Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

This fall, I’ve spent two Tuesdays – one in September, one this week – working the polls at my local community center. I first worked the polls in 2020, when the pandemic put many older poll workers at risk. Despite the long day, I loved the experience, and I’ve been happy to do it again.

Poll work isn’t sexy, or glamorous, or particularly shiny (though it can be fun). It’s hours of (sometimes tedious) work, answering the same questions over and over again. It’s even more work for the city employees who take over when our job is done. It is an often unwieldy process, and it is worth defending. It is ours.

Voting, like jury duty, is part of the mundane work of democracy: millions of decisions by different people – some of whom will disagree vehemently – on so many subjects that affect our lives. Sometimes a ballot question strikes me as confusing or arcane. Some races seem obscure or inconsequential, while others get all the attention. But the truth is that it all matters. The people in these jobs, and the way these questions are decided, will have an impact on the way we live in this country for the next several years (if not longer).

I’ve been amazed, each time I’ve worked the polls, by the particulars of the process: the specific way that ballots must be entered, the checks and balances to make sure we count accurately. (I’ve rarely seen so many tally marks in one place.) The tools are simple, mostly analog: ballpoint pens and paper booklets of addresses, felt-tip pens and cardboard voting booths, electrical tape for hanging signs in multiple languages. The ballot machines are digital, but we still have to pull out stacks of paper and hand-count certain ballots at the end of the night.

I love seeing my neighbors walk in, all day long: construction workers and young moms with kids, sleek young professionals and elderly adults, brand-new citizens and third- or fourth-generation residents. I love seeing the couples who have clearly been doing this together for decades. I love handing out “I Voted” stickers to people of all ages. I especially love seeing the first-time voters, like the young woman with the Central European accent, and the lanky teenager whose dimples flashed when I congratulated him. I love seeing all the pieces of the mosaic that make up our democracy.

I’ve been impressed by the dogged dedication of the election department staff, the police officers who are there for security, and my fellow workers: all of us are there to do our parts. (It also strikes me that true, concerted election fraud – the kind we’ve been hearing about on the news – would take so much coordination to actually pull off.) Every time I look around a community center or high school gym, or the elementary school gym where I vote, I think: this is truly what democracy looks like. This is how it’s supposed to be.

I believe everyone who can should work the polls at least once. It’s a humbling, eye-opening reminder of the way we continue to build this country. It’s worth a long day – really, more than one – to make sure your neighbors get to exercise their right to vote. It’s a reminder of the breathtaking diversity of America, multiplied by thousands of precincts in cities, towns and villages. It is both unassuming and vital. It matters.

Democracy, like any relationship, is more like a garden than a building: it requires tending. It is constantly growing and shifting, day by day. It can nourish us in important ways, but it takes work. And it only works for all of us if we all keep showing up.

If you were able, I hope you voted. And I hope you’ll join me in working the polls next time there’s an election. (Also, YES to this story from Karen Walrond in Texas – so important, and so cleverly told.)


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Last Tuesday, I did something entirely new to me: I spent 15 hours (yes, basically my whole waking day) serving as a poll worker at my neighborhood high school. This year, many veteran poll workers, who tend to be older, are stepping back due to coronavirus risks, so I signed up to help fill the gap.

As an experience, it was both eye-opening and at times mind-numbingly mundane. We did a lot of counting: blank ballots, tally marks, voter lists, early-voting ballots, all the scanned ballots at the end of the night. There was a lot of recounting and double-checking, to make sure the numbers matched the tabulations on the electronic machine. The smell of hand sanitizer hung in the air (with the universal funk of high school gym underneath). I wheeled my bike out of the gym at the stroke of 9 p.m., too tired even to pedal down the steep hill toward home.

All day, I kept thinking of something I heard Elizabeth Gilbert say a few years ago, in a podcast interview: some of the most important things in life are “ninety percent boring.” Writing is this way, she said, and marriage, and certainly raising children. And it occurred to me that this is true of democracy, as well.

Voting is, typically, modest and understated: you go to a school gym or City Hall or the Knights of Columbus clubhouse, give your name to a neighbor or a stranger, mark a ballot with a few dark circles. No one who came to vote on Tuesday was doing it to call attention to themselves. But what I loved was the aggregate: the mosaic, taken together, of all these people of different races, ages, genders and walks of life.

There was the young Hispanic mother in scrubs, holding her two children by the hand, who came to vote after work. (We made sure both kids got an “I Voted” sticker.) There were the retired couples, thin white hair and thick Boston accents, who came together in their sensible shoes. There were several women in hijab, alone or with their husbands, and a few men who walked straight in from their construction job sites, chunky boots and jeans smeared with dust.

We saw a number of first-time voters, young people feeling shy about feeding their ballots into the machine, unsure if they were doing it right. One woman rushed in at 7:45 p.m., saying she’d been on a deadline all day but was determined to come vote. The one that nearly made me cry was the biracial family with two tall teenage sons. One was voting for the first time, and he smiled shyly when I congratulated him. The other one wasn’t old enough to vote yet, but he followed his mother to the booth, and I knew: even if he didn’t act like it, he was paying attention.

Signing petitions, serving on a jury, ensuring free and fair elections: these things are ninety percent boring. Even protests can get hot and dusty and dull, though they’re fueled at first by passion. But these small levers of democracy are the ones that move it forward.

On Tuesday, there was a lot of sitting in hard chairs and watching people come through the line, one by one. There was a lot of pacing back and forth, answering the same few questions over and over, handing out stickers and pens, putting my limited Spanish to use (East Boston has a large Latinx population). It was, perhaps, ninety percent boring – though I truly enjoyed chatting with my fellow poll workers, and my guy came in to bring me dinner. But that made it no less important: in fact, possibly more so. And at the end of the night, we left satisfied that we had done our part to ensure that everyone’s vote counted.

I’ll be working the polls again this November. If you’re able, I’d urge you to consider joining me.

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LEWIS ROTHSCHILD: Mr. President. You’ve raised a daughter – almost entirely on your own – and she’s terrific. So what does it say to you that, in the past seven weeks, 59 percent of this country has begun to question your family values?

A.J. MACINERNEY: The President doesn’t answer to you, Lewis.

LEWIS: Oh, yes, he does, A.J. I’m a citizen. This is my President. And in this country, it is not only permissible to question our leaders – it’s our responsibility.

The American President (1995)

I watched The American President again this fall, the way I do every election year, when I need a break from the TV ads and the ugly mudslinging and the constant ranting from both sides of the aisle. It’s billed as a love story, and the romantic plotline is charming. But I love it most for its thoughtful, incisive words about leadership and character, and the bond between the tightly knit group of staffers who work with the President, played by Michael Douglas.

Every time I watch it, I’m amazed at how it holds up. The casting is fantastic and there are so many great lines (this is Aaron Sorkin, writing pre-West Wing), but the last one above, delivered by a young, fiery Michael J. Fox, has been ringing in my head for weeks.

I’ve done a lot of questioning since the election. I am asking why we elected a man whose lack of experience in governing I find troubling and whose actions in his personal and professional life I find repugnant. I am asking, along with my colleagues, what role the news media played in this election and what our responsibilities are in reporting on the work of the Trump administration. (I am not a newspaper reporter, but I work in communications for a school of public policy, so my work is absolutely affected by who sits in the Oval Office and what they do there.)

Most of all, I am asking how I can participate actively in making this country a safer place for people who are threatened by the rhetoric of our president-elect. And I am absolutely questioning what Trump is saying and doing these days.

Before you stop reading, let me say: this is not (entirely) about partisan politics.

As citizens of a democracy, it is our responsibility to question our leaders at every level of government, no matter their policy positions or party affiliations. All our leaders, from the President on down, answer to every one of us. “America,” as Michael Douglas says near the end of The American President, “is advanced citizenship.” It is hard and complicated work. It’s why I have (for a start) been adding my name to petitions calling for an audit of the vote, supporting my Massachusetts senators who have spoken out against some of Trump’s hiring choices, and calling the House Oversight Committee to demand a bipartisan review of Trump’s finances and potential conflicts of interest.

Full disclosure: I am brand-new to any kind of political activism, even these small steps. I have always voted, but I’ve never before gotten involved in government beyond casting my ballot. I’m fumbling around here, trying to figure out what I can do to make a difference, to let my voice be heard. I am listening to people who have way more at stake (and way more experience) than I do, and trying to follow their lead.

If you usually come here for the books, the tea and the posts about what is saving my life now, don’t worry: I’ll keep writing about those things, especially as we head into the holidays. This blog will probably never be all politics, all the time. But in the wake of an election season that has rocked this country to its core, I had to say this: please join me in asking the questions.

Your questions, and the people and issues you are questioning, might be different from mine. We may not – in fact, we probably won’t – like a lot of the answers we get. But the asking, and the listening to both questions and answers, is vitally important. It is part of what democracy looks like. And when we ask, we can also decide what to do about the answers, the problems and the issues. That, too, is our responsibility.

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