Last Tuesday morning I reported for work at the school on Amsterdam Avenue I was assigned to for the election. This time I knew what to do and found my table and box and set it up in no time. In order to open up the big metal box on wheels that contains ballots, pens, privacy sleeves, AD/ED signs, and all the other supplies needed to provide voters with service you need to break a red plastic twist-tie seal. I had neither scissors nor knife, so I had to settle for going MacGyver and using one of the provided ballpoint pens (black ink) as a lever to twist the tie around (as if one were twisting a tourniquet) until it snapped.
If you ever get kidnapped and handcuffed with twist-ties you can keep twisting your hands until the plastic stretches and breaks in the same way- I don’t know what the result will be on your wrists, though.
I got my box opened and got my books with the voter’s names in them (A-N, M-Z), opened my first pack of twenty-five ballots, set out all my instructions, and put my ID tag into the provided plastic holder with clip to clip on your shirt.
A pretty African American woman in the late thirties in a grey velour sweat suit (with pink trim) approached my table.
“Is this table six?”
“It is!” I said. We exchanged names and shook hands.
She had her notice to work card in her hand and was trying to figure out how to separate her ID tag from it. It says cut along dotted lines with scissors on it, which is what I did the night before since I knew there would be no scissors here.
“Do you have scissors?” She asked, spying my tag neatly clipped to the pocket of my red flannel shirt.
“No, I did it at home.”
“Dang,” she said.
“Here, let me help you,” I said extending my hand for her card. She handed it over. I carefully folded against each dotted line; sharply scoring each edge with a fingernail until I was satisfied I would get a clean rip, and then carefully tore the excess paper off. I put it in her holder and handed it to her.
“You did that really good,” she said. “You an artist or something?”
“I was good at arts and crafts,” I told her.
“Are you a republican?” She asked. Each table is supposed to have one Republican and one Democrat at it. That’s the rules. I looked down at the D next to my name.
“Democrat,” I said. I glanced at her nametag, and hers had a D on it too.
“Gonna be hard to find any Republicans up here,” I added.
Just then a thirtyish balding white guy in a hipster beard and suit walked up to us.
“Good morning!” He said brightly. I looked at his tag and it said, “monitor.”
“Everything ok with you guys? One Republican and one Democrat?”
I took the initiative and crossing my arms over my nametag so he couldn’t read it I said:
“Good!” He said jovially as he wandered away into the just before opening bedlam of the polling place. Tables were being shoved here and there, the privacy booths rolled into place, people panicking over scissors…
“Good morning!” I looked up into the face of the supervisor; I’ll call him Mr. Blue.
“One Republican and one Democrat?” Mr. Blue didn’t take shit and he saw both name tags at once.
“Uh-uh. No good. You, Mr. Xavier, you go over there, to table nine.
“And you, young man, I know you got a Republican tag on, you come over here.”
The guy at table nine was a thin tall African-American kid in his thirties. He wore a big flat-billed baseball hat and a bomber jacket that could have held five of him. He got his belongings and slowly walked over. We nodded to each other as we passed.
My new partner was an African American woman who looked to be in her early thirties. She was short and wide and wore a long denim skirt. On her feet were soft black suede moccasins with big fluffy white pom-poms on the insteps. She was not here to impress.
“Hi, I’m Francie,” she said. I introduced myself and we shook hands. I looked at her tag; it had the R for republican on it. She followed my gaze and then looked me directly in the eye.
“I’m not a Republican,” she said solemnly. “Believe, me, I’m not.”
“I believe you, Francie.”
“It’s just so they can have one Democrat and one Republican at the table. I hate Trump.”
“Yeah, I guess I do too, Francie. At least I have a hard time listening to him talk,” I said.
I rather liked the first woman, but I’d already forgotten her name. I’ve even forgotten the name of the woman I worked the primaries with. But I will never forget Francie. She was pleasant, didn’t curse, had two daughters and one granddaughter, and worked at Yankee stadium.
“What do you do at Yankee stadium?” I asked.
“Security.” She stated flatly. Hmmn, I thought. I wondered what she could do to stop some large wild man. You never know, I thought.
She also knew what she was doing, and together we set out to get an accurate ballot count, and have as few voids as possible. Voids are what can really mess with your ballot count, a crucial part of our job.
We lucked out in that out table was the last AD/ED (assembly district, electoral district) and we only had one book, A-Z containing less than 325 names. I didn’t count the names but all we got was 325 ballots so it had to be less than that.
I’m fascinated by people’s names, and the people themselves always fascinate me, of course. This is what made the day interesting for me. There was one girl who looked no more than twelve.
“You look like a little girl,” Francie shouted out to her. The girl smiled as she went into a booth.
An African-American guy named Levine, that one threw me a bit.
A cute old man with some kind of Muslim name, he was caramel-complexioned, wore a knit cap rakishly set on his bald head and used a cane to help with his seriously bowed legs.
“Do you know what to do?” Was what I asked each voter before sending them off to the privacy booths. This is how you cut down on voids, explaining everything carefully.
“No,” was the cute old man’s answer.
“OK, look, each row outlined in black is one office. Mayor, City councilman, etc. You only vote for one each.” This was important to point out because most of the voids (not ours) were because DiBlasio was on both the democratic ticket and the Working Family Party ticket. I made sure to point that out to everyone. One man from another table came to me and showed me how he’d marked the ballot twice for DiBlasio.
“You have to go to whoever gave you the ballot,” I told him.
Back to the cute old man. After explaining everything to him I said,
“OK, you got it?”
“What don’t you get?”
“Who do I vote for? Tell me please?” Exasperated I said, “I can’t tell you who to vote for!”
I went over the whole thing with him one more time before he hobbled off to the booth.
“Looks like he wants you,” Francie said. I glanced back at the booth the old man was at. He was so small he could barely reach the little table behind the partition. I walked over, careful not to look over the partition.
“What do I do?” He asked.
“Mark it like I told you,” I said.
“Can I only vote for one? For the mayor? I don’t know these other people.”
I thought about that, and I knew the scanner would only reject the ballot if it was totally blank or you voted for more than one candidate per office.
“Sure. Just vote for the mayor.”
This was a constant theme, especially for the Latino voters who spoke limited English.
“Can I just vote for DiBlasio?” They would ask me in Spanish.
I’m amazed that people who passed the citizenship test need interpreters at the polls. I was pressed into interpreter service a few times when there was a rush of people.
As the night drew to a close, we began the procedures to close up our box. I looked in the bottom of the box for some labels and found a pair of scissors.
“Wow, scissors! The other box didn’t have scissors.” I exclaimed.
“Oh, those are mine,” Francie said. “I knew I was gonna need them.” See, she was a perfect partner.
Seventeen hours after I put my nametag on, Francie and I stood in the check out line with our orange pouch containing our used ballot stubs and unused ballots and all the other paraphernalia particular to NYC elections. Our tally was perfect, eighty-six ballots used and accounted for. I could tell Francie was a little nervous about getting the totals from the scanners, but I’d kept a running tally on a piece of paper and we’d only had one void (the voter’s fault) and I took care of getting the count and doing all the math while she packed and sealed everything. A great day’s work considering the results on the news when I got home.