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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Elections past (1982)

Back by popular demand. Okay, one person asked me about it. A re-print of the time I worked the polls in Chicago's 32nd Ward. November 1982....

I left my apartment and walked the three blocks to my destination. I arrived at 5:00 a.m. Drat, I was not the first one there. Bummer! The place was lit up and buzzing with activity. It was a community room on the first floor of an old folks home. The neighborhood polling place. My precinct.

I was there in three capacities. First, and most important, as a "non-partisan" poll watcher for Cook County. Second, as a campaigner for my state representative who was running for re-election. And third, as a volunteer to assist the elderly folks from the neighborhood in getting safely to and from the polls.

Unfortunately, no one had fully defined the term "poll watcher" for me. But I took the job anyway, as it provided me with official credentials. Something I'd always yearned for.

Chicago, as everyone knows, is famous for its politics. Democrat. Machine. Daley. Clout. Rarely discussed was the Republican party. When it was discussed, however, it was usually as the brunt of many a joke.

But, the state rep I was volunteering for that day was probably the only Republican elected official from within the City of Chicago that year. It seemed like the Republican party in Chicago was almost non-existent at that time. Always the cheerleader for the underdog, I proudly chose to be wedded to the Republican party on this day.

I was greeted at the door by the Democrat Precinct Committeeman. Conjure up if you will a picture of a cigar-smoking-whiskey-swilling-gravely-voiced-squat-back-room-dealing-fat-cat-stereotypical-Chicago-Democrat. This was him. Yes. In all his glory. On election day.

I walked right up to him, introduced myself, shook his hand, showed him my credentials, explained why I was there and everything I would be doing.

He scrutinized me. My credentials. He looked me in the eyes. He said, "in all my life in this precinct we've never had a poll watcher" (uttered like a dirty word).

Ahh. Interesting, I mumbled.

"Are you sure you want to be here," he asked

Suddenly, I felt my feet firmly planted on the ground, for the first time in a long time, and I replied with the utmost confidence, Yes.

"We don't really need a poll watcher here," he said.

That's okay, I think I'll stay anyway, I replied. Whereupon, I do believe he growled at me. It did occur to me several times during this discourse, that I could just hang it all up, go home, go to bed, and sleep the day away.

He said, "any poll watchin' you're gonna do, you're gonna do standing, cuz we ain't got no chair for ya."

No problem, I'm happy to stand.

We went to the door of the community room. From there, he paced off the 100 foot distance beyond which I could do my politicking, down the little hall, through the waiting room, out the door of the building, down a little walkway, to the sidewalk. He drew an imaginary line with the toe of his shoe, and said "don't go inside this line with any visible campaign materials."

No problem. I felt great. Useful. Empowered.

Things went smooth for most of the morning. I was the only campaigner there in this non-presidential election year. I pretty much stayed outside in the freezing rain. Campaigning to no one in particular. In the drizzling rain. Watching the comings and goings. Very few voters. No one barely payed me any notice. I was glad.

Occasionally, I would pop in and out of the polling place. To observe the goings on. Each time I made my appearance, the noise in the room came to a complete halt. Silence. I would just look around. Smile. The election judges. The cop on duty. The precinct committeeman. His henchmen.

About 11:00 in the morning, an elderly woman brought her blind son to vote. I decided to go inside and observe. Both voters were checked in and handed ballots. The elderly woman went into a booth. One of the henchmen then started to escort the blind man to a booth. Oh - My - Gosh!!! I blinked hard. I couldn't believe my eyes. I intercepted them before they got to the booth. Stood between them and the booth.

Uh, excuse me, what are you doing?

The henchman, "I'm going to help this man vote. Get out of my way."

Me to the blind man, Sir, do you know this man?


It suddenly hit me what the job of a poll watcher was. Yes!

All eyes in the room were upon me. A small crowd of senior citizens had gathered in the hall outside the doorway. Well, I was making a little scene. I began reciting various points from the election code. Heh heh. Good thing I had read them. Daring them to argue with me. Taunting them. After several minutes, everyone became convinced. Begrudgingly. It was decided that two people would go into the booth with the blind man. An election judge. And me.

Shortly after that fiasco, the precinct committeeman announced it was lunchtime. He was sending the "boys" to pick up the food. I was starved. I was chilled. I was wet. My bones were aching. My feet were killing me. I detested standing. I wondered if I might be getting a fever. Food would be a welcome relief. But alas, I hadn't brought any money and there was no time to go home. So I resigned my stomach to be quiet until that night.

Much to my surprise the boys brought me lunch too. I watched as everyone opened their Styrofoam containers. Steak. Fries. Roll. Cokes. Oh, thank goodness. I just love steak for lunch. I opened mine. It was a super gigantic hamburger. Mushy green beans. All of which looked like it had been over-steamed. Tasted that way too. The committeeman apologized. Had they known I was coming, they could have arranged for me to have a steak too. That's okay, this is wonderful, I said as I choked down the first bite. I smiled. I gulped Coke. Scanned the room for an appropriate trash can in case I needed to vomit.

The afternoon wore on. Pretty uneventful. I made one trip to the home of an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair. Wheeled him to the polling place. Wheeled him back home. On my way back to the polls, I passed a neighborhood tavern. Loud. Boisterous. Fellowship. Good times spilling out onto the sidewalk. Of course, I knew the owner of the tavern. He was my neighbor. I decided to peek inside. The patrons were guzzling beer and betting on Let's Make a Deal. Oblivious to the world outside. I was so tempted to go in. Plop down on a barstool. And spend the rest of the day and night. Drinking. Wallowing. Singing. Betting on Let's Make a Deal.

Just as I got back to my position outside the polls, the precinct committeeman was exiting the building. He told me he was going home to take a nap and have dinner with his wife. He would be back before the polls closed. Okay, I'll see ya then, I said, as if I owned the place.

Shortly after that a steady stream of people came to vote. I greeted them, handed over some flyers, and asked them to vote for my candidate. My routine.

About 6:15, a man appeared in the doorway of the old folks home. I recognized him as one of the boys. He approached me. I smiled. He was grim. He walked right up to me and got in my face. "Are you politicking here," he loudly demanded.

I looked beyond him. A new cop on duty had replaced the old cop on duty and was now standing in the doorway of the building. Watching.

I replied to the drill sergeant henchman boy, you know I am, but I am outside the 100 foot mark.

Before I could say anything further or ask him what was going on, the man turned around and said to the cop, "arrest this woman for illegal campaign practices."

What the...., I muttered. I immediately felt this was some kind of set-up to keep me out of that room when they counted the vote.

I then watched as the cop slowly made his way down the short walkway. Strutting. Sauntering. Swaggering. I watched in slow motion as he removed his billy club from its holster with one hand, and his handcuffs from behind him with the other hand. He was swinging that billy club. Artfully. My eyes were transfixed on that club. How did he do that? So fast. He was quite good. As he drew closer to me, I crossed my arms over my face, placing my hands on top of my head. Then he just stood there. And I just stood there.

When I realized I wasn't going to get the heck beaten out of me, I let out a breath and dropped my arms to my side.

The henchman said, "the hunnert feet starts at that door," pointing to the door to the building about 20 feet away.

But, I've been here all day. Right here. In this spot. Campaigning. I was told by the precinct committeeman that this is the line. And you know it!

The henchman spat the words "You are in violation of state campaign laws."

I decided to direct my attention to the cop, still swinging that club. I wondered how itchy he was to make an arrest on this day. I said, look, one hundred feet from that door would put me inside those people's house, as I pointed across the street. Why would I campaign inside someone's house all day? Lame argument. Then, I pointed to the west, and said, look one hundred feet in that direction puts me in the middle of Ashland Avenue, a very busy street. You want me to get killed.

Why don't we just agree that I will stop campaigning for the rest of the day, I asked the cop. That'll solve the problem.

The henchman shouted, "no, you're under arrest. You're going to jail!"

I studied the cop. It became apparent that he didn't want to arrest me. Probably didn't want to do all the paperwork. And it appeared he thought the henchman was as much of a bozo as I thought.

I said, look, I'm going to go over there across Ashland and throw all this stuff in the trash can. I'm done campaigning. Done. No more. And I walked away. And threw what little bit I had left in a trash barrel.

When I turned around to head across the street back to the building, the henchman and cop were gone. The precinct committeeman was entering the building. But I resolved to myself not to make an issue of what had just happened.

I took my time returning. There was a good 15 minutes from now until the polls closed. It was doubtful anyone else would show up to vote.

As I walked down the hall to the community room, I noticed that the door was no longer propped open. Hmm. I placed my hand on the door handle and gave a little tug. But I already knew in my heart that it would be locked. And I was right. I peered through the long narrow reinforced window of the door, and saw them. They were all looking at me. I rattled the door. No one moved. Incredible!

I tapped on the glass. My eyes scanning the room through the narrow window. I found who I was looking for. The cop. I fixed my eyes on his eyes. I rattled the door some more. Shrugging my shoulders upward. The international sign language for, "please open the door." But no one budged.

Oh man! I can't believe this. A little crowd of senior citizens had gathered behind me. If I looked at their kind faces, I would start crying. I thought to myself, I can't believe I'm going to start yelling in a public place. Oh gee! In a mid-range voice, I said, open the door now. Again, no one moved. Louder. Still, no one moved. I am entitled to be in this room, I shouted. I have credentials!

Oh gosh. Here I go. I yelled, open the door now or I am going to call the Sheriff and the FBI and you're all going to be arrested for illegal polling activities. No one moved. Those ballots are going to be confiscated as evidence, I shouted. It'll be days before they're ever counted! No one moved. Unreal. I turned around, went to the reception desk, reached over, grabbed the phone, just as I heard the door open behind me.

It was the cop. "You can come in," was all he said.

Yeah, right.

I entered the room. The precinct committeeman conducted a little ceremony. Declaring the polls closed. Stating the date. The time. Naming the people in the room. And then, he lead us all in a prayer. I couldn't believe it. I wanted to pull my hair out. I wanted to pull his hair out. I just wanted to get this over with so I could get the fuck out of there. My feet and knees were screaming now. So I kept my mouth shut. It would soon be over.

The counting of the ballots. Punch cards. A little box. The cards are fed into the box. The box reads them. Counts the cards. Tabulates the votes. The cards shoot out the other end of the box. It goes really fast. Upon completion, a tape is printed showing all the counts. A form to fill out.

Oh no. The ballots issued count does not match the ballots counted count. Guess what? The precinct committeeman says to one of the judges, just change the form to match the print-out. Dear Lord, help me. No one said anything. I couldn't believe it. The judge actually had her pen poised to make the change.

Wait, I screeched a little too loud. Again, all eyes upon me. You can't do that. You have to recount the ballots and recount the ballots you issued. But you can't just arbitrarily make a change so the numbers match.

He glared at me. I hadn't noticed before now how beady his eyes were. He said, nope, that's it. We're done here.

No way. We're not done. I spat the words, We're no where near done. Exasperated, I signaled to the cop who was sitting on a window sill holding up the building.

As he came towards us, he actually got out his billy club. What is the deal with the billy club? "Wha...", he said. I politely explained to him that he had to enforce the laws. And the laws say the ballots have to be properly counted. And until that is done, he should consider the laws are being broken in this room.

"Oh yeah," he said.

Anyway, cutting to the end, they did a recount. It matched the form. I insisted on another one, just to test the system. They acquiesced. It matched too. I quickly jotted down the numbers on a scrap of paper. Made sure the ballots and the tally forms were properly sealed. Then I got the hell out of there!

I hightailed it to my candidate's headquarters. Delivered the numbers. Went home. Threw myself on my bed in total exhaustion.

The end.

Posted by Marie at April 17, 2007 11:55 AM


WOW, Marie. You're gutsier than I would have been. I've been witness to electioneering at my old polling place. Talked, talked, talked into the booth and talked, talked, talked for a good five minutes afterwards. He was pushing some playground vote. No one said a word to the guy. The voters I was in line with were ignoring him, though, so I think he was wasting his breath. The measure passed.

Posted by: Rob Author Profile Page at April 17, 2007 12:58 PM

I'm impressed. I wouldn't have been that bold when I was that young. It's only now that I'm old and curmudgeonly that I could do it. Working at a poll has never been something that has caught my fancy. I don't think here in the Maryland suburbs we would have that level of intrigue. Very good story; I enjoyed it.

Posted by: Kem White at April 17, 2007 7:32 PM

THE most awesome story I've seen told in a long time. Thank you.

Posted by: Ben at April 17, 2007 9:43 PM

Thanks everybody. I was up for bigger confrontations in my younger days than now. It should probably be the other way around.

Posted by: Marie at April 17, 2007 10:05 PM

Beautifully told, Marie. This was on the near Northwest Side, I take it (not a guess -- I just checked the current ward map). Sounds like it could have been Rostenkowski's old neighborhood.

Posted by: Dan at April 18, 2007 11:57 AM

Yes. This was Rostenkowski's district. I met the man. Quite an imposing figure. And smart. And quick. And understanding. And forceful. And even gracious. I never saw his humble side. But, I heard later that he does in fact have a humble side. Setting aside the fact that he's no longer in office, and I'd don't even live there anymore, Dan Rostenkowski will always be my representative.

Posted by: Marie at April 18, 2007 12:43 PM