are things I love about this activity, things that I think could be better, and things I definitely don’t love.

Let me start with the things that make me love Election Day. I vote at John Eaton School, precinct 27. For the past few years the parents of the Eaton Home & School Association have run a “cantina” -- a table set out with lunch foods, coffee, tea, sodas, pastries and desserts -- so that voters can stop off and pick up some good food (much of it homemade) and support the school at the same time. After buying myself a midday snack, I head for the check-in line, where I'm greeted by name by the election clerk.  All the poll workers at the table are longtime neighbors and they seem to know almost everyone who votes at Eaton. And if they don't know someone by sight, they say hello and chat and start to get to know them, so that next election, they can greet them by name.  It's been like that at this polling place for all the decades I've been voting there. The poll workers are very quick to offer assistance to anyone who might it (and with the older demographic in my neighborhood, that's no small percentage). As I’m sure they are underpaid for their efforts and underappreciated, the least I can do is to give them a grateful nod in this forum:  Thank you, election workers, for your friendly efficiency on this and past elections. 

Another thing I love about voting -- perhaps oxymoronically -- is the “gauntlet” the voters must run through on their way into the polling place.  I'm talking about that line-up of campaign volunteers who try to stop you and press upon you their handouts, sample marked, ballots, and campaign flyers. They are always there, in good weather or bad, fortified with coffee thermoses and doughnuts dropped off by campaign staffers. They’re presence is a reassurance to me that our democracy is thriving and keeping all manner of people active and engaged.  The flyer-givers are always friendly and only rarely a bit too forward. I recognized many of them from around the neighborhood and some are my friends. I’ve volunteered and filled this role myself, so I never brush anyone aside, even when my mind is completely made up (as it generally is by election day).  I have to admire them for their spirit, the willingness to do the footwork for the person they firmly believe to be best suited to the position.  They’re unpaid and often shown little respect, sometimes even by the candidates for whom they put in the hours. Let me offer them a word of appreciation here. You guys/gals are the engines of democracy.  Long may you flourish -- and may every candidate come to understand that there’s no substitute for human, face-to-face persuasion.  By which I mean I would far and away prefer to talk to a live campaign worker, and maybe even let them give me their pitch, than spend five seconds listening to a robocall. In fact, I will generally vote against any candidate who considers it okay to tie up my phone line with a mechanized voice.  That is, unless both sides are doing it, and there's no escape.

Now on to what I think could be improved. On Tuesday I was offered a choice of a paper ballot, the kind with little ovals in front of the candidates names to darken with a pencil, or I could use the touchscreen machine to record my vote. The helpful poll worker advised me to take the paper ballot, and it was easy to understand why this was good advice:  There was only one touchscreen at Eaton and to use it, I would have had to wait in line. Even if the District had invested the money in several touchscreen computer stations, I still would have chosen the paper ballot.  In the past the touchscreens have been tricky to use; if you make a mistake, it’s hard to get it corrected (while you can simply hand in your mis-marked paper ballot to a pollworker, see it destroyed, and get a new one to start over), and there have been many reported problems with tabulation and record-checking of votes from the touchscreen machines.  On top of all that, computer analysts say the touchscreens in use in DC are insecure, and it wouldn’t take much for a dedicated hacker to mess with the results.  In light of these problems, I’m not sure why the Board of Elections feels any need to continue to offer touchscreens.  Paper ballots are simple; tabulating them by optical readers is fast, easy, and cheap; they leave a clear “paper trail”; and they’re pretty hard to tamper with.  The system works well.  You know the old “if it ain’t broke”cliché. So what are we trying to fix?

Now here’s what I don’t like about the way we hold elections these days.  It used to be that in each election cycle, on the first Tuesday in November following the first Monday, practically everyone who was interested in the election would come out to the polls to vote.   If you found it hard to get around, you could call the campaign office of your favorite candidate and they would send a car to pick you up and bring you to vote.  Only a handful of people who knew they would be out of town would vote by means of an absentee ballot. Now things have changed.  The polls open several days ahead of Election Day, and anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of voters come in to vote early.  I’m not pleased with this development.  It was meant to increase participation and make voting easier, but I don’t see that turnout has significantly increased.  The big downside is that a sizable block of voters make the irrevocable decision several days ahead of the rest of us. What if there’s a major development that occurs between the opening of the early voting sites and the actual election? The early voters are locked in, unable to react to the news that, Candidate X, has (for example) been caught with his hand in the someone else’s cookie jar.  There’s a good reason why we should all vote on the same day, between the same hours.  It’s a shared experience.  The people who go early can’t walk to their neighborhood polling place but will usually drive to one of the satellite locations far from home.  There’s no school committee offering food and a smile. Voters don’t meet their neighbors in line and the poll workers don’t recognize any of the voters, and so that lovely sense of civic community is lost. Because the campaigns generally can’t keep volunteers out in front of these satellite polls for several days running, there’s no chance to get a bit of last-minute advice on lesser-known races. (The ANC race, for example, is so localized that it would be impossible for the ANC candidates to hope to influence any early voters.)  But would I shut down early voting in order to return to the days of a similar election day experience for all (except the absentee voters, of course). I’m not sure. Early voting is convenient and it cuts down on long lines in the morning and evening rush hours. Anyway, I think early voting is here to stay, no matter what I say. But I think we have definitely lost something important about election day, all the same.

Finally, here’s something I always look forward to after the election is over:  the taking down of campaign signs. By election day the clutter of signs reaches overload, and I just want them all gone, now, in any way possible. They can’t come down soon enough for me.  The law requires the campaigns to put time and energy into taking them down, just as they did in putting them up, and sets a deadline of 30 days after the election. And some candidates are diligent about making sure this gets done; others are not so good about it. But even the most diligent campaign staffers can miss some of the signs. Eventually, the wind, rain, and snows of winter take care of the ones left behind, and our light posts and telephone poles return to their spare and functional forms. At least until the next election cycle, when it starts all over again. 

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