Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My Patriotic Duty

I wasn't feeling particularly patriotic when my alarm went off at 4:15am on Tuesday. Any sense of civic duty was squelched by the overwhelming desire to stay snug in my warm bed, under the covers. And, of course, it had to be raining. And cold. And pitch-black outside. The drizzling rain on the roof and windows was lulling me back to sleep, but I had to drag my unwilling body out of bed and get ready for the long day ahead of me. There was no backing out now.

The house was still and quiet as I took my shower, got dressed and gathered my things for the day, tiptoeing out the front door at a quarter to 5:00, trying not to wake up the rest of my family. As I started up the engine and drove down the empty streets, I wondered who else could possibly be awake at this hour. But when I got to the chrch where I had been assigned to work, I was surprised to see there were quite a few people up and about already this gloomy, wet morning. In their raincoats and boots, huddled under umbrellas, on folding chairs on the sidewalk, people were already lined up outside the door to take part in the big event.

It was November 4th. Voting day. And, as the media predicted, the citizens of the U.S. were out in record numbers to make their mark on history. As one of the "election officials" of this precinct of Virginia Beach, I was experiencing this monumental day from a unique vantage point.

I'd already been to my 3 hour training a few weeks earlier, with over a hundred other volunteers from my area, where we learned all about how to use the new voting machines, what to do if protestors showed up, how to handle the news media if they wanted to get a story, and how to help voters who may be blind or have other physical handicaps. I scanned through (but didn't read every word) my thick packet of instructions covering every possible situation and problem that could arise. And I stood in line at the Virginia Beach courthouse for early absentee voting for two and a half hours the Friday before election day.

But the real challenge was on Nov.4th. All the preparation and planning was for this one day. It was my first time to "work the polls" and with all the predictions of the flood of voters that would come and the likelihood of extending the voting hours to fit everyone in, I was trying to prepare myself for a long, hard day. My lunch bag was bulging with enough food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus snacks for in-between times. I had 3 full water bottles. And I had a big bag of Hershey's Kisses, Kit-Kat bars, and Snickers to give me a perk when I needed it!

So when I arrived at the chrch at 5:00, I quickly put my things away, got settled, and helped set up for the gathering voters. By the time we opened the doors at 6:00, there was already a long line snaking around the side of the building, spilling over into the grass behind the chrch, and going into the back parking lot. Some people said they'd been there since 4:30am. They were cold, wet, and tired, but happy to wait as long as it took, just to be able to take part in the democratic process.

And they did. Hundreds of them. From 6:00am on we had a steady stream of voters. I was working with one other woman at one of the pollbooks, registering voters whose last names began with L-R. Our table and the table for names beginning with A-E were the busiest. If there was ever a bit of a lull, I'd get another roving election official to cover my spot at the table for me and rush out to the bathroom, or to get a drink of water, or to gulp down a few bites of my ham and cheese sandwich in the kitchen. (We weren't permitted to have food or drinks at our stations).

My job was to greet the voter, ask him to state his last name and first name, locate the name in the list, ask him to state his address, check to see that his name and address matched his ID, and then record which number voter he was at our station. The other woman at my table would then activate a card for the voting machines, give it to the voter, and direct him to the next line to wait to use the machine. We sat at that table and processed voter after voter after voter. All day long. From 6am to 7pm. For 13 hours straight.

I've never talked to so many individual people in one day. Even for an extrovert like myself, that was a lot of talking. A lot of people. A lot of smiles and greetings and questions and answers and "have a nice day" and "thank you for coming". At our table alone, we processed about 642 people! By the late afternoon and early evening, when the lines finally started thinning out a bit, and my smile was wearing out, I really had to make an effort to keep my voice cheerful and not snap at people who didn't have proper ID or who weren't staying within the blue taped areas for the lines. It gave me a new appreciation for workers at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). No wonder they get crabby sometimes - I would too, if I had that kind of job all day, every day!

Throughout the day, I was struck by how many people came out to vote, of all races, all ages, all backgrounds. I talked to a tall blonde Russian woman, an older Hispanic gentleman, a friendly Filipino family, and a quiet Vietnamese couple. There were young mothers with babies in strollers or toddlers on their hips. There were wide-eyed 18-year-olds, voting for the first time. There was the buzz-cut young serviceman who had asked for early leave that day so he could make it to the polls in time. And there were the grandparents with canes and walkers and in wheelchairs, cheerfully waiting in the lines.

We even had the ambulance and paramedics show up - twice! Two elderly gentleman collapsed while in the building. One was at the voting booth when he fell, and one was waiting in the lines. Thankfully, the paramedics were able to stabilize both men. But one of the men was determined to cast his vote. While he was being wheeled out on a stretcher, he stopped at the voting booth and, with assistance, cast the ballot that he'd been waiting so long for!

By the time 7:00pm came around, all the election officials were very happy to close the polls and lock the doors! However, our job wasn't over yet! We had to stay to clean up, tally the votes from the machines, record the votes, call in the votes to the city registrar's office, and pack up everything. We didn't get out of there until 10:00pm, making it a 17-hour work day!

It was dark by the time I drove home. I hadn't been outside of that chrch building all day. From before the sunrise until long after it had gone down, all that long day, I had only seen glimpses of daylight through the crowds as I sat at my little voter registration table. When I finally got home, I was exhausted, and never so happy to fall into my bed. But I'm glad to be in a country where I can vote. What an amazing thing it is to think that the common, everyday people of this country have that amazing privilege and responsibility to choose our leaders. And now that the elections are over, whether the ones we voted for won or lost, our responsibility is to pr for those who rule over us. (I Tim 2:2) May they guide us with wisdom!