Week 35: Why You Should Never Wake Up at 4:00 A.M.

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Published on: November 27, 2012


Between the cartoonish pictures, the bizarre alignment job on the title and the phrase “There is some opportunities,” it felt less like a call to civic duty and more like something a nine-year-old would design. But poor job posting or not, I still found myself at a polling station on election day, my eyes aching from the six AM start time. There was something exciting about the idea. About being a part of the process that ensured everyone a chance to vote. About being a part of what made our country great: Democracy.

On election day, I worked at a polling station in my neighborhood. Below is a running diary I kept of the day.

4:00 AM- My alarm went off, blaring a loud staticy radio station I didn’t even listen to. Fuck democracy.

6:00 AM- I arrived at the polling station and was immediately put to work by the Warden, which was the official title for the guy in charge. The second in command was called the Clerk, and everyone else was called an election inspector despite not actually inspecting anything. The government was continuing its storied tradition of being horrible at giving people titles.[1] I started posting signs that said things like Vote Aqui and Sample Ballot. Setup had been covered pretty thoroughly in training.

“Training for first time election inspectors” was a few weeks earlier at City Hall. Fitting the stereotype, most of the people there were over 70, which of course begot the question, how old were the people in the “Returning election inspector” classes?

We were told important rules like how if someone screws up a ballot and marks, for example, two different names for one office, we have to “spoil the ballot” and give them a new one. If it happened a second time, they got a second chance. But if it happened a third time, that was it. No more ballots. The old three-strike policy.[2]

“Sometimes,” the woman leading the session told us, “people will get upset when you tell them they can’t vote. I even had one guy have a heart attack.” She said nonchalantly. Most people laughed, but it was that kind of uneasy laugh that said, “Wait, so did he live?”[3]

6:45- Done setting up 15 minutes early, the Warden (probably in his 40′s), wandered over to chat. He said it was nice having another young guy on the team. I looked around the room. It was like a Matlock marathon. Everyone there had probably been cashing social security checks for a decade. Almost on cue, one of the women held up the cell phone that our polling depot had been provided by the city and shouted, “How do you turn this thing on?” I walked over and turned it on, an action that was actually met with applause from the old women. “Oo, thank goodness we have Jonathan here,” said one of them. I could get used to this.

7:00- The polls opened, and we assumed our positions as the first voter walked through the door. I was given two responsibilities. One was manning the machine where people inserted ballots, instructing people on how to put them in and making sure every vote was counted. This paled in comparison to my other job which may have been the lynchpin of the whole operation: giving out “I Voted” stickers.

8:00- As the day wore on, all the workers executed their responsibilities flawlessly. But while most of them were doing important things like crossing people’s names off the voter list or fielding calls from downtown, one guy named Darren seemed pretty expendable. Once people signed in he would say, “Go right ahead” if there was a free voting booth, or “Just hold on a second” if they were all taken. He was like one of those traffic cops who waves cars through when they have a green light, then holds them up when it turns red.

“Thank God Darren’s here.” Edna, one of the older election officials, proclaimed. Which is exactly what I was thinking, only she was being sincere. “If we didn’t have him I don’t know what we’d do.” What the fuck was Darren doing?! The sentence should’ve been “Thank God everyone but Darren is here.” I would have been even more resentful, but at least Darren had brought pastries for everyone.

8:15- A voter just tried to use a voting booth, but then saw they were all taken. Where were you on that one Darren?

10:31- After his ballot went through the machine, a man looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you for volunteering.” I decided not to disillusion him by informing him that I was getting paid (with his tax dollars no less). I simply said thank you and smiled. And as I did, I actually thought to myself, “You know what? He’s right. I am what makes this country great. I mean, he didn’t say that exactly, but it was implied. You’re welcome for my service, sir. You’re welcome.”

It doesn’t take much to stroke my ego.

10:45- A woman, who I assume was recently granted citizenship, put her ballot in the machine, then proudly told me, “This is my first time.” I seriously thought I might cry.[4]

2:30- With things at their slowest, I took a moment to vote myself, marking my ballot for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson for President.[5]

4:36- Just before inserting her ballot, a voter gave it a quick once-over. “Oh wait,” she exclaimed. “That’s not what I meant to put.”

“We can give you a new ballot?” I proposed.

As she glanced back at the voting booth, I could see her calculating the time it would take to redo everything. “N’ah. That’s okay.” She put her ballot in the machine and marched out the door. This country’s in good hands.

4:45- Edna just came over and took about 40 “I Voted” stickers. “These are for the kids!” She told me defiantly.

“What? The kids can get stickers here.”

“Yeah, but you don’t give them any.” Edna said, then turned and walked away.

I have been accused of many things in my life, but not giving kids stickers? Who am I? Mussolini? Any kids accompanying their parents always got stickers, but I sometimes teased them a bit first. I would say something like, “Wait a second, did you really vote?” In a stern, jokey voice. Kids love that stuff. But I wasn’t actually denying anyone stickers. I’m not a monster.

5:40- Edna was out of control. She was giving out five and six stickers to every kid who came through the door. At one point, she actually walked into the booth while someone was voting to give his kid a sticker.

6:30- Having run out of stickers, Edna returned to my station to poach some more just as a family was coming through to submit their ballot. I gave both the mom and the little girl a sticker, then Edna immediately grabbed the sticker roll and gave the little girl another six. Come on.

8:00- After 14 hours, and 800-something voters, it was time to close the doors. We congratulated each other on a smooth day and started wrapping up.

8:25- The Warden printed out the results for our polling station. 600 and change for Obama, 200 and change for Romney, and six people voted for Gary Johnson. I didn’t like his chances.

8:40- With the signs down and the ballots sorted through, the only thing left to worry about was the clerk’s log book. I’m not sure exactly what was being added and subtracted but some arithmetic was required. One woman started reading off numbers while another added them together in her calculator. “1735+665” She called off.

“2400” Answered the woman with the calculator.

“Okay, now what’s 2400+64?” At this moment, something went wrong with the calculator.

“Oh shoot.”

“Well, what is it? What’s 2400+64?”

“I don’t know, the calculator’s having problems! Hold on.”

“What’s 2400+64??!”

“One second!”

I stared in total shock as two intelligent, grown adults were defeated by the math equation 2400+64. They eventually solved it, but only when they finally got the calculator working again.[6]

9:00- Our day was over and it was time to take off. We said our goodbyes and I felt bad that I wouldn’t see these people again. I complained about Edna taking stickers, but the fact of the matter was, she was a sweetheart. And I have to concede that it actually did help to have Darren directing traffic. And maybe 2400+64 is a bit tougher than I’m giving it credit for.[7] Everyone there was incredibly friendly, and they had all just given 15 hours to helping people in their community vote for money that they probably didn’t really need. I smiled and waved goodbye, then headed for my car. When I got in, I started the engine and turned on the news. It was 9:00 on election day and I had no idea who was winning.




  1. [1] Seriously, why do we use the same name for heads of various departments that we use for receptionists? And whose idea was it to also give this title to the Press Secretary who is neither a receptionist nor a member of the cabinet? And where did cabinet come from? Isn’t that where people store their fine china, not their chief advisors? Was it because we realized that system was ridiculous that we started calling heads of other departments czars? Does it bother anyone that that was a title borrowed from a country that was our biggest adversary for decades and had a government representing the opposite of democracy? Why don’t we just have one title for a second-in-command as opposed to using the term vice when it refers to presidents, lieutenant when it refers to governors, deputy when it refers to mayors, and, apparently, clerk at polling stations? Why is the role of Senate President less powerful than Senate Majority leader? And, most importantly, what the hell is an alderman?
  2. [2] Am I the only one who wonders how different our society would be if there were four strikes to a strikeout instead of three? Think about our three-strike system for criminal offenses which punishes crimes far more severely the third time someone commits them than the first two. There are literally people in prison for the rest of their life who would be free right now if baseball had four strikes to an out instead of three. There are other people currently on unemployment for violating their company’s three-strike policies and elementary school kids serving stern timeout punishments. I’m not saying we should have four strikes to an out or anything, because all those problems pale in comparison to the idea of baseball games being even longer. But it’s something I think about.
  3. [3] This was never answered. The world of an election inspector is a cold-hearted one.
  4. [4] When I related this story to a friend, she pointed out that the woman might just have been someone who never bothered to vote before. I thought back on the scenario and how she had no accent and a very Americanized look to her. Suddenly, I didn’t feel quite so awed by the experience.
  5. [5] If you’re curious, I also voted for right to repair, for dying with dignity, and for legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. I forget who it was that told me this, but, apparently, when Colorado legalized medicinal marijuana, the number of Colarodoans with “glaucoma” increased 1000%. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s my new favorite statistic.
  6. [6] It was 2464.
  7. [7] It’s not.


In some but not all articles, names or identifying characteristics or individual lines of dialogue have been changed to protect identities or because remembering exactly how things happened is hard. But in every case, an effort was made to maintain the integrity of these events that did indeed actually happen.

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