This is the first in a series of pieces I’m doing on my life this summer. They are meant to be a mixture of fact and carefully constructed fiction. I hope you enjoy.
I wake up at 5:15am on Tuesday, June 3. It is the Statewide Direct Primary Election for the state of California, and I have decided to volunteer my time as a poll worker. My eyes are bleary as I debate whether there’s enough time to fry up an egg sandwich; I don’t know when I’ll have lunch. Eggs scramble into a sandwich bun and in a blur, I’m in the car and off to Monte Vista Elementary school, arriving just in time for 6AM set up.
I recognize my Inspector immediately. He is wearing a polo shirt that is the color and design of an American flag, but with a bald eagle on a motorcycle. He has a metallic dark blue cane and is posting up a polling place sign. I know there are other Inspectors at this location, but believe without any doubt that his voice will match the one I heard on the phone a few days ago.
Working at the polling place is simple. I had never worked at the polls a day in my life, but refused to let the two hours I spent training at the senior citizens center go to waste. My Inspector thought I was an expert; turns out, I’m just a good listener. Everything is set up quickly and efficiently.
When the polls open an hour later, I’ve already finished my first cup of coffee.
The first person to walk in for our precinct is a regular voter; when he enters the room, it is just after 7AM. When he signs his name the beginning is faded because the pen has yet to become acquainted with the paper of the roster. The next voter does not arrive for at least another fifteen minutes, and my guess is that the polls are taking a while to warm up.
Monte Vista’s janitor walks in, a man with tattoos on the backs of his forearms and a greying beard. As he looks at the machine that counts up the ballots, he talks about technology and how it created a gap in the workforce. I tune in late to the conversation. I infer what’s already been said by his last remarks:
“So, I got a job that a computer can’t do. I work with my hands. A computer can’t move tables, scrub toilets, wipe up vomit.”
Voting is slow, to put it lightly. The Street Index clerk mentions that we haven’t had a single voter on a major street. This isn’t too surprising to me; our precinct is surrounded by a fair amount of smaller, residential streets. I’m more surprised by the fact that in some blocks of time, I can count the number of voters we get in an hour on one hand. It makes me pause.
What I can say about the people who vote is that they’re remarkable- mainly senior citizens who hobble in and can’t hear half of the words I’m saying. I remember to speak louder and slower. Sample ballots in hand, they take their time getting to the voting booth. They tell me they’ve been voting for years. In my head, I translate that into decades.
Decades, I think. Voting for more years than I’ve been alive. Later, the Inspector and Street Index clerk will talk about the years they’ve seen; assassinations (Kennedy, King, Malcolm X), war (Vietnam), and plenty of elections. They’re desensitized to images of war and gore; skeptical of what they hear in the media. I think of how we don’t even have the chance to be desensitized, how we’re not only kept from information of drone strikes in Pakistan and exploitation of Afghan lands, but we’re lost in our own version of conspicuous consumption, summarized in .gifs by pointless Buzzfeed articles. Our generation does not vote. We don’t know what it means.
At first, this realization is gentle. I know there are things I cannot change, and that if I can, it will be slow and steady. Part of me is thankful that we are not jolted into becoming another generation that lives on rations during war. Yet the other part knows that this is the generation that currently holds a great deal of power in voting electorates. The Baby Boomers are walking into my polling place, come hell or high water, and they are voting. This does not bother me.
Older married couples walk in, arms linked. Others have canes or power chairs. Some merely walk slow and take their time getting to the voting booth. It is only when a blind man walks in that I begin to feel angry.
Other countries experience rigged elections and are trapped in oppressive regimes while we complain of corruption in politics and sit on the sidelines. We don’t even know the beginning of the corruption iceberg. American government condemns countries for having manipulated elections while candidates and elected officials accept unsettling amounts of money for their political campaigns, only to have minuscule turnouts. The so-called fundraising game is spent on a populace that thinks we’re too far gone to do anything.
The polls close at 8PM, and I make sure our numbers match up. We have under 100 ballots. Perhaps around 5% of the precinct has voted. Later, I am told that the news said all day that no one was at the polls. The argument is brought up that perhaps more people are voting by mail, but I dismiss the idea instantaneously.
I think of the blind man, carefully listening to his ballot being read to him. I think of the people who can hardly walk into the polling place, yet smile at me when they leave, “I Voted” sticker on their chest. I wonder if, fifty years from now, we will even having polling places.
Fifteen hours since I first put it on, I take my election clerk name tag off, and set it on my desk. I think of the people who have changed history with their votes, and belatedly wish they were here.