In November's County Executive election, I was an elections inspector. I lasted one hour.
You can learn a lot about America in one hour. You learn that from 11 a.m. to noon on Election Day only 10 people from a 900-voter district will come in to vote. You learn that Republicans and Democrats alike say they don't vote the party, they vote the person.
And if you've got a 7-year-old in tow who's home sick from school, as I did, you learn a lot about the rules protecting the voting process.
As we walked into the polling place --- a school gymnasium in a district that neighbors my own --- my son asked me if we could watch people vote.
Now I'll be the first to admit I take my kids' questions too seriously. I'm the mother in the supermarket answering a question about unit price with a 20-minute microeconomics lesson. Whenever I see a little glimmer, a crack of light emanating from their SpongeBob brains, I try to fill it with wisdom and hope.
"No," I told him, "because that would be spying. And in this country you get to vote for whomever you want without anyone looking over your shoulder."
"Why." He says this like you'd say, "Prove it."
"Because if you didn't have privacy when you voted, you wouldn't have freedom."
"Those are the rules," I said, "and the rules protect the people. That's what's great about America. Now, take the Teddy Grahams and sit on the bleachers."
My lectures seldom turn into patriotic speeches, but when they do, I stop and take stock. Arguably, what sets us apart from nearly every other country is a little set of rules called Election Law. Actually, it's a big set of rules --- the New York State Election Law book is 526 pages long. It regulates every detail of the voting process from the appointment of Board of Elections commissioners (the governor does it) to how far the voting booth must be from the table where voters sign in (at least four feet). It's these rules --- and our willingness to enforce them --- that ensure Americans can vote. But as Florida taught us, things can still go wrong.
The district elections chairman explained that I would ask voters their names and have them sign the registration poll ledger. I'd then compare that signature with the one on file. According to the Big Book of Elections, there has to be "one person of each political faith" working at the table. My partner was a Republican, who --- like everyone else here today except for me --- had long since retired. She had to write each voter's name on a legal pad and number it.
When I arrived at 11 a.m., 125 people had voted. When I left an hour later, the tally was up to 135. A few weeks after this, tens of thousands of people would rise at 3 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving to mob Wal-Marts across the country; maybe that's why no one was voting. They were saving their energy for the sales.
My first customers approached the table hesitantly. They all did, as it turns out. Whether it was an elderly man leaning on his wife's arm or a young couple carrying twin toddlers, they all slowed down 10 feet from the voting table, as if to say, "This is it? Just this bake-sale table, a pad of paper, and that Cold-War-era voting booth? That's all that stands between us and chaos?"
To infuse the situation with a greater sense of gravitas, everyone wanted to show us a driver's license. We live in a world where credit cards have photos on them, airlines take fingerprints, and you need a birth certificate to sign your kid up for Little League. But you want to vote? Come on down, give us a name and an address and you're in.
"Oh, that's not necessary," we'd say. "All we require is your signature." My Republican table buddy was all smiles as she wrote down their names. Not me. My face was the hard mask of a CIA operative. Forgers and frauds, look out. I glared at their signatures, comparing the loops and whorls. (Oh, wait. That's fingerprints.)
This job can make you kooky. You feel like an unarmed attendant protecting the very Gates of Democracy. After 30 minutes, a fellow elections inspector entered the gym. He was a middle-aged man --- a youngster in this crowd --- whose pants were up so high his belt was pulled across his nipples.
Apparently this guy got his jollies making the circuit of polling places looking to pick up an hour or two of work --- the job pays between $6.50 and $8 an hour --- when other inspectors went to lunch. Since no one was leaving, he parked himself directly in front of my table and showed off his knowledge of the electoral process. At this point I was going a bit loopy myself; I worried that by standing there he blocked the trickle of voters. My voters.
"Why do they have to sign here?" my son asked. He had come to get some crayons out of my bag on the floor behind me.
"Because that's how we keep track of who votes."
"So we make sure everyone only votes once."
"So that it's fair."
"But Bush won and that wasn't fair."
"OK! Take the crayons and go back to the bleachers."
This is Republican territory. My town, this county, the whole freaking country. My kid needs to keep his Left-y tendencies on the DL until he's old enough to fight.
Moments later the district chairman approached me. He was agitated. "There's been a challenge." A challenge? It sounded so serious. My mind raced ahead --- someone sneaked in and voted twice! Maybe some people still do care about America's future. About Bill vs. Maggie. Enough to commit voter fraud.
"A challenge to you, actually," he said.
It seemed that Nipple Belt said my son broke a rule when he approached the table for crayons. The district chairman didn't have a copy of the Big Book of Elections to look it up, but he'd have to let me go anyway.
There are rules permitting elections inspectors to be removed for disorderly conduct. There are rules governing visits from groups of school children. There are rules ensuring the front of the sign-in table is kept clear at all times --- that's right where Nipple Belt stood holding court for 20 minutes. There's no rule about kids standing behind the table briefly. But I didn't know that then.
Mortified, we headed out of the gymnasium, passing three women who approached my table. I looked back and there was Nipple Belt, sitting in my seat all poofed up like a peacock. He had, after all, single-handedly rescued Democracy from my bungling hands. And got himself a nice little hourly wage while he was at it.
He grinned as the voters approached. "Name?" he said. "No, there's no need for a license. All we require is your signature."