Grandmas Run This Town: A Journal of My Experience as a Poll Worker for the 2002 Indiana Primary Election

Rick Dietz 5/2002
  1. 30apr2002 07PM: Election Training / Grandmas Run This Town
  2. 01may2002: Here Comes the Judge
  3. 02may2002: Sending out an SOS
  4. 03may2002: Absentee/Absentme
  5. 07may2002 4:30-6AM Primary Day: Setting the Stage
  6. 07may2002 Primary Day: Cast and Crew
  7. 07may2002 6-9AM Primary Day: In the beginning...
  8. 07may2002 9Am-12Noon Primary Day: Representation without Taxation
  9. 07may200212Noon-6PM Primary Day: Word to the Wise
  10. 07may2002 6-8PM Primary Day: Closing Shop
  11. 07may2002 Primary Day: The Low Down
  12. 07may2002: The Morning After

30apr2002 07PM: Election Training / Grandmas Run This Town

It looks like it's going to rain. It feels like it's going to rain. And it does for a minute or two, but just a few bulging drops on the pavement here and there as I make my way from the parking lot to the entrance of Bloomington North High School. A grandmotherly woman is kindly directing folks to the library straight ahead, not the cafeteria as originally planned. Sadly she is without umbrella so I offer mine--ragged but functional--and head inside.

I am amazed on entering, that the library is a sea of gray hair with but a few shiny and baseball-capped islands. There are few of my yet un-grayed generation here. I begin to worry that there won't be very many following in their elders' footsteps to make the less-than glamorous machinery of local democracy work. Maybe we simply need some time to gray into our responsibilities as have generations past. Maybe I should be a bit less melodramatic.

As it turns out, the training is just as disorganized as I hoped it wouldn't be, but nevertheless expected. There's no real walkthrough of the process and it seems assumed that everyone involved has done this before many times over. There's also some mild confusion on a few issues. You see, on the voter list, there's an underlined spot to put whether the voter is a Republican or Democrat, but it's really too small to write there. There's also a checkbox nearby where you can circle "R" or "D" or "X", but it's a wee bit too small to read the boxes. Thankfully there's a blank space on the far side that is just about right. And so it goes...

I am thankfully interrupted (albeit momentary) from staring at the minutia of the example voter rolls by a tap on the shoulder and the happy return of my umbrella. Toward the end of the session, there are some awkward moments of silence interrupted by apologetic questions amid the grumbling and silent prayers of nearly everyone that this might be that miraculous "very last question" of the evening. No. Nope. No again. And again. And yet again, No. and finally, Yes. No more questions.

Leaving the Bloomington North library I'm not so sure that I have been trained as much as I have been convinced that the tolerance for error is high enough and the safeguards are sufficient that nobody can really mess things up too terribly much. Well, that's what I'm hoping at least.


01may2002: Here Comes the Judge

Seeing as how, at this point, I don't really know where and in what role I'll be working on the day of the primary, I phone tag three folks in the County Clerk's office. I find out that I am indeed a Democratic Judge for Bloomington Township Precinct #2 and I'll be working in the Courthouse. Hopefully the Republican Judge, the inspector and clerks will not be first-timer's as well. That seems doubtful though, given the wizened character of most folks at the training session. Nevertheless, I pray the good citizens of Bloomington 2 can forgive me when this is all over. I'll do my best to keep everything chad-free!


02may2002: Sending out an SOS

There's an article in the paper today--"Monroe County clerk sends election SOS." It seems there aren't enough poll workers and time is getting tight. I can see the chads falling now... (shudder).


03may2002: Absentee/Absentme

Since I'm working as a judge in a different precinct than where I would otherwise vote (Bloomington 23), I have to vote absentee. Primary day for poll workers is long (from 6AM to 7PM if you're lucky) and there simply isn't the time or the opportunity to sneak away for a quick vote down the street. Everything is counter-balanced; there's a Republican judge and a Democratic judge, a Republican clerk and a Democratic clerk. Once I enter I can't leave, so absentee it is!

At the County Justice Building I am metal detected and follow the hand-drawn sign at the end of the hall to the absentee voting booths. I must say now that if there is one word to describe everyone directly involved in the electoral process thus far, it has to be 'gracious'. There are thank-you's for voting, thank-you's for working the polls, and thank-you's for saying "you're welcome" to the previous thank-you's.. I don't think it's just demeanor that makes everyone so thankful; rather, I think everyone involved knows that we all need to be appreciative of those who make democracy work even in the smallest of ways and the smallest of places.


07may2002 4:30-6AM Primary Day: Setting the Stage

The alarm begins screaming at 4:30 in the morning. Through the fuzz I make my way to the shower and into the waking world. I gather all the miscellanea I threw together the night before to occupy my time at the polling place in the event attendance is sparse: a book and some conference proceedings to read, a disposable camera, a pad of paper for drawings and such, and my ever-present pocket notebook. I snag my umbrella later on the way out, as it's pouring outside.

I start the day while it's still night. As I drive a few blocks to the county Courthouse building the black of the wet pavement carries in rivers the red, yellow and green of the downtown traffic lights. Everything is quiet, even the morning birds for all the rain that's fallen overnight. Normally I would walk to the square--it's just a few blocks from my house--but we'll need my handy-dandy station wagon at the end of the day to transport the ballot boxes back to the County Clerk's office. So it's pedal to the metal.

I arrive at the south side of the Courthouse with my backpack of goodies a few minutes after 5AM. As soon as I come through the door, Barb, the Inspector, sets me to the task of swearing her in. She administers me the oath in turn and lastly, swears in the clerks, Betty and Sue, and Glennis, the Republican Judge. Swearing someone in to work at the polls simply requires the swear-ee to raise his hand a second and swear an oath or otherwise affirm in whatever way that he thinks the U.S. and Indiana Constitutions are good things and to otherwise be a decent and relatively unbiased citizen. The problem with the oath, though, is it isn't quite that simple; it's actually more than half a page and will make your mouth a desert by the time you get down to the last subclause and affirm that your mother, father, sister, brother, great aunt and second cousin twice-removed's hairdresser isn't running for office in the precinct you are staffing.

After making everyone all good and legal, we set about getting all of our paperwork prepped and the ballot boxes set up before opening at 6AM -- plenty of time. We also get a chance to introduce ourselves a bit, although most of the "getting-to-know-you" happens throughout the lulls, which, frankly, were interrupted more often by deeper lulls than by voters.

Before the polls open we tackle much of the form-filling and triplicate name-signing that are required at the end of the day. There are a phenomenal number of papers and other material that have to be hauled over the county clerk's office at the end of the day along with all the tally sheets, voter rolls and the like. All of them need to be signed many times over. Experienced and/or bored poll workers take care of that little hassle early on, as we did. In addition to getting the paper work in order (which fell mostly on the inspector's and clerks' shoulders), we had to get the MicroVote ballot boxes up and running. Barb and I tackled this particular chore.

Your typical Microvote MV464 Electronic Voting Computer starts the day as over-glorified baby-blue hard plastic suitcase. The first thing to do is open up the case, extend transformer-style the folded plastic privacy guards, extract judge's console, the assorted cords and cables, and finally the legs for the whole contraption. (A word to the wise: pay attention to the way the legs are positioned in the box before removing them. It'll help later when you're struggling against all hope to put them back in.) Now, I've played with a lot of Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys in my day, but this is something else. I eventually got the legs set up, but it was with no small amount of frustration, especially since it's the kind of thing, a simple diagram on a sticker would reduce to a 15-second, brain-free task. We get the machines standing and proceed through our master to-do list until both boxes are up and ready to go. Then we sit and wait for 6AM and our first voters.

Settling into my judging chair (the one I'll be warming pretty much all day long) I chat absently with my co-workers a bit and scribble a few of the notes you are reading right now. Eventually the courthouse bell bongs six long bongs. Barb peeks out the door and hollers into the empty dawn, "Hear ye! Hear ye! The polls are now open!" She then unlocks the doors for the day and democracy begins to happen. Well, it begins to begin happening at least.


07may2002 Primary Day: Cast and Crew

The courthouse polling place holds two precincts, Bloomington 1 and Bloomington 2. B2, where I am working uses the southern entrance and B1, the northern entrance. We share the rotunda with an imaginary line running east and west through the center, although we pretty much come and go as we like.

This is as good a place as any to introduce to the gentle reader the major characters in this little adventure. First of all, let me say that I'm not at all experienced at making a polling place run; I've never worked the polls before. Thankfully though, there was a lot of 'experience' in the room at Bloomington 2. So, if grandmothers and the otherwise grandmotherly are your thing, then B2 was the place to be on May 7th. Here's the cast and crew...

Barb: B2 Precinct Inspector

Barb (who is not yet grandmotherly, by a long shot) keeps the wheels from falling off the cart as she zips to and fro, thanking and greeting and paper-form filling. She shepherds lost voters throughout the day and keeps the general level of chaos--if not boredom--to a minimum.

Glennis: B2 Republican Judge

Glennis has seen a lot of voting in her day and she's happy to tell you all about it--and just about anything else on her mind as well. She turns 79 years young tomorrow. She's got deep dark skin and a voice, a presence and a gaze that command attention. "You can have this job from now on," she offers, "I've been doing the job for forty-some years -- every position 'cept sheriff."

Sue: B2 Republican Clerk

If there can be Good ol' Boys then there must assuredly be Good ol' Gals. Sue is one of them. She doesn't have the time or inclination to beat around the bush and always has an anecdote (sometimes pertinent as well) at the ready. But I'm still trying to figure out if being "on a gravy train with sausage wheels" is a good thing or not. Sue?

Betty: B2 Democratic Clerk

Betty is quiet, somewhat in contrast to her other colleagues of the day. She's thoughtful, keeps to herself and her crossword, and strolls contentedly around the courthouse floor every once in a while, surveying the scene.

Rick: B2 Democratic Judge and Narrator

I'm a first-time poll worker. I spend my time helping voters and the other ten hours or so reading, chatting, wandering, listening, writing, daydreaming and doodling.

Bloomington 1 Supporting Cast

Steve's a judge. He's working on a business plan and taking visitors to his make-shift office for the day. He gets a phone call every 30 minutes or so on his pseudo-cellular phone. (His real office is just down the street from the Courthouse and he can still get decent reception if he sticks his cordless phone in the window and talks outside.) Mary is a judge too. She's quiet but has a great laugh and shuffles pleasantly through the rotunda every hour or so. We share food and stories whenever we stray from one side of the Courthouse rotunda to the other. There's also a small cabal of three inseparable guys (the B1 inspector & clerks). They conversed among themselves pretty much the entire time as far as I could tell from across the way.

Now that all of the major and minor players have been introduced, let's get on with the day...


07may2002 6-9AM Primary Day: In the beginning...

Once the doors open, I take my judge's seat beside the voting machine. Looking down the hallway to the south door of the courthouse, it is pouring rain and the wind sways the trees outside. Glennis pines, her gravelly quarry-deep voice echoing through the rotunda, "This could be a very long, very boring day." I just stare down the hallway a while into the pre-dawn blackness. We sit a few minutes in silence and she then confides, "It used to be rain, snow, nothin' could stop folks from voting. It's just different now."

Shortly after opening, we receive a list of absentee votes for the precinct. Betty and Sue mark them off on the rolls, which insures no absentee voters can weasel their way in and vote here at the polls as well. We get another smaller batch midday consisting of last day mail and add that to the list too.

Eventually our first voter hesitantly enters the courthouse, clad in purple, teal and pine green striped sweats with a puffy-white head-band. I'll use him as an example to illustrate the voting process for those readers that may have been seriously ill and unable to make it to the polls themselves. For the purposes of anonymity and intrigue, I will refer to said voter as the mysterious Voter-X. Here is the basic primary voting procedure, give or take:


07may2002 9Am-12Noon Primary Day: Representation without Taxation

Back on planet Earth, breakfast such as it is, arrives -- an eggy/cheesy casarole of some sort, some fruit and juice. The B1's brought a coffee maker so I indulge in a milliliter or two of coffee as well. Just for fun, I begin to count the number of property taxpayers that have to abort mission versus the folks that actually come by to vote. All of the courthouse is closed for the day, including the county Assessors office. With property taxes coming due shortly, there are a number of unsavory comments made and much hand waving from the more flamboyant of our good citizenry. Barb handles these little episodes deftly and eventually sets up shop at the entryway doors once the sun comes out to "head 'em off at the pass" as it were; signs on the doors in English, just aren't enough. Anyway, seeing the numbers in my little comparison move from a rough 50/50 split to a distinct advantage for all the disgruntled would-be tax payers, I begin to tire of this depressing mental exercise and move on to doodling and discussing whether innards are appropriate eats irrespective of one's cultural heritage with Glennis. I am neutral on the topic, while Glennis generally disapproves, but has an open mind. I don't know how this ever came up, but it probably has something to do with breakfast.

Some voters come and go.


07may200212Noon-6PM Primary Day: Word to the Wise

Eventually lunch happens. It is lasagna-esque with salad. After lunch and throughout the afternoon, periodically enthusiastic conversations were had on topics such as the definition of country music, the growing tendency of businesses local or otherwise to switch to contract work to avoid paying benefits, the abject hideousness of the concrete Rose Hill Cemetery wall, various bodily ailments ranging from toenail pains to cataracts, certain forms of recent zoning insanity, the efficacy of car-based park-ins as a form of nonviolent social protest, World War II as experienced in Bloomington, the debate over Broccoflower versus mustard greens, and so on...

A fly on the wall might have heard: "I could be at home readin' a murder mystery, watching them operate on brains and things on the teevee...she's not going to be votin', she's getting her thyroids removed today...Men would be lost without women as leaders--you didn't hear that from me...This food is not even garbage. It's as bad as cous-cous...Well, if my identity is in my left breast, I've got more problems than just cancer...I just can't eat those hydroponics...What's not dead is too old to make it to vote...As long as they're kicking you in the rear, at least you're ahead of them...It's the phenomena of what I call, 'gray-meat'...I never did think it would be -- this dead...When we get old, we're in a strange country: now everything is computerized...Why does everybody say, "you know? you know? you know?" all the time?...I'm dedicated to stamping out anorexia in my lifetime." Buzz, buzz.

More voters come and go. Strangely enough, some voters come to the polls and find they don't care to vote for anyone at all on the ballot. Some don't care which party they vote for. Some don't realize they live in the wrong district to vote for their favorite candidates. Some don't know anything about the candidates even though they've been scouring the paper for info off and on for weeks. Some voters don't realize they've actually cast their ballot because the voting machine provides no feedback at all after you press the red button. This starts me to thinking that little things here and there, when added up can be significant hurdles to full participation. I just don't think there has been a concerted effort to make democracy as accessible to people as it could be--registration, information gathering, media profiles, the voting process, all of it can be improved but now's not the time for that little tirade.

Dinner arrives in the form of turkey sandwiches and cookies. About that time there is a four-person rush of voters. We are well prepared by the previous 13 hours of deep internal contemplation for this last-minute onslaught. Anyway, it's getting really close to the end. Then each of us feel the sweet deep echo of the clock tower bell as it rings through the rotunda. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Barb makes her way to the south doors, surveys the scene and yells out, "Hear ye! Hear ye! The polls are now closed!" We all pause for a bit. Barb locks the doors and turns about, "Now the real work begins."


07may2002 6-8PM Primary Day: Closing Shop

There's a lot of work to be done and we get to it. We've taken care of quite a bit of the busy work throughout the day--getting materials prepped and so forth. Barb and I run through the closing procedure for the voting machines. This involves printing off three copies of the complete end-of -day tallies for each race, removing a little videogame-like cartridge from each machine, and then securing each with new specially numbered security seals. Once the tallies are finished printing we sign them and hand them off to Sue, Betty and Glennis. Barb coordinates their effort tallying the results of each race while I begin to transform the MV464's back into babyblue suitcases. Here's where paying attention to how the legs were original placed would help. That having been said, I got it eventually and soon enough both of our voting machines where all packed up ready to head home to the Clerk's office.

Meanwhile the three tally sheets are being checked against one another and everything comes out the same. It's not like we're dealing with big numbers here. We collect signatures all around and soon enough the clerks, Sue and Betty, have finished their day and happily depart the Courthouse for home. Glennis remains awaiting her ride, as Barb and I prepare the last of the documents and stuff them in their various manila envelopes and plastic folders and order them according to specification. The final ponderous stack of documents, envelopes, folders and voter rolls is about eight inches tall. If you add this to the armful of outdoor signage, stakes, sample ballots, miscellaneous flotsam and the babyblue MV464 suitcases, then you've got quite a load of democracy there. Thankfully my jacked-up, fully-loaded '93 Ford Escort LX station wagon is up to the task.

I pull my sputtering golden beast of a car around to the door and Barb and I proceed to load 'er up. We Sunday-drive a few blocks to the justice building and spy a car about to leave a parking spot just ahead on the right, but somebody more important than us in a gigantic red SUV decides to pull the slick maneuver of backing into a spot from in front of a car that is yet to pull out, forcing it to cross two lanes of traffic just to leave the parking space. I have never seen anything quite like it -- bold and audacious if not grossly asinine. Meanwhile, another parking spot opens up and I drop off Barb with all the ballot material in front of the Justice building. She zips inside and snags a place in line while I proceed to the rear of the building near the Sheriff's office to drop off the voting machines. Once that's done, I park nearby and make my way to the justice building lobby where I join Barb in the waiting throng.

I arrive in line at a quarter til 8. It's a long line and getting longer still, but thankfully it moves like lightning in comparison to the rest of our day. In about ten minutes we're in the thick of things. The clerks office is a hive -- alive and bustling, phones ringing, chattering everywhere, folks in front and behind the long counter busily heading to and fro on various important missions. At the far end of the room there is a little contingent of press busily reporting the events of the hour as the results come in. There are also at least five clerks and many more support personnel working to process the incoming stacks of manila envelopes, signed forms and all the scattered paperwork of this long, long day. Once all that material is turned in, we sign our last signatures of the day (Inspector Barb and Judge Rick) and part ways, our jobs here complete.


07may2002 Primary Day: The Low Down

If I had to sum it up, I think what I'm trying to do this election cycle is help in a small but real way beyond my previous involvement in politics, which was limited to going on at the mouth quite a bit and simply voting when the time came. My work thus far is only slightly less small than simply voting, but I think it's important because it helps others to vote and to express their beliefs and it helps me to figure out ways that I can make an even more significant contribution in the future. This is how real democracy works--unglamorous and untelevised--just everyday folks that believe it's the right thing to do. And like so many before and after, we all seem to feel in our guts that this is our country, our state, our county and our city. It's also our hope and our future, but only so long as our (albeit tiny) effort in this primary and the coming election makes us worthy of it. For me at least, I just came to believe that simply voting was no longer enough.

In Bloomington 2 we counted about 125 total voters out of about 1100 registered. 25 ballots were cast absentee, about 25 were Republican ballots and about 75 were Democrat ballots. I don't recall the exact numbers, so these ‘guesstimations' will have to do. Bloomington 1, our neighbors in the courthouse had about a quarter of our vote total and there were some precincts where no votes were cast the entire day.


07may2002: The Morning After

A headline in the paper reads, "Monroe County primary turnout dismal." I begin writing this document of my experiences so, as Sue says, "the years [might] long remember what the days forget." I also start thinking about the people I met and the experiences we shared, and begin to hope that my friends who read this might be inspired to become greater participants in our democracy in their own ways, as I have. I'm ready for November, are you?

Rick Dietz 5/2002


Herald Times newspaper photo of Rick and Glennis