Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2002 / 20 Tishrei, 5763

Barry Lank

Barry Lank
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Consumer Reports

Now it can be told: Floridaitis is a nationwide epidemic | Oh, it's easy to laugh at Florida. In fact, let's all laugh at it now. That crazy little place just had its Democratic primary for governor, and electronic voting machines fouled up all over Dade and Broward counties. Gov. Jeb Bush ordered polls to stay open two hours longer, but not every poll heard about it or cooperated. Sheriff's deputies had to be called in. In the end, when one Broward County precinct worker couldn't reach elections officials, he, well, took the ballots home with him.

And this still is supposed to be better than the last election - with its famous unexpected groundswell of Jews for Pat Buchanan.

Janet Reno eventually had to concede this primary, just like former Vice President Al Gore did two years ago - all part of Florida's conspiracy against stiff, boring people from the Clinton administration. So even though N.J. leaders tend to swap their political integrity for minor appliances, at least we don't have problems in our polling places.

Except we do. So do a lot of other states. Usually you hear about it only in quick stories that vanish shortly after Election Day - for example, that voting machines in North Jersey two years ago had been "visited" by unknown parties in the warehouse where they were supposed to be securely locked. Polling everywhere has depended for a long time upon rickety technology, and no small number of rickety people to oversee it.

Thus, my tale:

About 10 years ago in San Francisco, I signed up to work at a polling place - for $50, I think. I was so thoroughly unemployed that I could call up city officials months in advance of the election (as was required) and guarantee that I still would be unemployed on the day the polling place opened. Yet, even with that kind of credential, not only was I hired, I was put in charge - mainly because I had a car and could drive the ballots down to City Hall at the end of the night.

Then I met the two guys who were assigned to work for me. One had an artificial hand, which he said he'd received after a printing press accident decades earlier. His real hand was spotted and aged. But his artificial hand would always resemble the smooth, clear, lost hand of his youth. The other guy was heavy-set, couldn't read, didn't talk much and ended the day by asking me for an advance on his pay so he could get wine.

Here's how the day went: One person was to greet people, one was to look up voters' names in the roster, and one would tear off their ballot stubs. Because I had the strongest grasp of English, I greeted people and gave them instructions. The guy with the artificial hand, however, insisted upon tearing the ballot stubs - a matter of pride, I suppose. Unfortunately, this meant that the job of looking up names went to the guy who couldn't read.

The funny thing was how respectfully voters waited while we went through this process, as if surely we were trained government officials. At one point, we had been waiting a particularly long time for the one worker with the roster to turn up a name beginning with the letter D. I looked over and he was in the R's, wandering - quietly, like a perfect little angel - into the S's. It went on for 12 hours like that - the thump of a wooden hand holding down a ballot stub, the peaceful industry of a man floating through an alphabet that he did not understand, like a toddler taking its first halting, barefoot steps in a golden field of dancing butterflies. In the end, I drove the votes down to City Hall in my 1983 Honda Accord, and democracy was preserved, more or less by luck.

Who are we who run your polling places and flip the "on" switch of democracy? We're a crap shoot. Some of us are smart, some are senile. All should be thanked, no question about it; I sure don't want that job again.

But don't fool yourself, the process is not consistent. Though debugged computers may run it all some day, human beings are in charge for now. And according to my research, human beings - maybe not in your town, maybe not anywhere you know, but nonetheless all across the country, and throughout history - are idiots. I expect that to continue.

JWR contributor Barry Lank is an editorial writer and humor columnist based at the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, NJ. Comment by clicking here.

09/19/02: Workers of the world ... rest?

© 2002, Barry Lank