I’ve been living in the United States since late 2001. It’s been an interesting time in politics, these last seven years, in the sense of the old Chinese curse, from the exact day I received my visa packet sent from the lawyers in Redmond to me in Auckland on September 11, 2001.
After the dramatic period of that day and the topsy-turvy period following it, I arrived in a USA different from the one I’d visited just months earlier. The direction of the Administration of G.W. Bush was adopting a grab-bag of policies that, like the best TV chefs, were prepared earlier ready for just the right moment: I’m looking at you USAPATRIOT Act and the intention to invade Iraq.
But the thing I love about the USA is the people who I’ve met here. Not only my wife and new family, but colleagues, acquaintances and friends of friends. They are generally thoughtful, generous and curious about the rest of the world… but that may just be the people I roll with.
They also love their elections. The election process in the area I live in, King County, is likely to change to solely mail-in voting after this election cycle, so this was the last chance I was going to have to see an American election up close and in person. In contrast to New Zealand, legal residents are not allowed to vote. The revolutionary cry of “no taxation without representation” has been left behind - only citizens can vote… 😉
King County Elections will, however, let any person who can legally work become an election worker, and so I rang up and became a “Polling Judge” at the local polling place nearest my house up on Snoqualmie Ridge. The pay was a pittance, but what a great experience.
I’d been involved in New Zealand in elections since I was a teenager. Because my family was friends with our local Labour MP at the time, Waitakere’s Jack Elder, I got involved with all sorts of election work, from canvassing to voter registration to srutineering (making sure that the rules were followed correctly – like a poll observer). This included the very close recount between Jack and the National Party’s candidate, who I knew from the rowing club I was a member of.
Elections in the US are very different from NZ, and not just in the sense of scale, but also systemically different. In NZ parliamentary elections aren’t on a fixed schedule. Elections are administrated nationally, and we don’t generally mix in local-body elections. In the US, elections are administered at the county level, perhaps equivalent to the district or city council structure. So there are no national standards for ballots, not even for the Federal elections (!). Another huge difference is that there are a large number of election races held at the same time, from the national races for President, Senate and Congress down to the local water district or city council elections with everything in-between. In the precinct I was working (PDF map) in, there were at lease thirty races on the ballot. King County is like most other counties: a complicated patchwork of boundaries all requiring different ballots for citizens depending on where they live. You can get an idea by looking at the results of these races on the King County site.
King County Elections provided a training session for Poll Judges (I just love the title). I attended on Saturday – it was about three hours down in Renton going over the procedures involved for the Poll Judge. It could have been boiled down to: don’t do anything political, this is the procedure we want you to follow issuing ballots, this is how to set out your desk, and this is how you account for your ballots at the end of the day. Oh and by the way, although the democratic process is important and should be inviolate, you’ll not get paid much for your time… I guess I was lucky I wasn’t doing it for the money.
The day was long. The polling place opened to the public at 7. We workers got there at 6 a.m. to set up and get ready. Our polling place was led by a really neat woman, Linda, who was on point as the Inspector to make sure that it all went smoothly. My fellow judges were a tight knit bunch – most had been working together for years. Richard and Emma, a husband and wife team; Pat, who visited from Olympia and stayed with her son and his family for the event; David, who looked after the Provisional desk and a couple of others.
From the moment the doors to the lobby were open, we had people waiting. Preparing each precinct was straightforward, very simple procedures to follow to get the desks set up in a standard way… and then we opened at 7 p.m.
We had a huge turnout… at least 50% above normal. Everyone was upbeat and pleased to be there… we had lots of kids come through with their parents. Even when the queues were long people kept good humor.
Just before we closed the polling place we had a woman come in who was off to a election night party dressed as the splitting image of Sarah Palin. 😉
About 30 minutes after the close of the booth I started getting text messages and calls from friends all around the world informing me of the McCain concession. By the time we closed up, it was all over.
All in all, a great day. Although very very long.