November 08, 2006


Democracy update: while others elsewhere in Orange County may be reporting problems with voting at their polling places, I know that there was at least one precinct in downtown Anaheim where everything went without a hitch, because I ran things ... WITH AN IRON FIST.

Our voting machines ran singingly. It didn't matter how many paper ballots we had, because nobody asked for one. The most unusual issue was a large number of people who were listed as voting absentee, but who showed up at the polling place claiming to have never asked for or received an absentee ballot. (These people voted "provisionally" — meaning that their ballots are held back from the counting until the Registrar of Voters determines that there aren't also completed absentee ballots with their names on them floating around somewhere out there.)

My biggest problem? The bonehead little old lady who was one of the two people working with me at the polls. Rather than being a harmless old sweetheart who spent the day yammering on about her medical maladies (like my election co-workers from last year), this woman had two big problems going for her: a) she'd been a poll worker for twenty-nine years in various locales across the country, which meant that she had a deeply ingrained (and wildly wrong) sense of The Way Things Should Be Done; and b) she was an unabashed racist of the "dear god, I hope that great-grandma doesn't start running off her mouth during dinner" variety.

I knew that we were in trouble right from the start when she filled out the "I speak:" area of her poll worker's nametag with "American".

  • She asked multiple people if they wanted voting machine instructions in Spanish or "American". This lasted until I loudly asked, "did you mean Spanish or English?" I'm surprised that she wasn't asking if people wanted directions in American or Mexican.

  • She shared Fascinating Ethnic Facts with us throughout the day: did you know that The Chinese never eat sandwiches? It always has to be a hot lunch for them! (Also, all of The Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Area live in Burlingame.) Did you know that the Vietnamese last name Nguyen is actually pronounced "Win"? You'd think that it'd be pronounced "Newgen"! It's a very common name — it's like "Smith" for Asian people! Once she knew a man who was both "Vietnam" and Chinese — and he married a Mexican woman! Imagine! But their children were just the most beautiful!

  • For a while, she was handing out voting-machine instructions based on appearance: white guy? You get the English-language instruction sheet! Brown skin? You get Spanish! Asian? You get Chinese! (Why not Vietnamese or Korean, since we had those, too? Who knows!) Unsurprisingly, the guy who couldn't speak any Spanish was offended, just like the Vietnamese guy who was reaching for the English instructions while she shoved the Chinese version his way, asking "You speak Chinese, right? You speak Chinese, don't you?"

  • Coming across a voter with a first name like "Otto" coupled with a last name like "Rodriguez": "Oh, this guy has got to have some German blood in him somewhere! There's no way that any other Mexican would have a German first name like that. There are a lot of German people in Mexico, did you know that?"

  • We had a voter named "Raul Mendes" (name changed to protect the innocent). There happened to be another registered voter of the same name in our precinct. She could not believe that there could possibly be two Raul Mendeses in the same precinct. "You didn't make some kind of mistake and register twice, did you?" I quickly determined that the two Rauls were indeed completely separate people (our list of registrations is keyed by name and address), but she continued to opine while Raul Mendes was within earshot and voting about how something had to be wrong about these registrations, how that couldn't possibly be right ... and then she proceeded to look up the address of every Mendes on our precinct roll, so as to determine that they weren't all living together in order to foment, oh, I don't know, some kind of Global Mendes Conspiracy or something.

No amount of theatric throat-clearing, "that's enough, let's move on", or even more overt correction on my part was enough to stop this woman from stumbling into yet another minefield of ethnic-offense-and-intimidation faux-pas.

But even if she'd had the ethnic sensitivity of a lifelong Berkeley liberal, her other faults were enough to sink her. She had her own particular way of doing things, backed by her twenty-nine years of working at the polls — I've worked at the polls in New York State, the San Francisco area, and here in Orange County — and nothing was going to interfere with her perception of how things should be.

  • You aren't supposed to ask for ID when someone comes to the polls to vote (the idea being that the Registrar of Voters already took care of determining someone's eligibility, and ham-handed attempts by undertrained poll workers to do the same can quickly edge into voter intimidation). But the rules, and my asking her multiple times not to do this, didn't stop her from asking people for their "driver's license, or some other kind of ID card". Why? "Well, it's just easier when I have a card to read their name and address from, rather than having to listen to them spell it to me." This despite the fact that the type on peoples' driver's licenses was too small for her to read; more than once I had to jump in and intervene after she told someone named (for example) Mendes that he wasn't listed in our precinct register ... because she was looking for somebody named Wendes.

  • Our election-supplies box was full of crappy ballpoint pens. (That truly generic echelon below even Paper-Mate.) At the beginning of the day, I put one of these pens next to the precinct register, so that people could use it to sign in with. This quickly became The One Sacred Election Pen; she actually yelled at someone who dared to attempt to use her own pen to sign the register: "You have to use this pen to sign the register! That's the rule, that you can't use any other pen to sign it!" When I told her that that was not the rule, and that voters didn't need to be told anything about "that's the way it's always been" because that certainly wasn't the way it was now, she started yelling at me.

  • She insisted on having people sign the precinct register upside-down — presenting the register so that all of the pre-printed text was oriented towards her. Once (if I recall correctly) the design of the register was such that this made some kind of sense. Now, it resulted in people asking "aren't you asking me to sign this upside-down?", trying to turn the register around, or walking over to her side of the table in an attempt to turn the register right-side up. Once again, this brought rebuke and scorn: "No, this is the "right" side up — just sign it!" "What are you doing, trying to walk over to this side of the table? Stay there and sign it!" Again, this was the way that things were supposed to be, and my telling her to do the opposite, along with the befuddled reaction of three-quarters of the voting public, wasn't going to change the order of the universe.

  • The aforementioned crowd of people marked as absentee voters who showed up at the polling place to vote freaked her the hell out. At first, she told these people that they couldn't vote (totally untrue), until I intervened. Then she started chiding them: "whaddaya doing, voting twice?? Where's your absentee ballot, didja lose it?" Hard work on my part finally won the order of the day on this one, with her reaction by the end of the day become a withered "oh. you need to talk to him about that."

I'd have cut this lady loose and told her to go home, but with only three of us working the polls (and no hope of reinforcements), we really did need her in order to get through the day. When my supervisor from the RoV showed up to check on how things at our polling place were going, I gave her an earful; it only took the briefest sketch of events to have her agreeing that this woman should be stricken from the volunteer roll forever.

Later on in the evening, someone (who'd dared to try to sign the register with her own pen) stormed up to me, asking for the little old lady's name. I cheerfully gave her the name, our precinct number, and the RoV's phone number. Good to know that I wasn't the only one to say anything.

At the end of the night, little old lady bid me goodbye with a chirpy "thanks for everything, Kevin — see you next year!" My good breeding won the day, but it took some effort to keep from responding with " ... in hell!"

They want to increase younger peoples' involvement in the democratic process? They'd better start by clearing out some of the older people first ...

Posted by Kevin at November 8, 2006 12:28 AM

I am so sorry.I think I should thank the BSA for your willingness to work at the polls and for providing instilling the good manners that prevented you from throttling this woman in the name of good relations with people of color.

Posted by: Marc at November 9, 2006 09:04 PM

My goodness, what a piece of work she was.

Posted by: J at November 21, 2006 09:34 PM
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