While most of you were wringing your hands watching the election results on TV, or out voting, this election I was lucky to be inside the polling station as a Clerk at my precinct. It was an awesome experience and I learned a lot of things about the process. I volunteered to do this.
What I learned as corny as it may sound, I have to say, my respect and love of the real America has never been greater. Sure foreign policy grates on everyone's nerves, but there is something genuinely American here at ground level. I learned that Democracy is a simple matter that is hard to achieve. Democracy is everyone agreeing on how to run a system. Do that and you've got Democracy. To me that explains a lot.
6:20 am, It's early, I just got myself a Starbucks. I don't usually drink Starbucks, but it was closer than Peet's, and I didn't want to be late. I walked into the Multi-Purpose room of the Middle School and exchanged a lot of smily “Good Morning”'s. I quickly located my precinct inspector Ron and was told where to go and what to start doing.
The booths had already been set up the day before by the County. We posted the voting instructions with tape and butterfly clips, one to each booth. Our county has not adopted electronic voting yet. In our county you vote by marker. You mark your choice with a special black felt tip pen. I still have some of the ink on my hands.
We then prepared the ballots, ripping them from the master sheet, then folding them vertically and inserting them into secrecy ballot holders so the receipt portion sticks out. A ballot holder is a simple thing, it holds the ballot, is slotted so that it can be confidentially transferred to the ballot box without anyone seeing the markings on the ballot.
6:50 am Just 10 minutes to go. I now know another reason why Starbucks wasn't a good idea, so I ask to go to the restroom and as I go out the door, I see a line of about 40 people has formed outside the station. I ran to and back from the restroom.
7:00 am, The precinct inspector officially declared the polls open and we're off! The first voter got to observe the empty ballot box by the precinct inspector who then sealed it. This is done to show that we are starting with an empty box. As each voter approached our table, I as the roster index clerk was to ask them their last name, then look it up alphabetically in the roster of registered voters we had been given. They would then sign their name on the line next to their name, and would be issued a ballot by the ballot clerk. when they were doen voting they retruned their ballots to the ballot box clerk who deposited the ballot into the box. No one had told me to ask for an ID, so I didn't. But when I got to a lull, I asked a fellow clerk if we were to ask for ID's and was told, “No need”.
I was shocked! Here you don't need to prove your identity to vote unless it is your first time voting. Voting legitimizes you. You just say your name and if everything was done correctly by you, you are on the list. One vote, one person. Simple. And it worked. Not one name on the list was disputed, we did not have 2 people show up at different times claiming to be the same person. There are built in challenge procedures in case this happens.
As I collected signatures on names, the street index clerk, crossed out the same names as I read them out, on another list that was sorted by address. I was told that this would be posted every hour outside the polling station, so that the public could see who had voted and who hadn't.
“Strange!” I thought again. Here they were actually posting the voter's names outside! I had to ask why, and was told that this was done so that political parties or other groups like primary supporters or pollster observers or news organizations could check the lists against the list of voters, and call them to make sure they come out to vote. I saw the observer for the Democrats literally on the floor comparing his list with our posted one. This was done every hour. On the hour. California is a majority Democrat state so I did not see a Republican observer.
We had a steady stream of voters come through until I finally looked at the wall clock and saw it was almost 10:00am. Suddenly it got real slow. We wondered if maybe people were now at work, and if we would see a rush begin again just before lunch or not.
1:15 pm, Ron asked me to take lunch and be back in an hour. That would be 2:15. I was having so much fun, I just couldn't stay away that long, so I wolfed down a burger and coke in my car, and tried to listen to the news to see who was winning. I couldn't stand it and finally went back at 2:00.
During the day, a roving election inspector would occasionally show up and ask us how things were going. She would give some instructions to the supervisors who would nod and smile. But nothing really happened.
I had volunteered as a bi-lingual clerk, to help out with any Iranian voters. I did not know if I would be needed until an elderly couple came to my desk and gave me their name nervously. I won't say what it was, but it was clearly Iranian. And so I chirped a casual, “Eh! Shoma Iroony Hasteen?” I was afraid the shock on the older gentleman's face would give him a heart attack. but he almost immediately broke into a warm smile accompanied by his wife's.
As it turned out they did have what turned out to be a minor problem, and speaking in our own language helped a lot. I was able to give them the right advice and got their ballots to them and walked them to the booths. It was a pleasure to see Iranians voting.
Later another Iranian came to the table and his problem was that he had registered, but had never received his sample ballot and polling station card in the mail as he should have if he had registered in time. when this happens you have the option of voting provisionally which takes longer to count, but at least ensures you can vote. This is not a special ballot, just ensures that your vote is specially validated since there was an error. He was worried, and after we took care of him, he was relieved. maybe it was the “I Voted” sticker!
7:50 pm, Almost done. I wanted to be the very last voter in my precinct that I had happened to have also been assigned to. So I entered the booth.
Before the election, several Iranians had asked me how they should vote. They seemed to think they had to choose one candidate over the other. I don't think it is as important to pick the ultimate winner, as it is to vote your true opinion. If it is one of the choices, fine. But if not, remember that you can write in anyone you want. No one knows this, but I ran against Ronald Reagan for President of the United States in 1984. You should have seen my platform!
But here's how my logic worked for me, I do not suggest that you should do the same, but that you are free to decide any way you want;
In this election, I felt that California's votes were essentially moot, that they traditionally went to the Democrats. This was not in jeopardy. So I felt that I could safely vote my true conscience. I do not believe that in this election, either party fielded their best candidates for President. I believe that Howard Dean would have been the better choice for the Democrats and John McCain would have been the better choice for the Republicans. I also believe that Nader should have had a more prominent role since he had lots of good ideas worth flushing out. So, knowing my vote would be secret, I wrote in the candidate I thought was the best.
As I left the booth and cast my ballot, a last minute voter came in right at 7:55pm.
7:59 pm, we all looked at the clock's second hand, “…forty, forty-five, fifty,… fifty-eight, fifty-nine, THE POLLS ARE NOW CLOSED!” announced the precinct inspector. It was over.
Or was it? Ron came over and gave us the next instructions. As he was going over the final tasks to close out the station, I scanned the list of voters to see if I could count the number of Iranian names, those registered and those who had signatures meaning they had voted. An informal poll if you will.
My results indicate that out of 18 totally obviously Iranian names, 15 had voted, and only 3 had not. That is an unofficial voting rate of 83%. Pretty good! Now if we only knew how many could have registered but hadn't! The number for the precinct as a whole was over 80%.
As I digested this, I saw Ron, my precinct inspector do something I did not think I would see. He opened the ballot box! I was so shocked I almost stopped him. Then I immediately understood that this was part of the process. It was Ok. After the ballots had been dropped into the box they had become separated and were now mixed up so you could not see who voted how. All we had to do now was sort them according to a small notch on one corner that had been cut diagonally. This is the side that would be fed into the counting machine so it could count the votes by sensing the black marks made by the voters markers. Kind of like how you took your SAT's.
Ron took the final stacked and sorted ballots, placed them into a special narrow long box that was just wide enough for the ballots to fit sideways, and sealed it with a special label. We all witnessed and agrees to the final counts of voted ballots, unused ballots spoiled ballots and provisional ballots – the sum of which tallies to the total number of ballots issued to our precinnct. Ron then did some tallies from the roster, and we collected all the supplies and put everything back into the ballot box, sealed it with another label, and then Ron asked me to accompany him to drop off the ballots at the collecting station.
“Sure,” I said. “I'll follow you in my car so you don't have to drop me off back here again.” I offered. “No, you have to come with me, officially.” he said. “Ah! I see,” I said. The process required 2 people to deliver the ballots. This way there is little chance of one person having accesss to the voted and unvoted ballots alone.
We then placed the sealed ballot box into the back seat of Ron's car and drove to the nearby park-and-ride. A park-and-ride is a parking lot near the freeway for commuters who share rides to work. When we got to the park-and-ride, a long line of about 20 cars was lined up behind 2 white vans. A couple of cop cars were there, the cops directing us to pull around behind the last car in the line. It was the first sign of security I had seen all day.
Finally, it was our turn and we pulled up to the van, they said “Hi.”, they opened the back passenger door, and took the ballot box out, One person opened the box and removed the smaller box that had the ballots in it, and placed it in the van with the other cars' ballots. Other people took the tallies from our lists and another person confirmed and gave us our receipt taking posession of the ballots from us. We did not get out of the car. “Thank Youoooo!” the high school volunteer said sweetly, and we moved ahead. The ballots would then be taken to the county elections department were they would be opened and counted by machine.
Ron took me back to my car, he thanked me for helping him out, we shook hands and it was done. I got home by 9:30 pm.
If you have ever wondered what the experience would be like, I must say it was a lot of fun. All the people were gracious and nice. The cookies, cake, coffee, and cocoa, were all home made. The company heartwarming. You are paid as a clerk, I don't know how much it will be for sure, but it could be $75 for the whole day. Not much, but it was a total pleasure, I can heartily recommend it, and I'm ready to do it again!
The Iranian Letters Section
the writer Behrouz Bahmani
Other Articles by Behrouz Bahmani