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November 2, 7 PM, the polling place. I am the key judge. (I got the call on Saturday at 5. “I’ve never done this before,” I say. “There’s nothing to it,” says the woman from Board of the Elections. “You just unlock the door.”) I have to go downtown to get the key. They are shocked I have biked the whole way. They tell me checking the supplies cabinet the night before is optional. Oh no it isn’t, I think. I have read the handbook: we have to assemble and launch the epollbooks by 5:15 AM. I don’t even know what an epollbook is. They tell me I don’t have to bring the key back myself. I strongly suspect this is a lie.

Seven judges, all strangers, and no one has done this before. It takes three of us to figure out how to unlock the supplies, which are in a dark corner of the apartment lobby that will become the Room Where It Happens. I have the seal cutters. It takes me many tries to cut the seal. Finally the doors swing open. Some use phone flashlights to illuminate what looks like a giant blue file cabinet. 

I have the checklist. No. Election Judge A has the checklist. (She doesn’t give it back to me, checks everything off using my pen. Election Judge A is efficient!) Our election coordinator (EC) has asked me to FaceTime her. I do not FaceTime her. Together, we muddle through the massive list of items. I remember there is a map in the handbook. However, the map in the handbook does not correspond to the order of the items on the list. As we are lurching about, a woman comes out (it’s Ms. B, who’s always eating blueberries and grapes directly from the display in the little store). “My son has a mental illness; you can’t make any noise here,” she says. This is the first I have heard about her son being mentally ill, but OK. It’s dark, we don’t know what anything looks like, and now we are whispering in masks. It’s cool.

After we have found all the items, we turn the sheet over and find . . .  another map of the items. Forty minutes. “We have all the items on the list,” I text the EC, bitter and abandoned. She hearts it.

November 3. Up at 4 AM. 5 AM to polls. Our EC shows up ten minutes later. We are hectically assembling booths. A has voted here before—she used to live in the building, so we’re putting things where she remembers.

I am not good at assembling furniture. I am not good at anything. So I tape the signs and put the “no electioneering” cones out (100 feet is longer than you think, the string tangles everywhere). I tape the flag to the door with 11 pieces of masking tape to be safe. 

By the time I finish this, there’s a woman in a wheelchair patiently waiting in the hallway and more gathering outside. I still have not spoken to our EC.

Big line by 6 AM, so we go. Then ones and twos all day. Many first-time voters—most not young, either. Lots of people in the wrong polling place. One voter was sent to our station from the north side because someone with the same name lives here. He goes back to his correct location to vote. The characters. The outfits. The outbursts. (I could see what might happen to me if I pickled long enough in my own juices.)

I am station 2; I just initial ballots and hand them out. (Judges should rotate stations through the day, says the handbook. We do not.) 

The audio ballot for a blind voter malfunctions repeatedly. Eventually one of us reads the ballot page by page—93 (??) pages on the touchscreen, with one hour to vote. She goes to insert her ballot in the box. First fumbling, then success. “You asking a lot of a blind woman—I need a drink!!” It’s about 7 AM.

Voter: I’m voting BIDEN/HARRIS, and it ain’t no secret!

Voter: You are very beautiful.

Me: It’s the mask.

Him: You don’t know what it’s like when you get old. I may come by several times today. So many beautiful ladies here.

Another judge (masked!): We’re here til 7!

Voter: “Old folks for counsel, young folks for war—it does my heart pleasure to see you ladies on the battlefield.”

Voter enters dancing, laughing.

Me: Oh, my. You’re a ballroom dancer. (I provide a ballot and  instructions.)

Him: Hehehehehe (dances to voting booth).

Later, he dances back to me.

Me: You can take your ballot to the box, C will assist you.


(Inserts ballot, dances down the hallway, laughing all the way)

Me: Welcome

Voter: Born in 1932, what do you think of that?

Me: Going strong!

Him: No. 

Me: It’s been a hard year . . . hand sanitizer?

Him: Sure, if you do that here.

Dozens of times:

Voter: I live across the street, can I vote here?

Judge: Your polling place is at the M School.

Last voter at 6:45: I was hoping to be the last voter today. 

Voters: veterans, students, seniors, blind, illiterate, in chairs, with walkers, women with their sisters, mothers, daughters.

Judges: Two college students (one third-year physics, one second-year English/creative writing); one psychology graduate student who studies how kids learn math; one graphic designer/professional organizer (“What’s your cause?,” I ask. “Oh, I go into people’s houses and organize their stuff,” she says); one guy who looks and talks a bit like my friend B but who is not B, who somehow manages to read all day while helping people insert their ballots into the box and pass out stickers.; and me. (“What do you do?” they ask. “I’m . . . err . . . a dancer,” I say. No further questions.)

Our EC spends much of the day watching TV on her phone and eating chips and donuts, but she comes through when it counts—she can answer our questions. She knows the rules. She flies into top speed when we’re breaking down the station. I suck at this also. I spend an excessively long time trying to get the touchscreen to fit into its styrofoam holder. I carefully peel the tape from the flag like a present I’m unwrapping (“Don’t worry about the tape!” says the building manager. “I’ll get it tomorrow”), roll it up, stick it back in the cabinet, proud I haven’t dropped it, and then I whack it onto the floor when we’re trying to fit the ballot box back in. “We have to burn it now,” says B, the physics student. (B, C, and I are the “Republican” judges. None of us are actual Republicans.) 

We’re out in one hour, the first in our ward, we’re told.

One hundred and twenty-seven voters, three provisional. One write-in for Kanye, One for No Shit, One for ?, 14 Trump, Three for third-party candidates, the rest Biden.  v