Tuesday, November 04, 2008

My 2008 Voting Experience

This is the third presidential election I have voted in. The first, in 2000, was performed via a paper mail-in ballot while I was living in Columbia, MO. It was also the first document I needed the assistance of a notary public to certify. I had just moved to Columbia in August to begin my master's degree.

On one level, it was very exciting. Here's this piece of paper that has the names of those candidates who have been mentioned for weeks. There's a moment of "I've heard of those guys!" when you look over the list. After the initial WHEE! rush, it's a little pedestrian: there's a little card with punch-out dots, and they provide you with a state-approved "selection tool" (basically a thicker-than-normal partially-straightened paper clip). I performed my electoral right on my couch at home, weeks before the actual election. Afterwards, the onslaught of ads continued on TV, seemingly unaware that I was no longer eligible for persuasion. How disappointing!

In 2004, I was voting in Kansas City, after having just moved here in August to begin my doctoral study. Sounds familiar... Anyway, I once again voted through a mail-in ballot.

Now it's 2008. I still live in Kansas City, but for once, I actually voted in-person in my actual district. Granted, that district isn't Kansas City: I'm still registered in St. Louis County. When I visited a couple of weeks ago, I voted absentee in person. This means I went to the county election board office on a chilly Saturday morning. Driving up to the office park where the board is located, there were cars every where. Fortunately, most people seemed to see that and feel the need to park at the nearest end. I found that the parking lot on the far side of the office was somewhat empty close to the end. Score!

Sure enough, the crowd is here to vote. There's a line of approximately 100 people streaming out of the polling doors and down the sidewalk. I took my place at the end, noting the color of the car I'm standing in front of to use as a starting marker. I'm standing behind a small family. A young white suburban grandmother holding her grandson, while the young mom with unwashed hair and a camouflage jacket smoked incessantly. Her husband, sporting the darker skin of South American decent, flipped continuously through a voting guide.

Behind me, a young couple: man with Dodgers cap on, woman smiling. They're talking to an man with gray stubble on not just his chin, but also the remnants of a shaved head. This man (I'll find out later in line) is a native of Russia, who moved to America 30 years ago. He's followed by an older black gentlemen, wearing a navy veteran cap with a ship name.

As we move through the line, we pass a sign saying "No Electioneering within 50 feet of polling entrance". This doesn't prevent people from talking politics. The Russian man talks about how much voting means to him, compared to living in the Soviet Union. The Navy man talks about segregation and the ease of voting during his Navy years, avoiding the polling intimidation.

Topics of conversation include Sarah Palin's wardrobe (the story broke the day before), an oil pipeline, Joe Biden being Catholic, John McCain as a war hero, etc. As I look through the line, there's a real sense of the community of America. The old, the young, the men, the women, the black, white, asian, native American, Indian, and all the undefinable inbetweens. If anyone's complaining about the wait, they're keeping it to themselves.

The line moves in chunks, as the polling doors open intermittently to allow another group of 25 or so into the building. Every time, a worker comes out and shouts some basic rules. There are lengthy ballot issues, so to cut down on reading time at the machine, they've printed the text on flyers while we're waiting in line. "Can I have them back when you're done, and don't mark on them! The next person doesn't care how you voted."

I finally work my way up to the counter, where several people in their 20's are standing in front of mis-matched laptops. My driver's license is the only proof I need that I am who I say I am. I noticed that my ID from Mizzou would also be accepted; no doubt UMKC also. The worker checks me off and tells me to stand in the gray line. It, and the pink line adjacent, sort you based on the township of residence.

Moving on to the actual polling room. 15 or so machines set up along both walls of a long narrow room. These are "touch machines" that I've heard about for years. "Will they miscount my vote?" is my first thought. I've never heard any stories that talk about touch-screens working well, just the negative ones where the machines break down and seize hostages, demanding more use of anti-bacterial hand creme by the operators.

Each machine has blades jutting out from the side, which operators are supposed to pull close to their shoulders to avoid eavesdropping. Few observe those instructions. Were I so interested, I would have been able to follow the voting of the man in front of me exactly.

Most voters move efficiently (though not quickly) through the process. An older couple ahead of me in the gray line is ready to vote. The wife is directed to a machine first. She starts to guide the man along with her. The polling worker stops them, asking if the man needs assistance voting. "No," she answers. The woman is directed to the empty machine again, and again the man follows. The election worker frowns. There's more talk, as an assisted voting needs to be accompanied by a form, etc. etc. I can't follow that any more, as it's my turn!

I'm directed to a machine, where the worker takes my registration form. She notes the various codes scribed on the top and steps in front of me to the machine. Around her neck is what appears to be a block of plastic. It's smaller than a hand, but shaped like a rectangular ink stamp, with no writing or symbol on the bottom. She places this block into an analogously-shaped hole on the machine. The hole is smooth, with no connecting pins or obvious markings. Must be some sort of RFID master key, because it produces an immediate change in the machine's screen. The worker inputs the cryptic symbols "E87 WARK= 2 3410" and off I go. Very science fiction science fact!

The screen is excellently designed, trying to account for every type of visual deficiency possible. All options are colored in extreme contrasting colors, what I refer to as "Fisher Price colors". Bright yellow, medium green, fire engine red, rich blue. In additon, making a selection changes the color of that button, adds a texture to the color, places a giant checkmark by the selection, partially grays out the other options, and causes the entire button to pulse slightly in intensity. It's almost overkill, but I can appreciate all the effort used to create a system to which no one can say, "I didn't know what I picked!"

After picking a particular candidate or opinion, it can be immediately changed again and again. There were 11 pages of offices, candidates, judges, and ballot issues. At the end, you're asked to go over a summary of your choices. Confirm the summary. Press the "CAST BALLOT" button. Another confirmation screen, informing that after the final confirmation the choice is irreversible. Confirm!

"Thanks for voting!"

Off into the morning. Total experience takes about 50 minutes from first entering the line, which isn't bad. Looking back as I head to my car, the line at 10:00 is now twice as long as when I first arrived. Long day for the poll workers. Luckily, everyone who's in line at 12:00pm, the poll closing time, will be allowed to vote.

I did feel much more involved in the process than I normally do. Standing out on the sidewalk with lots of other people makes casting a vote a much more visceral and meaningful experience. Hooray for civic responsibility.

1 comment:

  1. Geeze - that was a thorough run-down! I'm glad you gave it, though. I didn't know that Missouri had changed over to the touchy feely this election. Sounds like it was a helluva good time for you :p Cheers from Melbourne!