All politics are local

I am writing this with the uneasy sensation of being hung-over, yet I have not been drinking.

I worked the polls (that’s POLLS not poles) Tuesday from 5 a.m. until I walked in the door to my home after 10 p.m.  I had no real breaks all day, and only had two monster java drinks and two doughnuts, and an orange to eat all day.  I was not in my home precinct, but had been assigned to one near by.  It happened to be an especially entrenched GOP loyalist precinct.  Of the roughly 2400 registered voters in that area, approx. seventy eight percent had voted, and of that, seventy five percent went straight ticket GOP.  Of the eight people working that site (all women), there were only two Democrats.  One was new.  New people in small cliques that have worked together often, and know each other reasonably well, are usually met with suspicion.  Educated Democrats who are new–well, are treated with special contempt.

I am still struggling with what to say about the experience.  It was exhausting- that much I know.  I was ill from a virus (the runny nose, sneezing, achy joints variety, which my kids also had- and I brought my own tissues and hand sanitizer to share) and that didn’t help.  I felt like an intruder, and that was exacerbated by the clique somewhat.  I was put off by the managerial skills of the young woman who was captain, after her phone message ordered me to get down to the county offices to learn the computer system, new this year (I had never spoken to her before), and meet the day before elections to help set up the site.  I had already attended one required “training” day at the county offices, a two hour affair with handouts for which I was to be paid thirty dollars.  I had been sent a letter several weeks prior explaining each worker also rec’d two hundred and forty dollars for election day.  At the training day, one week before the election, we were told it would be one hundred forty dollars.  No explanation about the change.  To back out on the commitment I made months ago would have been wrong I thought, but it stunk that they pulled a bait and switch on the pay.  I was also not pleased at the last minute required meetings as I have two small children and no one was paying for childcare for those meetings.  I called the captain back and politely told her I could not go to each new meeting, that she should choose which she thought was the most important and I would find childcare.  She chose the computer training, and asked if I had ever worked on a computer.  I dryly replied that I had a PhD and had been working with computers since 1982.  She appeared not to have heard me.

I went down, one son in hand, and “learned” the software.  It took me about three minutes.  I cannot imagine anything more simple, and was pleased it was such an easy database system.  It replaced the old paper poll books, and proved to be very useful for input and cross-referencing.  I volunteered to be one of the two to use it first on election day, and ended up being one of two people using the computerized poll books and ID scanners for the first five hours, which turned out to be our rush period.

The six ladies working the site were between fifty-five and seventy-one years old, and had done this many times before.  The captain was a young, recently married woman who by her own description had not traveled, or really gone beyond the limitations of where she grew up.  The older women reminded me of my mother and her friends, the biddy buddies I used to call them, and the area is very much like where I spent my childhood.  These women were unfailingly polite, offering to share the soup, sandwiches and snacks each had brought.  They carefully avoided discussing politics, as is the law at these events, but animatedly discussed their grandchildren and lives.  They also had polite curiosity about me, showing sympathy when I called Husband to ask how the kids were feeling and if he had been getting them to drink enough.  But the underlying current was clear:  I did not belong.  It was also clear that there were agreed upon ways of doing things that I had no power to comment upon.  The most egregious being the talk of prayer before we began, and the required group prayer before opening the doors.  I knew where I was though, sucked it up, and wrote it off as one of those when in Rome, local custom things.  But I am still annoyed about it.  When small talk popped up late in the afternoon, I was asked what my husband did.  I told them.  “Oh, one of those.”  was what the woman sitting next to me actually said.  I was surprised to be on the defensive about him, and said “He works in metals, he’s not a jerk.  More like a big big geek.”  The response went ignored.  I was also told by a couple of the women that they were not “into book learning”.  These well dressed, well spoken ladies were not stupid, and were not some sort of back woods hicks.  They had much more in common with their suburban evangelical counterparts around D.C. than they know.  

I am used to people thinking at first that I am “one of them”.  White, middle aged, soft looking, has kids, I don’t know what all.  Many people around here speak in front of me assuming tacit agreement with their points of view.  People speak of race privilege, but “passing” for a bigot or a fool is not something I relish, and have usually sought to reject with humor and wit.  They knew here I was not one of them from the get go, and I did not have to do anything to make that clear.  

Delegating tasks was not something the captain was very good at, and the women were expected to step in through some sort of telepathy they had as part of a crew.  I grew resentful of being brushed off when I did step in, or with annoyance when I did not jump in, or know what to do.  Breaks were never scheduled, but assumed to happen whenever people felt like it.  And in this crew, it seemed a point of pride to only take very small breaks if any.  I offered to switch jobs with people, which also should have been scheduled, and felt like a third wheel when I did.

Many people were first time voters, coming with parents.  Excited and nervous, they would solemnly hand over their ID’s, confirm their identities, then take their ballots and walk off to vote.  The very old and the very young came in, some parents bringing young children and explaining to them what they were doing; some parents were pushed in wheel chairs by their gray haired off spring.  Turn out across the county had been exceptionally high all day I was told.  At a macro level, it was exciting.  I wondered what the rest of the country was doing, and when people from other precincts stopped in to talk, we were told about long lines.

The last voters entered minutes before seven.   The most disturbing thing of the day occurred when a young African-American woman, dressed like all the college students do in sweats and flip flops (per many who had come in that day), came in and was wrapping up a phone call as she checked in.  The women were guffawing under their breath, and I think she had the good grace to ignore them.  She used the touch screen and left.  When she walked out the door, a series of exclamations about her apparel, and her manner (and cell phone use) and her hair arose.  I said nothing, and was shocked by their responses.   The very last voter soon entered, a youngish man proudly struggling through the doors on his crutches, and we all cheered as he approached the desks.  He was known to several of the ladies, and I was told he had Parkinson’s.  I checked him in, he voted, and left.  The meeting hall rang with the sudden silence.

After the doors closed, the captain tallied the numbers and all was put to rights over a few hours.  One of the women commented she thought it had gone well, and that we were leaving long before many of the other precincts would. 

I am ashamed of how exhausted I was at the end of the day, and of how much I needed to get home and check on the boys, of how defeated I felt at how the local elections had gone, and of how much I let my annoyance affect my attitude at that point.  I am also naturally shy, and saying goodbye was not something I am very good at.  We all left for our cars, and I waved, and was not very vocal.  I had appreciated the experience and their collective generosity, but was also uneasy and angry that I had once again been unable to respond to the subtle bigotry, and felt again the outsider, the object of suspicion and sometimes contempt. IS this my country?  IS this my county?  IS this my city?  IS this as much my home as theirs, or anyone else’s?  Why can’t I be myself, and feel as smug and self satisfied as anyone else?  I know part of the answer.  Because my identity is not rooted in who I exclude, who I fear, or who I think I am different from.  As such I cannot be smug or self-satisfied, but at the very least, should be able to feel comfortable and at home as we all should– especially when coming together to do a civic duty.

I worked the polls for my mother as much as anyone.  She had been gradually becoming more and more the model citizen before she was diagnosed with cancer at fifty-nine years of age, racking up several hospital volunteer pins, and always being current on local election issues and helping out.  I know if she had lived, she would have entered a whole new phase of her life; probably without my father, in the terrific shape she had been cultivating for a few years, and with ever more community involvement (but probably in an entirely different town and state).  She showed me by her example how to be congenial, how to get along, and how to be vivacious and social.  None of which I believe I picked up.  She also showed me how to be involved, not on a grand scale, but on a useful local scale.  So I signed up to work the polls this year as a silent tribute to her, and to know I did it when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. And it was no certain thing that he would be elected.  Not around here.

The Obama sign has been on our lawn since his candidacy was announced after the primary elections.  It was stolen on election day.  There are many more McCain/Palin signs than Obama in my neighborhood, and certainly a greater sense of freedom to put stickers on one’s car if one is a Republican, and fear to not express oneself if you are anything else.  The local newspaper is egregiously biased to the far right, and trash talk radio is extremely popular around here.  It is, as I have been told, smart to know how to blend in- especially when travelling in the county.

When I got home, I shed my clothes, picked up one of my husbands’ old sleep shirts, and crawled into bed with a handful of tissues.  I cried, and told Husband that I was depressed, that I wanted to live in a place where I was not constantly feeling like an outsider, where I felt good about raising my kids, and where I did not feel like I needed to wear a mask outside of my house just to get along.  I said I felt weighed down and trapped by our mortgage, our house, and our student loans; but luckily not by him or the kids.  I told him I knew all these things were wearing him down too.  I said I didn’t know what we could do for a living, if we moved somewhere else and there were no academic jobs.  I said I didn’t know if anything was ever going to change, that life was short, and I didn’t want to end up like my mom.  Mom who knew she had spent a large chunk of her life treading water in a place she didn’t want to be, doing things she didn’t want to do, because she thought it would be best for her kids and because she was afraid she didn’t know what else to do.  She only realized she had options, and could take them, and then was told she had terminal cancer.  The irony was not lost on me, and went unspoken by her.

I was afraid to watch the election results.  I passed out and slept.  I woke up needing desperately to blow my nose, some time before 6 a.m.  I crept around and plugged in my laptop, and checked the results.  I found myself listening to Obama’s acceptance speech, and I cried again.  This time because I was out of energy for anything else.  I could not whoop, I could not smile.  I just felt, for the first time in a long time, a sense of irrational hope.

It will not change where I live, how poor we are, or our obligations to our extended family.  It will not make my region more civil, open minded, educated, or kind.  It might not even have any real effect on the U.S. or the world.  But it might, just might, make living here a little more freeing, even if it is just in my mind.

 Addendum:  Two days later, I am still annoyed.  But a friend I know in town had been at a gathering with people we know and their kids on election night told me, “At one point we were all looking at the TV and then I said Carol is working the polls right now.  No one said anything.  Then several people said I feel better knowing she is there.”  It didn’t make everything better, but she validated my efforts in a way all the new voters, kind patrons, and general feelings of good duty done did not.  This particular friend had been living in one of the counties in Florida in 2004 that had egregious voting shenanigans, and out right voter intimidation occurring that went completely ignored.  While that did not happen this time, here– I am glad to know my participation helped some others who are outsiders feel a little better about where they live. 

Leave a Reply