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...a sweatshop of moxie

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


First off, this blog piece isn't about the election results regarding the fruit machines, which can be found here.

Rather, it's a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of a South Florida polling station, as seen through the jaundiced eyes of one its Clerks. The information may be flawed, so don't treat anything you read online as Gospel.

Right, with that sue-me-not preamble, on to the show!

I have to say that the best part of being a Clerk is having to make decisions based on one's careful training. As such, every pollworker in the State of Florida must take a 3-hour course for EACH AND EVERY election worked. If you are a 44-year veteran of polling stations (as one pollworker of mine was), tough cheese, you still have to attend these classes, which are obviously repetitive after one's 1st time, let alone the 20th. Why? Because Jeb Bush decided that had to be so after the alleged fiasco that was the 2000 Presidential Election.

You also have to realise that we use the iVotronics computerised voting ballot now, and we need to get our excuses for them not working down pat.

"Ahh, the inscrutable workings of the Internet" with a wink has quelled many a polling station revolt, I can tell you.

If you can work an ATM, you can work an iVo

The worst thing about being a Clerk is that your contact with the public is usually minimal, and for a vivacious "people-person" such as myself, that absolutely sucks.

This is why I hover around the doorway, greeting people, making sure the pollworkers are kept alert, and every voter goes away pleased with their experience. In short, I am like a Disney World employee, only with less acne.

I am not a political person as such, and I am far more interested in the process than in actual election issues.

(This is why I didn't have a blog before 2005. Can you imagine me blogging about cheeseburgers and candle snuffers on 2 November, 2004? It's almost as if 2005 has been a release for me -- and for so many others, I'm sure -- and we can just go back to being 'normal' again. If you ever see a NYT Bestseller List with the Top 20 books all on politics, please shoot me)

Therefore my wonk-heart was in seventh heaven yesterday, since I again got to set up the iVo machines, which have absolutely rigourous fail-safe procedures on our end. They are checked for Public counts being at 0 (which means no one has tampered with them and voted before polls open), and the person in charge of them, the ES or Elections Specialist, monitors them at all times, having been given a computer and other accoutrements to do so. These are special pollworkers who must take much more rigourous instruction classes than we do, and in fact, are Miami-Dade County civil servants -- not volunteers off the street like I am. The polling station is at my command as Clerk, but if something goes wrong with the iVos, they are in charge.

This is why, I confess, I was so desperately disappointed in my ES yesterday. I am going to change around some details such as names to protect the innocent, but otherwise, it's true to the best of my ability.

For this election, we had almost all new pollworkers, since the veterans all know by-elections can be tedious. So this ES was new to me, and not the chap I had worked with twice before -- an easy-going person, who knew his job inside-out. Fair enough, I can charm sharks if I have to, but this fella was as dry as toast.

A Trinidadian of Indian origin with an air of superiority that started with mentioning how frightening it was to be in this predominantly black area since he lived in (mentioning one of the best areas in Miami) X-neighbourhood, he also was one of those by-the-bookers who do not understand the spirit of the law, but are just concerned with never veering from it for a nanosecond. Hello Janet Reno. (Goodbye Elian).

Thus if the booklet didn't mention it, he couldn't do it or worse, didn't see any need to find out if it was possible. It's not in the BOOK, see?

Okay, Example:

You know how usually when you are a boss of something, you are told that fraternising with your staff is not adviseable, since you will be distracted or might lose their respect?

Well, he told me that he would give me a special signal if any pollworker stopped by his area to chat, which was across the room from the check-in Inspectors. That sign was putting his hand ON his head, and wiggling his fingers to attract my attention. Which is a blessing since I would never have noticed his discomfiture otherwise.

Oh brother.

With his simpering asides about ghettos on the one hand, and his über-pickiness on the other, I thought this might be a disastrous day. What made it not so were the pollworkers assigned to me, which are beyond my control, being hand-chosen by the Elections Department.

They were almost all, with the exception of one Cuban lady aged almost 85 (yes really) and one teenager, all single black working mothers.

One lady had two generations with her, since she had brought one of her daughters alongside her, aged 22, as well as an 18-year old granddaughter. She was 48 years old and already a great-grandmother. You do the maths. I thought those things only happened in Ice Cube films.

But I tell you, I was absolutely in stitches as they told me stories of their lives. No matter how cruel a fate they had been dealt (and almost no one had both sets of parents living, and one lady had been to a funeral last week, FOUR days in a ROW), they faced life with an unquenchable belief in the Lord, their church, and the community around them.

Not an one of them was without some male member of their family who was not in prison, or had just got out of it.

One pollworker's brother, named 22 (pronounced Two-Two), was a convicted felon since forever, whilst another's cousin ("Big Boy") was coming out April 1st, to be married on the 2nd. Yet another pollworker's sister was married to a famous ex-Dallas Cowboy, now turned sport analyst, so you see, it's not all bad news, harumph.

But did this get them down, as it would have me? No. Did they complain about their lot in life? No. At least not to me. Did they think sometimes life was unfair? Sure. But they did what they could, and oddly enough, their interaction with West Indians made them realise there are worse places, much worse places, to be than America. For some reason, I had never thought of that.

During our enforced confinement at the polling station from 6 AM to 9 PM, I heard them laugh, reminisce, read their hymnals, act out sketch after hilarious sketch from black comedy series, greet voters as if they were old friends (because they were) and they even sang gospel songs for me, including in Kreyol!

That day, where less than two hundred people voted, would've been a nightmare had it not been for them, or it occured to me later, had I been surrounded by 7 of those Election Specialists, with special hand signals to keep the riff-raff away from their hygenic workspaces.

So there I was, the rather pampered offshoot of the old continent, and 6 black American women. And we got along swimmingly, mostly because we dealt with each other as precisely that, as women. Not statistics. Not embittered foes. Not even as boss and staffers. Just as women. We made time go quickly, and enjoyably. We shared our vastly different backgrounds with each other, and we found more in common, than not. We shocked each other, we amazed each other, and quite often, we admired each other. And always present was the alternate version of this experience: if we had wanted to, we could have bickered, found fault, and blamed the other for very real and not at all imagined problems.

But we didn't.

When I started this piece I had wanted to say that after the Iraqi election, when people stood in outdoor queues and braved their LIVES to vote, and some did die for that right -- not all of them Iraqi either -- that no election I could participate in could have as much meaning and import as that one full of purple fingers. In a way, I was jealous of that experience, as unimaginable as that sounds.

But in that one day, in those 12 hours or so, I did learn something very meaningful, which gave weight to this election: that all of us have a choice in life.

You either do or learn, or you wait and suffer.

You either change the reality, or accept it and continue to live with the unbearable.

Not everyone was given a perfect life. In fact, no one was, no matter how much you dare to compare. How you attack the bad is how you make it better. And no one person can make it better, either. It takes many people to do that.

But you have to want it -- you have to want to make it work.

From an Iraqi election where one's very life was at stake to a silly referendum on slot machines, the same lessons can surprisingly be culled.

If that doesn't show you how universal our human experience is, I don't know what does.


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