I had experienced the polls many times from the voter's point of view. Last Tuesday I had the opportunity to observe from the point of view of the Ballot Clerk, checking in voters and handing out ballots at my local ward. I got a desperate call from someone at campaign headquarters asking if they could nominate me as Ballot Clerk (also called "Ballot Inspector" I believe). They expected a record turnout and would need to expedite voters quickly to avoid long wait times. The Democrats got to nominate five extra workers and the Republicans got to nominate five. A heavy turnout would help our cause, but long waits would discourage voting and have a negative effect, so I agreed to do it.
I received a call from the City Clerk's office, telling me where to go for training, which got me a bit scared. Voting is serious stuff, especially with the new voter ID law, and past allegations of voter fraud. What would happen if I messed up? This turned out to be; however, a great learning experience, and I'm grateful that I was asked to help and also to meet the great people who work hard behind the scenes.
My work began the night before. The crew consisted of the Ward Moderator, who was in charge, about three or four senior lady Ballot Clerks, our Ward Alderwoman (aka "The Hat Lady"), our Ward Selectmen (a young man and two senior ladies), and a couple of senior gentlemen, who were some kind of ward officials. I could tell that these people had done this before by how they worked quickly and efficiently together. Some voting booths were up already, but we had to put a few more booths up and set the tables up. We had to improvise extra voting booths by setting up cardboard dividers on tables. We had two handicapped accessible booths, one equipped with a device for sight impaired voters.
My day on November 6th began in the dark at 5:30 a.m. The books containing the names of registered voters were spread over three tables and split into five lines, depending on the letter of the last name of each voter (A through D, E through I, etc). They usually split the books into four, but we learned right from the start that we actually needed an extra line, we split the A through D line into A to B and C to D. There was a charge of people coming at us right from the start at 6:00 a.m., and it was steady all day long. The longest wait was for voters who had to complete same day registration, which was a separate line at different tables. After registering, new voters received a yellow card, which they then turned in to the clerks for a ballot, thereby creating a seventh line for ballots at our tables.
Besides checking voters in and distributing ballots, we had to answer a myriad of questions: What do I do? Where do I go now? After I mark the ballot, where does it go? Why is my name not registered? Do we have to vote for every office on the ballot? Is this a Republican or Democratic ballot? That last question scared me knowing that some voters can't tell the difference between a primary or general election.
Suddenly there was an elderly man in one of the lines blurting a flurry of expletives because he was asked to show his picture ID. I felt sorry for his embarrassed wife who was unsuccessfully trying to hush him, he finally reluctantly complied. Next, a lady with a dog in a stroller. I looked in the stroller thinking I would compliment her baby, but when I saw the dog, I nearly laughed out loud at this surreal scene.
As I came back from one of my breaks, I watched a very pregnant young woman being escorted by the arm by her young husband. They were walking ever so slowly and carefully toward the exit. One of the senior lady clerks wispered in my ear, "See that girl, she's in labor".
People came to vote as couples, and as families, with their youngsters voting for the first time. Occasionally, the clerks would stop and say, "New voter", and we'd all give that kid a round of applause. One elderly gentleman told me he needed to help his son in the voting booth because he was "slow". I learned that autistic and mentally handicapped people can and do vote.
All kinds of people voted, rich, poor, black, white, Latino, gay, straight, new voters, elderly, and a few who apparently had too much too drink. I could smell the liquor on their breath as they announced their name. They were cordial, slapping me on the shoulder with a good old boy laugh. Also, it was great to see my neighbors and the soccer moms and dads who I knew because my son had played in the Nashua league.
I felt bad as one frail old lady with a walker had a very difficult time rummaging through her purse for her picture ID. Her friend, another apparent octogenarian, said, "She needs a little help, she's 101 years old". So her friend helped her find her ID, and I escorted the two to a table close by where they could sit down and take their time to mark their ballots.
I learned that whether you are a Democrat or Republican, or anything else in between, voting is a very emotional experience. It's 50 percent rational thought and 50 percent emotion. A young man in a leather coat with an oversized Romney for President button walked back and forth in front of me with a stern look on his face. He pointed over my head and asked, "There are two people in that voting booth, is that allowed?" I explained to him that it is allowed as long as the person helping swears to accurately reflect on the ballot what the ballot holder wants. I also told him that the next time he comes to vote, that campaign buttons and such are not allowed inside. He politely apologized and removed the button.
A young cheerleader for Obama, with a huge smile and oversized Obama tee-shirt, was dancing in line. Before I could ask her to cover her tee-shirt with her coat, one of the other clerks asked her to remove it, which she did.
At about 6:00 p.m., I was spent, I was staring at the wall with two hours left to go. One of the ballot clerks laughed at me and said, "All finished?" It seemed that these ladies, mostly grandmothers, had an endless source of energy. At 8:00 p.m. when the polls finally closed, she gave me bad news, it would be another two hours to clean up and count the write-in votes.
Congratulations on a job well done to the Nashua Town Clerk, Ward Moderator, Ward Alderwoman (The Hat Lady), Ward Selectmen and Selectwomen, Poll Officials, and especially to the hard working senior ladies, the Ballot Clerks, who work so hard behind the scenes on behalf of our democracy.