Sunday, November 07, 2004

Gambier Voting Diary

I know, this is a very long post. It's more than 5 pages on paper. On Blogger, the only thing I can think to do about it would be to post it as a comment... if anyone has a better idea, let me know.

This is my memory of standing in The Great Gambier Voting Line of Ought-Four.

6:30 AM: I’m told this is when people started lining up. I don’t know, as I, myself, was asleep.

7 AM: I’m told this is when the polls opened. Again, I am still asleep. The rule in Knox County is that each precinct gets 2 voting machines; this means there are two electronic voting machines for the Village of Gambier. There are two more in the room for (more lightly populated) College Township, but apparently they cannot possibly be repurposed to work for Village voters.

9 AM: I get to work and hear folks Mount Vernon talking about the long lines there… an hour or 90 minutes wait! Apparently, it takes an average of 2 minutes for an individual to vote, so you can push through about 50 people per hour per voting machine.

9:30ish: I’m told somewhere around here is where Voting Machine #2 dies. The Village of Gambier now has 1 voting machine. I’m told they got it back up and running in about an hour, but this is where the line really takes off.

10:30ish: The rain has let up, so I decide to go check it out. After all, you wouldn’t want to walk 10 minutes in the rain. People walking up the hill as I walk down say that they were in line for 2 and 3 hours.

At the front door of the community center, I’m told to go around to the back door, just as a crowd control measure. OK. When I get to the back door, I can see that the line has gone all the way down the hall and snaked in and out of the gym.

Once upon a time, I was a city boy. Once upon a time, I could stand in line, stoic like a Soviet on toilet paper day. But living in the country has made me soft. And so, I, Dumbass for Freedom, make this fatal statement:

“Oh, I am not wasting my whole day standing in this line.”

I go back to work. People are stunned to see me. I tell them how I’m going to knock off early and get in line around 3, when the crowd dies down. Boy, am I smart.

Want to hear God laugh? Tell Him your plans.

3 PMish: Having been moderately productive at work, I cut out. Surely, by now, the crowd has thinned out. Or… it’s wrapped all the way out the back to the front again. And it’s lightly spitting rain. Perfect.

One of my employees walks out of the polling place. He says he’s been there for about 4 hours. He lives in Cleveland, which means he could’ve driven home and back in the time he stood in line. I’m trying to figure out what scut work to make him do next week for clogging up things at my polling place.

People are walking around offering plastic bags and umbrellas to stay out of the rain. I figure it’s a pretty light rain, and I’m tough. I’ve neglected to get a hat or umbrella, but at least I thought to put on my one truly waterproof pair of boots. For the next two hours, goodhearted people will try to convince me to take something to keep off the water, but once you’re 100% wet, there’s not much point.

This is insane. Maybe I can get ahead in line if I convince people I’m a dangerous psychotic.

“You know who we should elect? Saddam Hussein. Think about it! The people of Iraq didn’t get to pick him, but we could! We pulled him out of his spider hole, he has to do what we say… and no more election lines! Oh, sure, you know, people lined up against the wall, but democracy has tradeoffs…”

This really did seem to concern one of the earnest ladies trying to keep our spirits up. It did not scare off any of the folks in front of me.

I threaten to take out a hit on Howard Dean, because it was his campaign that really galvanized Gambier’s Democrats. This line is his fault. Mean-spirited humor goes over less well, and I stop the comedy routine. Thanks folks! Tip your waiters, try the veal. I’ll be here all week! And so will you…

3:45 PM: I see Herself exit the polls. She has a 5:10 plane to catch at Port Columbus, an hour away. Some supernatural force warps space-time as she drives, the gods of rain and thunder keep her plane from even landing, and by miracle, she makes it just before boarding begins.

And the Radical Right thinks God is only on their side.

4:15 PM: Locals are coming around with cookies and chips, water and soda, and all the leftover Halloween candy in Gambier. A couple of students show up with a kettle of hot chocolate. Of course, it’s all nonpartisan junk food just designed to keep our spirits up… but some of these independent altruistic citizens are wearing their Kerry buttons. Election fraud! Election fraud! I’m being intimidated by Democratic Doritos!

Now, by “line”, I really mean “self-organizing mob.” People are being really good about holding one another’s spot in line for bathroom breaks, or runs home for reading, or general visiting with the rest of the line. Without a doubt, this leads to some line hopping. Nobody gets their noses too badly bent out of joint, as far as I know. People, mostly students, are taking pictures of each other, videotaping the event. There is no official crowd control I can see, beyond one county sheriff who’s just walking the grounds.

The rain picks up. The wind picks up. The skies darken. I start joking with the undergrads in line next to me about how we’ll tell this story to our grandkids. (Because, there’s nothing the young people like better than a story about voting, unless it’s a story about weather.)

(Old Man voices) “Oh, I stood in the Great Gambier Line of Ought-Four! Oh, yes, sonny, and it rained all day. And the wind howled.”

(Old Man #2) “And we were unsheltered from the elements! And then it hailed! And there was a tornado! And lightning and thunder! And a plague of locusts assailed our flesh!”

(Old Man #3) “And when I got to the door, I had to fight a bear to get inside!”

(Child’s voice) “I thought it was a tiger last time, Grandpa…”


I figure in 20 or 30 years, when I tell this story, W himself will have been standing at the ballot box, shooting lasers out of his eyeballs at us.

It’s also around this time that I notice a Professor of Religion behind me. He’s got to be nearly 30 years my senior, and he’s probably got half an hour more wait than I do, and yet he’s standing behind me, under his umbrella with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel printed on the inside, with this beatifically peaceful face. I have to ask him how he does that.

5:30ish: As the sun goes down, I actually make it inside. It’s dry and lit, and I can see chairs only a few hours away. On the other hand, the crowd and lack of ventilation quickly makes you miss the fresh air outside.

Inside the gym, the line goes from clumps of people to a single file of chairs around the room and then goes back to clumps as we exit. Whoever’s dealing with crowd control has already figured out that they can get more people out of the rain and dark by running the room through a couple of available rooms in the community center, and again, there are transitions from clumps to single file. Like a merge on a highway, these bottlenecks really slow down the perception of motion in the line.

Anyone who’s been to an amusement park knows how important the perception of motion is. If you want to keep a crowd happy, don’t let them stand still. If you’re shuffling your feet, you think you’re getting closer. If you’re not, you’re just going to get aggravated, even if you know that people are moving somewhere you can’t see.

Time stops. Pizza and drinks and candy and chips come in to the gym, and trash goes out. One of my student employees comes in with a couple of corn dogs stolen from the dining hall. Sadly, he doesn’t hear me call. I could use a corn dog.

7:30: Polls close. Election judges have already gone through the crowd handing out “authorization to vote” slips to folks in line. Theoretically, the election judges will now put one person at the end of the line to mark who may and may not vote. Not since Cuchulain fought the Irish Sea has there been such a mismatch.

Democratic poll watchers begin frantically urging folks to make room and come inside to try to contain the crowd. There’s a significant increase in locals in the line, folks who went to work and planned to vote afterward. I recognize a senior administrator or two and at least 4 professors, some with their spouses. Four or five of my friends who aren’t employed by the College make it into the gym as I’m heading out.

I start to notice a cycle in my mood, in roughly 40-minute increments. The line is absurd and hilarious; the line is patriotic and inspiring; the government screwed up and caused this line and it’s boring and infuriating. Eventually, boredom leads back to absurdity.

I’ve brought issues of College and Research Libraries News and Library Administration and Management to read in line. These are, in my estimation, two of the better library “science” journals, but I am not sure if they are breaking the tedium or prolonging it. At least I didn’t ruin an actual good book in the rain.

Around this time, there’s a significant increase in the number of students bringing goodies into the crowd. Students are calling each other to come down and get in the party. This is not good for crowd control or airflow, although I do appreciate the snacks and water. The number of folks wearing “Lick Bush and Beat Dick” shirts may constitute illegal electioneering, but frankly, if you’re in this line and can still have your vote swayed by a t-shirt and a can of orange soda, your ass is too dumb to vote anyway. (Judges and poll watchers do eventually make a concerted effort at removing the buttons and getting the shirts turned inside out, with some success, but new people are constantly joining the crowd.)

9:00ish: There’s a rumor afoot that a federal judge has ordered that paper ballots be issued to those who want them. Students begin squawking about Florida and pregnant chads and hanging chads and votes not counting. This is an interesting assertion, considering that in 2 hours or so, I’ll discover that Knox County uses Scantron paper ballots, not hole punches anyway. Hey, everybody’s got to be a first-time voter once.

Professor of Biology and poll observer Joan Sloncziewski has been here since at least 9 AM, probably since the polls opened. She seems to be point person for any official communication or organization of the crowd. I don’t actually know whether or not she has the authority to do this, but thank God somebody is. I keep seeing her moving through the crowd, keeping an eye on things, trying to organize this ad hoc army of volunteers that thinks it’s the Dunkirk evacuation. I have never personally seen someone sacrifice her body for democracy, but it’s obvious that Joan is; it seems like she’s been moving and talking all day.

(Hmmm… lack of sufficient planning, a power vacuum, chaos, and quite literally no good exit strategy. Sounds like the Board of Elections has recreated one of the reasons so many people are in this line in the first place.)

Joan is far from the only person in this situation. It seems that the media version of this story has been about the committed students who stood in line, but take a moment to remember the townies who not only stood in the line, but returned to provide organizational support and comfort to those in line. Locals and students, these are the people who kept this from being a story about an angry mob.

10ish: It’s somewhere around here that the paper ballots arrive. The county chairs of both parties have agreed to treat these ballots as valid, and have them counted and reported tonight; Joan says she’s going to see that this happens, and I wouldn’t try to pull a fast one on her, if I were in their shoes. Many students don’t accept the promise, though.

Also somewhere around here, crowd control realizes that they’ve forgotten about a room full of people and decides to clear out the library and additional holding pens. I won’t debate the decision, but remember what I said about the perception of motion? Morale slides.

People have been talking about “the longest line in the country” for some time, and wondering if the media would show up. NBC finally does send a camera crew down. This is greeted with the great cheer of patriots for nearly 200 years:

WooooooooHooooooooooo! Yeah, dude! Kenyon ROCKS!

10:30ish: those of us in my part of the line who want to vote on paper are given the option to jump forward into a paper-only line. I jump at the chance, to some amount of booing. A student who knows me a little gives me a shocked look and asks “YOU’RE voting on PAPER?”

It’s probably not great for my job security in the computer support division when I snap back “What on Earth would make you think an electronic vote is harder to steal than a paper one?”

The way I see it, this is supposedly a Federal judge’s order, and both parties have agreed to comply. On a personal level, I choose to take those men at their word (and Joan at hers that she’ll watch them). If we can’t meet like that as people, I can’t see how democracy can work.

Besides, the politicians are bigger than me, richer than me, and have more vicious flesh-eating lawyers than I do. If they want my ballot, or my lunch money, they’re going to get it. All I can do is cast my vote honestly.

11:45 PM. I fill out my ballot. It is on a provisional ballot form, but I’ve heard both chairs say they’ll count it tonight. I fill out a complete ballot, although many of the students have broken down to voting only in the Presidential race. Word on the street is that all the local races are already decided, but I’ve come too far to not be heard on every issue.

NBC is taping students as they exit the community center. The sound guy swings the boom mike in my direction as I walk out. As soon as I’m in frame, the camera guy shuts off the light and begins muttering about the battery pack or the tape running out. Now c’mon, Jack… I know I’m no Chandler Bing, but the “what a face for radio” vibe was uncalled for.

Midnight: Maybe once in my life have I been so glad to see the door to a bar open. A small group is in the Gambier Grill, watching results and drowning our sorrows, a speck of blue in a deep red county. I’m sore, tired, and grouchy.

But… I have a hell of a story, and I did what I could do. Which, for an Irish-American, is about everything you could wish for.

6 Comments:

Blogger TeacherRefPoet said...

Joe,

ICK!!!! A few things come to mind:

1. The community center...that used to be Wiggin Street Elementary, right?

2. Were there any provisions made for the elderly or handicapped? Sounds like a LOT of standing.

3. My impression from you is that the relations between everyone in line were good, regardless of student/townie or Dem/Rep status. Right?

4. I don't understand why kids would be upset about voting on "paper" ballots. What's the complaint? Is there a difference between that and the Scantron ballot they'd have seen at the front?

--TRP

6:54 PM, November 07, 2004  
Blogger Swankette said...

In the 1996 Presidential election I had to stand in line approximately 45 minutes, and after that I vowed I would never vote at my polling place again if I could help it (permanent absentee ballot). Your story makes me feel like a wuss.

12:41 AM, November 08, 2004  
Blogger Joe said...

TRP:

No, Wiggin Street Elementary remains Wiggin Street Elementary. The Community Center is on Meadow Lane, over by the Pizza Huts and McBride Field.

I didn't see any formal mechanisms for the elderly or infirm. Again, I heard of individuals who pulled older folks up in the line, but that was a matter of right person, place, and time.

The town/gown relations in the line seemed not bad, although I've heard some aggravation from a townie or two who didn't stick it out in the line. Dem/Rep relations... well, I've heard that Gambier broke something like 1000 for Kerry and 90 for Bush, so I can't really say.

The paper ballots were made available by a judge's order, so, in theory, a higher judge could throw them out. Apparently, you're not supposed to have more than one format of voting going at a time, and you're not supposed to switch mid-day. I think the fear of legal challenge is reasonable, even if I didn't share it.

(To clarify: "normal" voting is some kind of electronic machine, the Scantron ballot is the "provisional" ballot which is supposed to be used in cases like problems with your registration. Since real "provisional" ballots won't be counted until later this week, I can see why people didn't believe ours would get counted election day.)

Swankette:

I've stood in poll lines for half an hour or 45 minutes. Don't I wish I had your foresight...

8:40 AM, November 08, 2004  
Blogger lemming said...

Community center = rummage sale location, right? I loved the Gambier public library.

Thanks for the post - wonderful work. Nothing like a November drizzle to bring out the Irish in all of us. I'll keep a look out for intimidating Democractic Doritos.

10:07 AM, November 08, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still think you're a hero, Joe. Good on ya.

I'm ashamed of my 35 minutes in line. But that's what you get when you live in an overwhelmingly affluent, liberal Democratic precinct. Maybe Arlington, VA, can export some voting machines to Gambier, OH.

Regards,
tommyspoon

10:45 AM, November 08, 2004  
Blogger Matt said...

Spectacular post. The last time I voted in Gambier was in 1996, when a College van literally cruised up alongside me on Wiggin Street and the driver yelled, "Hey, we're all gonna go vote! Get in!" Five minutes later I was done.

I remember that there was a table full of refreshments at the polling place, and all of the Kenyon students assumed it was for them--a little reward for having voted. The 80-year-olds in the VFW caps running the polls looked like they were tired of shooing people away from their lunch.

3:31 AM, November 11, 2004  

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