Tuesday, November 04, 2008
To the surprise of a few of my colleagues (who still haven't exactly worked out how I possibly got here) I am in fact eligible and, as a responsible citizen, registered to vote in the USA. Thus it came to pass that Kristal and I ventured out on a rainy November morning to cast our votes. We are in the 106th precinct and our polling station is the local High School. The polls open at 6am, but we decided to wait for the rush of super-keen voters to die down, and give ourselves a few extra minutes in bed. I think we arrived around half-seven. For some reason the USA doesn't see fit to give it's electorate a public holiday once every four years for the general election, but I was allowed two hours of the work day to do the business.
Lucky, really, because voting wasn't exactly a speedy as I had dared dreamed. We did avoid the rush, according to a few people who had witnessed lines snaking around the building. Fortunately we were at least able to queue inside, out of the rain. We arrived, and I guess the guy at the front door hadn't been told that the crush had died down, as we were sent on a looping tour of the school corridors, only to arrive inside a door right behind the guy who had directed us! So far, off to a bad start.
After a few minutes in the queue, an election official came down the line calling for surnames Emm thru Zee to come forward, so Kristal dutifully went on and got her ballot ticket. However, there was apparently some hold up for the A-E crowd. By the time I got near the front of the queue, Kristal was done voting. So were her Sister and Brother-in-law, who had arrived about a quarter-hour after us! Kristal offered me her crossword puzzle, but I was being entertained by a gentleman who had graduated from this very High School in 1976, and would love to tell us all about it...
Finally I got to the table where they check your name on the register and give you the ballot ticket. The table was divided into four sections, alphabetically by surname, and the three sections from F onwards were empty. For whatever reason I was standing at the A-E section with 50 increasingly irate voters behind me. The reason appeared to be that one person with an A-E surname had arrived earlier, but their eligibility to vote was in doubt. Rather than take the problem aside, well meaning ladies of the Librarian caste were continually interrupting the A-E checkers with inadequate explanations of what was happening. The A-E checkers would then have a leisurely debate about whether it was OK to cross out an entry on the register or not. Neither could quite remember this being covered in the evening class. Eventually they realized that they needed to sort this out later - right now the priority was to process the stern young man standing in front of them who looks like he's about to knock their heads together.
After I got my ballot ticket, it was relatively smooth sailing. I had to wait in another line for a while, and somehow they had designed they queuing system so that the two lines crossed each other, but they had about 10 voting stations, so thing moved along nicely. You exchange you ballot ticket for a place at a touchscreen computer, and somebody helpfully informs you that you need to press the big red 'VOTE' button that shows up at the end for your ballot to count. Then your done!
All-in-all it wasn't that terrible. I mean, obviously there is no reason to keep a large fully trained staff for an event that occurs but once in four years. It can't be easy to arrange for an estimated 3.5 million Virginia voters to cast their ballot in 13 hours. It reminds me of sitting school exams. As you sit their watching the poor teacher fumble around with the sealed envelopes of papers, trying to follow some arcane regulation, you think to yourself, "You better not mess this up, because if you do I might not get a grade, and I've worked too damn hard!" Likewise, you enter the polling station, look around at the usual voluntary sector crew, and think, "You better not foul this up, because the vote in Virginia could mean something this time". We'll know soon enough.