Traveling around our four Montgomery County Vote Centers on Election Day was a great lesson in how grassroots democratic processes work here in our rural county. Most of what I saw was very, very good.
When I pulled into the Whitestown Church parking lot mid-morning, it was amusing to see the two candidates for judge standing at distance, chatting with each other — competitors but also colleagues and friends. They were not electioneering but thanking people for voting.
Inside, the poll workers, all in masks, some in gloves, were checking in voters, escorting voters, helping voters submit completed ballots, and cleaning machines after each use. Yes, these volunteers were “working” for one political party or the other but on this communal day of national action no one can tell which is which. The group of poll workers this time around was notable for the number of younger workers. At Whitestown, for instance, a young female pastor and a swim dad were working stations, both conscious of how important it is for younger people, not as endangered by COVID, to be working this year. They were pleased to let me know that over 100 voters had cast ballots during the first hour. Kitchen volunteers had individually packaged meals for workers, another pandemic safety measure. When I complimented them, one woman, her eyes smiling above her mask, said, “We try.”
Everyone was trying and spirits were high. Out at North Montgomery Vote Center, voting booths were closer together but still easily six-feet apart. Outside the building, candidates’ supporters were standing by at distance, watching to help disabled voters enter. These voters were helped by another crack team of poll workers comprised of county employees, retired engineers, teachers and high school students. This site had moved from its usual in-school location to the athletic building. Even though there was signage, some voters were temporarily befuddled, but no one cast blame; neighbors were simply sharing information. Concern was expressed about the entrance, a grassy incline not meeting ADA standards. But the problem was being solved in creative ways and every voter was welcomed and helped as needed. One woman wearing a political mask was asked to remove it. She immediately did and replaced it with a neutral mask. This site didn’t have “I Voted” stickers, but along with the other three sites, North Montgomery Vote Center sported an “I Voted” selfie booth near the exit. By late morning, 500 voters had passed through.
By mid-afternoon at Rock Point Church, 713 people had voted. As elsewhere, voters were upbeat; they didn’t have to wait long and were glad to stand on the “x” keeping them at distance. Each voting booth was in use when I walked in. Here too candidate supporters had set themselves up as greeters. They chatted among themselves in the warm November sun and thanked voters for coming out. Inside, high school workers were zipping around the room escorting voters, explaining machines, and cleaning. One kid noted, “This is so cool to be part of and I get out of school too!”
People at all Vote Centers thanked the League of Women Voters for all the nonpartisan work put into this election — the VOTE411 website, the signs, the rack cards, the courthouse display, and so forth. “Thanks for being a force in our community,” said one poll worker. The non-partisan League has done this work for generations, on behalf of the public and as a help to the media.
At my last stop, the 4-H grounds, voters had the most elbowroom of all in the large exhibit hall. It was rewarding to see the front end of the operation (check-in, greeting, and escorting) run entirely and competently by CHS students. Poll workers here as elsewhere commented on how many first time voters they’d had, not only the 18-20 year-olds, but a good number over 70 years old.
This popular in-town center had to contend with some non-mask wearers. The inspector handled this graciously. All vote centers were equipped with masks. Since mask wearing is a mandate not a law, all voters, of course, voted. When I asked a young man ready to check out why he didn’t have a mask on, he replied politely, “I didn’t know.” That was simply disingenuous: everyone else had them on, there was a sign on the 4-H building door, and he had been offered a mask.
That’s what official, poll watchers do. In an entirely non-partisan way, watch the process and offer information about it. And then let the public know.
Outside the 4-H building a community member stood with a big plastic bowl of candy, offering each voter “a hug or a kiss.” The “kisses” were candy but the hugs were real, if a person wished. Earlier the man had been asked to move farther away from the building. He was quoted as saying, “No matter who wins tonight, tomorrow’s gonna be a bad day for a lot of people. But if I can bring some sort of kindness and distraction from that, then it makes today all worth it for me.” Do take a moment, though, to imagine him wearing a mask and his shirt saying, “Protect our health. Wear a mask.” Signed, Governor Holcomb.
All in all, we’ve done ourselves proud with the process. Our county, under Clerk Karyn Douglas’s leadership, takes pride in this as we all should. Our voter participation was just over 69%, a record or near record. I’m haunted, though, by one troubling statistic — too many of us voted a straight ticket ballot, i.e. not bothering to mark each choice one by one. Forty percent of all voters did that; over 30% of those chose the same party.
The health of a democratic system depends on voters learning about candidates and taking time to consider policies and preparation for office. Party is important but it needn’t determine all one’s choices. When you take time to consider each race and candidate you honor the process. All or most of your votes may still end up being cast for candidates of one party, but you haven’t just checked a single box. You have thought about your choices. If you don’t, you’re overlooking the most important right you, as a citizen, have.
Column provided by the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County.