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Civic Engagement

Someone has to do it

In order to live in a civilized society, there must be rules and people to oversee the rules are observed. The most important of these oversight duties fall to the responsibility of the average woman and man in America. Jury duty is one of those responsibilities that governs our judicial system. Juries are selected to hear cases of crimes and torts committed or omitted in this country, and it is the private citizen that has the final determination in innocent versus guilty and right versus wrong. The only time a jury does not have the ultimate last word is in a trial by court instead of jury. The defendant has the power to exercise this right, not the prosecution. One overlooked civic responsibility we have is working the polls during an election. It is a process Americans undergo biannually, and one that is taken for granted, in my opinion. The rules in which we live by are determined by who we elect. It is of the utmost importance that we have accountability in our elective process. One way to ensure the polls work according to the regulatory process is to check voters as they check in. Poll workers ensure only valid registered voters get a ballot, so voter fraud does not happen. Another important function of working the polls is to ensure no one is intimidated from participation in voting. Protecting privacy at the ballot box is important. Last but not least, polling locations need observers.

Observers are just that, they watch the poll workers as well as the people in line to vote.

My Experience

On November 6, 2018, I served my community by being an Observer at a polling location in my Legislative District in Arizona. I presented my credential from the Democratic Party to the Poll Supervisor, and asked where they would like me to be. After all, I was just an “Observer” and did not want to interfere in the flow of the election process. While the majority of the day was pretty mundane, some encounters left me bewildered. Let me start by saying, “they walk among us”.

Two men were close to fisticuffs. I heard voices rise, which attracted my attention. When I saw the two men, both appearing to be physically fit, square off in front of each other, one of the men said in a loud voice so everyone in the polls could hear, “You want to say something?” I could not understand the response from the other gentleman, then the man who raised his voice said, “Then shut up!” One of the poll workers stepped between the two men and they immediately portrayed some sense of respectability. The worker who stepped between them was a short woman 5’2” maybe, probably mid 40’s and 110lbs. Neither men appeared to notice I had moved just a few steps away from the incident. I was very relieved that I did not have to get involved and the situation did not escalate any farther.

Tension remained in the room, as there were elderly women, children, elderly men that were in no position to stop either man once an altercation began. Once both men voted and exited the polls, a collective exhale could be felt around the room. Murmurs circulated through the line of voters, but that stopped eventually once the line progressed.

Now the system used for voters to navigate the polls was convoluted to say the least. Once you arrived at the front of the line, you presented your authorized form of voting. Then you went to a touch screen computer and verified your voting authenticity and waited for your ballot to be printed. While you waited for your ballot to be printed, you waited in an area away from the polling booths and the people that had ballots. Once you obtained your ballot you went to the back of the line to wait for an open polling booth.

Needless to say, there was a lot of waiting, even when everything was running smoothly. There were 6 touch screens available, and two printers assigned to this polling location. Most of the morning, only one printer was operational, and then for about forty five minutes, both printers at this polling site were inoperable.

Remember, this is Arizona, and even though most of the heat has dissipated for the year, it was still a high of 84 in Phoenix that day. During this period of printer inactivity, an elderly lady that was waiting outside came in and asked me if the was a contingency for people that got hungry and their blood sugar triggered a medical problem from a preexisting condition. She was in obvious distress, so naturally I offered her the chair I was given to observe from, and offered her whatever she wanted of the lunch I brought that day. It was 2 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a bag of almonds and a bad of chocolate covered almonds.

She graciously helped herself to some almonds and said that would suffice her. Shortly thereafter her name was called and she went to get her ballot and stand in line. I hope come Judgement day she is there to answer the question, “When I was hungry, did you feed me?” Also, I saw Beauty and the Beast, I do not want a rose in a glass vase encasing it.

One gentleman engaged me in conversation and confided that he has always voted in Presidential Elections, but this was his first mid-term election he was participating in. He vowed he would never miss another either.

My favorite one of the day, but not my last, this is not a book, is about someone special. This guy walks into the polls holding his mail in ballot. This is not out of the ordinary, since people were constantly depositing their mail in ballots all day. Some people feel voting on Election Day is ceremonious and choose to vote this way. I support their choice in how to exercise their right, and thank them for exercising it.

But this guy waited in line, checked in at the touch screen station then decided to come sit near where I was observing. Where he is sitting is on a narrow piece of bench next to a box of donations. This polling site was in a church. For some reason, he decides to engage conversation with me about what he is doing. I cannot say this with a straight face so I’m glad you have a chance to read it. He tells me he is surrendering his mail in ballot for a same day ballot. I asked him, “Why, it would be redundant. You are going to get the same ballot you have in your hands?” He looked at me like I was stupid and said, “This is how I’ve always done it.” All I could say was, “It is your ballot.” And he waited, ballot in hand.

About an hour later, and countless voters come and gone since his arrival, the same poll worker that stepped between the two men walked over to me for a breather, and wait for some polling booths to open. She saw super genius holding his ballot and asked how she could help. When he told her what he told me, she could not help but laugh an expression, then told him to follow her to the table where ballots were being printed. Not two minutes later, he walked over to me and asked, “Do you think I should just fill out the ballot I have?” If I had anything in my mouth I would have spit it out. All I could do was say, “I would if I were you.”

He filled out his ballot in two minutes and was gone. He is still out there, walking among us.

During the time when the printers were down, I used the communication system established by Democrats for Observers, to report the system malfunction. Now when I went where I was asked to by the Polling Supervisor, I saw a gentleman standing at the rear of the farthest end of the table to be out of the way. I asked my poll worker friend if she knew who he was and she said, “He’s an Observer like you, but from the other party.” I asked why he was where he was and she said, “Good question.” She approached the Republican Observer, and asked him to move where I was, and he resisted. Not physically, but he tried presenting a front that he belonged there, until she convinced him otherwise. This woman was good.

Closing Time

Observing the polls means observing the end of voting. Closing the polls is not done on a friendly basis. If Father Time keeps you from the end of the line at the time polls close, you are out of luck. To ensure no voter fraud, no preferential treatment to anyone, the same poll worker asked me to stand outside with her at the end of the line when the polls closed. Accountability, what a concept.
 We both stood at the end of the line when the polls closed.

I wish this had a better ending, but there were three people we turned away from the polls for being late. One person was one minute late and two minutes later a husband and wife were turned away. Their looks were obvious, one minute and you won’t let it slide.
 This is where being a nice guy gets you in trouble. What if someone trying to prove voter fraud is given even a chance to get a voice out there. Remember, everyone is recording you. I will not be that guy that gets caught doing the wrong thing for the right reason. I’ve made too many mistakes in my life, this was not going to be one of them. To those three people, I understand your reasons for having any animosity, but my intentions were unmalicious.

Just like a jury, the responsibility of how our government is maintained is bestowed upon our polling workers. Ultimately, it is incumbent on us to ensure our rules are followed and this experiment we call Democracy is adhered to.

Gene Smith

Gene Smith is a Chief Campaign Strategist living in Peoria, Arizona. He is a husband, father to three grown men, Air Force veteran, retired law enforcement officer, and law school graduate. He’s currently canvassing for citizen ballot initiatives that involve education, campaign finance reform, and environmental issues. Smith serves as an elected Democratic Precinct Committee person, engaging in voter registration and recruitment.


Originally published at primepolitical.com on November 8, 2018.