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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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It’s been a bruising week, y’all.

On Tuesday, J and I left the house early to stand in line at our local polling place, and cast our votes for a candidate we believed in. I was thrilled to have the chance to vote for a female president for the first time. (That’s not the only reason I voted for Hillary Clinton, but it’s an important one.)

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I believe in the democratic process, as I’ve written about here before, and I was glad to see many people I know – in many states and yes, at various locations on the political spectrum – exercising their right to vote. I spent a tense, hopeful day with my colleagues and a tense and increasingly worried evening with my husband, watching the news and the election returns.

And then I woke up on Wednesday morning to heartbreak.

I’ve never considered myself especially political, until this election cycle. I come from a deeply conservative state (I grew up in West Texas) and my political leanings have gradually shifted left over the years, but I don’t usually start conversations about them. I live in a deeply liberal state now, and I work at a place that is focused on public policy, but we are an educational institution and therefore non-partisan. We have students, faculty and staff from dozens of states and countries, who hold wildly differing views. We encourage open dialogue and respect for all beliefs; it is fundamental to our mission.

And yet: I am appalled that our country has elected a man who has repeatedly made bigoted, insulting and uninformed comments about Muslims, women, immigrants, disabled people, African Americans, the LGBT community and other groups. I am shocked at the extent of the deep divisions in our country, and deeply troubled by the bitterness and hatred that have come out into the open.

I don’t expect to agree politically with everyone I know or even my close friends and family members, but I am so sad that we seem to have lost the ability to have reasoned, respectful dialogue with people with whom we disagree. No candidate or party is solely responsible for this division, and it didn’t start with this election, but it has become shockingly visible, and it breaks my heart.

The top photo above is from Wednesday, when the HKS community gathered to hear words of empathy and encouragement from our dean. We dropped the balloons, silently, to mark the end of a bitter and vengeful election season, but there was no celebration in it at all. As they floated down to the crowded floor, someone began to sing “Amazing Grace.”

Afterward, we filed quietly back to our offices and classrooms. At least in my office, there were tears and disbelief, venting and anger. We are asking lots of questions for which there are, at least now, very few answers. And, gradually, we are getting back to work.

There is a lot to do, and I am not the person to direct any of it: I don’t even know where to start. Right now I am simply trying to listen, hug my people, check in on the ones who live too far away to hug, and take a hard look at my own life. That is a small beginning, and I know it’s not enough on its own, but we all have to start somewhere.

I’ll be lighting candles, both physical and metaphorical, for peace this weekend. (Advent cannot come soon enough.) And I will be listening. If you want to have open and respectful conversations, or need a shoulder to cry on, I’m here.

Take care, friends.

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