2020 Election - Part 1: Civic Roots

This fall, I worked for the Salt Lake County Election Division as a poll worker. I believe our institution of democracy requires citizen involvement—not just as voters but as facilitators. I could see the writing on the wall this summer; this would likely be one of the biggest elections, in terms of voter turnout, during my lifetime, and I felt an obligation as a relatively young, healthy citizen to make the voting process positive for all involved. Writing about this experience was assumed from the get-go, but the experience turned into more than I could process in a single blog post. This will likely be one of multiple installments on my experience.

What Voting Means to Me

In third grade, I won an essay competition on the topic of why voting is important. It was sponsored by Toby Roth, my congressman from Wisconsin’s 8th District, and I won a bike because of it. When you are 9 years old and you get a bike for what amounts to homework on a certain topic, then said topic is going to carry some weight in your mind moving forward, but I want to go back even further in my life, to my earliest memories of voting, which is where I think my veneration of voting began. Way back when I was just learning that Ronald Reagan was our president, Tony Earl was our governor, and I had no opinions about either of them.

My childhood home was within sight of the local polling place—which was my eventual high school. From my back window on Election Day, I could see lines of voters stretch out the door of the school. In 1984 my parents took me out to the parking lot to catch a glimpse of Geraldine Ferraro when she held a campaign event in at the gym—not necessarily because they were Mondale supporters, but because it was an opportunity to see a vice presidential candidate in person, and that was a big deal regardless of your party. And most of all, I remember the mysterious mechanics of those old voting booths. There was the curtain that snapped shut as the lever was pulled, accompanied by an almost toy-like ratcheting sound. Then there was this mesmerizing array of little switches that were used to cast votes in each race. I don’t know how old I was when I was first taken into the voting booth with my dad, but I was young enough to be fascinated by all those little switches and levers. And I couldn’t understand why he had to be hidden while doing it? It must have been very important. And let’s face it, as kid in the era when Pong was the heigh of electronic entertainment, playing with a voting machine looked pretty damn cool.  

I don’t want to turn this into another one of my “Gen-Xer Good Ole Days” posts, but the current attitude towards our civic duty seems a long way from the reserved and calm demeanor with which my parents voted. As a child, I couldn’t even tell you what my parents’ political affiliation was, not because they didn’t tell me, but because I don’t think they had one. Being a “member” of the party wasn’t really a concept for the average American.

Decision to Serve

Now, in 2020, politics barely resembles the “good old days”. (There, I said it. That’s my one allowed “good old days” per blog post. I promise.) I thought being a poll worker would be the best way to renew my respect for the democratic process. Joe Biden could have my money, but my nation would be the beneficiary of my PTO and lack of pre-existing conditions. To make the greatest cosmic contribution to our national healing, I felt I had to serve in a neutral capacity. As a Democrat in a red state, it did occur to me that taking leave from work and exposing myself to COVID was in no way going to benefit my party or personal interests, but that was exactly the point. As much as Trump supporters frustrate me, the institution is more important than the party.

The process of becoming a poll worker involved filling out some paperwork and undergoing a brief afternoon training at the county building, during which I was “sworn in”. It was an unexpected and rather anticlimactic process in which 25 or so of us raised our right hand and recited an oath off of PowerPoint, but I have to admit, it felt more profound and patriotic than any  hollow “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch I’ve been a part of in the last 10 years.

My assignment would not be on Election Day. Instead, I was asked to work five days of early voting in Riverton. This southwest corner of Salt Lake County is yet another area where the housing boom has now nearly filled in all the gaps between small farms and pastures. As I learned during orientation, Riverton is historically underrepresented in terms of poll workers. That’s why the election coordinator asked that if anyone was interested in traveling beyond a 10-mile radius of their home to serve in areas like Riverton, it would be appreciated. I was willing to travel. Considering there were nearly 600 people that applied to work the election (nearly three times their normal staffing number) and I was still sent to Riverton, I’m guessing it is still the case this year that residents of Sandy and Sugar House were more likely to work for democracy than residents of Riverton. If you read between the lines on that thought, you might assume it’s because there isn’t much interest in voting in Riverton, but as I would find out, that was not the case.  

The poll center was in the Riverton Senior Center, sadly devoid of any seniors due to COVID. Kind of a sad reminder of the fragile thread our elders are now hanging from. As a side thought, everyone has a deeply personal view of death, but one place where America has failed, even prior to COVID, is in offering dignity to members of our senior generations. To look at the statistics and doubt the severity of the disease because most fatalities are followed by “between the ages of 65 and 84” seems heartless. No one’s death at the hands of our collective and selfish dispassion should be classified as inevitable collateral damage. Ironically, many of these fatalities fall squarely in the generations for whom, without much choice in the matter (unless they were lucky enough to have bone spurs), were last called upon to serve our country. Now they are viewed as cannon fodder again, but this time, by brutish and spoiled men who have mistaken wearing a mask as some sort of personal affront to their false idol.   

Early voting would run from 2:00 to 7:00 pm, Monday through Friday on the week before Election Day. By 1:30 on that Monday, a fair amount of people had lined up, despite it being below freezing. I never quite got a glimpse of the line at its longest, I was in such an adrenaline cloud trying to answer questions, offer masks, and pre-scan IDs that I never really looked further than the 15 or so people in front of me. Wait times were nearly two hours at our peak. The ten machines that had been spaced out inside were almost always occupied. Over 400 people voted on that first day and we were apparently the busiest location in the county. As I frantically adjusted to the madness, I never really had time to take in the patriotism of the process. It was evident, from watching the veteran election workers, that ceremony and honor had to take a back seat to pragmatism. The job was: make sure the voter registration is accurate, contact the office if there are any equipment problems, and make sure they get a sticker. That was what we were there to do.

It was the last item, the sticker, that was often the most important for the voters. It confounds me, quite frankly. The last time I was that excited for a sticker, it was a “scratch and sniff”, but we have become consumed, as a society, with bumper sticker proselytizing and using our membership and participation as validators of our identity. The “I Voted” sticker, while a meaningful and important tool that emphasizes and rewards our democratic responsibility, also seems like the civic equivalent of a “little gold star for going potty”. However, the purity of this remaining symbol that is embraced by both sides of the aisle should not be dismissed.

Hiding Behind Our Stickers

A phenomenon of the current political climate that just doesn’t square with my memories of the staid atmosphere during the Reagan era is that now, your personal politics aren’t so much your civic perspective, but a brand designed to anger your opponents—like wearing your alma mater’s colors to a road game. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever adorned my yard or car with a candidate’s name, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t displayed other emblems of my convictions. For instance, in my younger days, I had a bumper sticker on my Escort that read “Jesus Saves, Buddha Invests”. Residents of Ithaca, where I went to college just a few years earlier, would barely bat an eye at that pithy expression. (I think the city mandated cars weren’t just vehicles for transportation, they were vehicles for Jerry Bear Grateful Dead, peace sign, and “Ithaca is Gorges” bumper stickers. The Ithaca College parking lot looked like the suspenders at a socialist TGI Fridays.) Yet in my new home of Idaho, you might imagine that a cute, religious statement like that was seen as suspect.

That sticker prompted a somewhat unwelcome and uninvited rebuke from the weatherman at the station where I was working at the time. In the same bellicose, Guy Smiley voice he used to warn residents of Oakley that they better cover their tomato plants, he jested while passing through the control room, “Hey Mason, I saw your bumper sticker. What happens when Buddha goes bankrupt?”

I suppose his extension of the metaphor could be applauded for some level of wit, but I didn’t really like this guy to begin with, and after a newscast, in front of the crew wasn’t where I felt like defending myself to a Jehovah’s Witness. I don’t recall my response, but here’s what I did take away from that exchange: some people just look for any excuse to antagonize a rival, and often it’s for the shallow purpose of confirming their own beliefs. If this “weather guy” was really interested in a thoughtful debate on the respective virtues of eastern and western religious thought, he might have tried initiating the discussion with more care instead of engaging in a rhetorical drive by. It’s something many of us, myself included, are guilty of, mistaking bumper sticker rhetoric for thoughtful discourse. What the weather guy said was just a provocative, in-passing response to my own provocative, in-passing sentiment.

Although, in comparison to others, my bumper sticker was still rather benign. A different coworker at that same station had a bumper sticker plainly stating, “The President of this country is a sodomite” in reference to Bill Clinton. Now, this was an Eastern European immigrant, so part of me forgives him because he may have been elated to be in a nation where such blatant criticism of a leader is tolerated, but at the time, I had to shake my head in bewilderment. (I do hope he left it on though since he could have got some more mileage out of it over the last four years.) I had no desire to get into any political conversation with this co-worker. Whatever his reason for broadcasting his distaste for Clinton, be it a twisted combination of catharsis and validation, there was also an undeniable component of provocation—baiting.

I don’t think I made a conscious decision after that to hide my beliefs, but I made a subtle note that agitation, while a tool, is not necessarily a replacement for respectful discourse. If putting a bumper sticker on my car led to unwanted conversations with those holding opposing views and couldn’t be bothered to pay attention in social studies class, then I can live without the bumper sticker. That’s possibly why, at that time, I chose not to add the “When guns are outlawed, only the outlaws will accidentally shoot their kids,” sticker next to my Buddha sticker?

That resistance to wearing my views with a symbol is partly why you didn’t see a Biden sign in my front yard. Admittedly, as I rode my bike through the southeastern suburbs of Salt Lake, I was pretty happy to see that Biden yard signs seemed more popular than Clinton signs were in 2016, but in my neighborhood, there weren’t any—but I didn’t see any Trump signs either. In a way, I enjoyed not knowing the political leanings of my neighborhood. Now, I could speculate and judge, and maybe even be fairly accurate in assuming how certain neighbors voted, but I prefer to just leave it as is and return myself back to a simpler time when, for all I know, my dad could have voted for Reagan. That’s what used to be great about Wisconsin, the state seemed interested in electing a candidate, not the party. I miss that. Instead, it’s now pick a team and, win or lose, you spend all the time between contests putting down your opponent and passively finding ways, like with bumper stickers, to express which side you are on.


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