I was a precinct inspector at a busy polling place in Hollywood during last Tuesdays election, and saw my share of frustrated voters. Let me assure you of one universal truth: There is no such thing as a perfect election, in Florida, Los Angeles or anywhere.
Precinct inspectors are pretty much the final arbiters of who gets to vote on Election Day. The job, which pays $75 for 14 hours of work, fell to me after I had worked for six or seven years at two other polling places. My father and grandfather both served as chairman of the New York City Board of Elections, and Uncle Billy was elected to the bench there in 1954 by 64 votes -- the first Republican officeholder in Manhattan since my grandfather was elected sheriff of New York in 1909. I know the value of a vote.
Throughout the day at Hollywood-Beverly Christian Church on North Gramercy Place, the four clerks referred dozens of people to me for resolution of their voting status. Latinas would tell me the clerks couldnt find their names on the rolls after looking for the one on their drivers licenses, and I would send the clerks back to the rolls, knowing that the Registrars Office had correctly recorded not the last name on their drivers licenses but the middle one -- the one Latinos routinely use as a last name.
For many first-time Russian and Armenian voters, I relied on a rudimentary knowledge of both languages to sort out complicated issues of spelling, reading, citizenship and registration in fairly short order. If a re-check of the primary rolls and supplemental lists that had arrived a few days before the election did not list them, I helped them prepare the provisional ballots, which have an application on one side, that require either a drivers license, a witness or two other forms of identification with the current address printed on it. The immigrants who came to me usually satisfied one or both requirements, but a number of our natives couldnt do the same. After closing time, I learned that I had missed one voters name on a list of inactive voters who had not renewed their registration or voted in many years. Id given the man a provisional ballot, however, so his vote ought to be verified by the registrar.
Many of the elderly Armenian and Russian voters had trouble understanding the multiplicity of choices. U.S. Representative James Rogans people had organized a get-out-the-vote campaign that brought Armenian voters to the polls by taxi, one driver told me. This seemed quite remarkable to me, since my precinct is in Henry Waxmans district. Still, they came, and many were there to support a state Assembly candidate, Craig Missakian of Glendale. But they found it difficult to draw the spatial relationships indicated by the boxes that section off each contest, and when they asked for help, they often just voted for the first name in every list after theyd selected their candidate. The taxi driver, also an Armenian-American, had to be repeatedly dissuaded from gathering a group of elderly voters at the polling booth and telling them something in Armenian that included the word Rogan. Thats called electioneering, and you cant do it within 50 yards of a voting booth.
On the opposite end of the electioneering equation, a group of four or five Latino teens attending the churchs school decided to stand outside the doors to the Sunday-school room where we were and yell, Down with Bush. The clerks admonished them, and they retreated to the second-floor landing and began again. I was out to lunch, so a clerk called police. I was slightly mystified to see the officers as I returned from lunch. They talked with the boys, who agreed to stop their protest.
AN African-American man, 6-foot-3 and about 220 pounds, and bare-chested under an open leather jacket, came in sporting a heavy chain with a Master Lock dangling around his neck. He was a musician who said he had moved from the St. Francis Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard to Beverly Hills, but he had no ID for either address. Instead, he offered a faded plastic Pennsylvania drivers license from State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State, where he said hed taken a few courses; I would have taken him for a tight end on the Nittany Lions.
Since his name wasnt on any of the rolls, I made out a provisional-ballot application for him, and he left to get the ID we needed to complete it. He never came back. With regret, because I deeply believe that all Americans -- no matter how unusual they may seem to others -- deserve the right to cast a vote, I tore up the envelope when the polls closed.
Another man, this one a white guy in his late 20s in pretty ordinary clothes, produced a wallet bulging with IDs but didnt have anything with his address on it. A sharp-eyed clerk noted that five or six other families were also registered at the same address he claimed.
I gave him a provisional ballot, noting that he offered no proof of residence, but he voted and disappeared, leaving the pink provisional envelope behind. Im not sure what he did with his ballot.
By then, there were 34 provisional ballots tucked away in the ballot box, and now three other provisional-ballot envelopes filled out, waiting at my side. Like that man, the other two voters had no identification but were permitted to cast a ballot, and then managed to either slip the ballot into their pockets and leave or put it in the ballot box without the envelope. Amid the crowd and babble, it would not have been hard to do either.
If those ballots were in the box, they were counted; but the pink envelopes with the voters names and identifying information went to the Registrar-Recorders Office with a note explaining why they appeared in the security envelope that holds such anomalies. If a clerk at the Registrars Office happens to observe that the same voters also signed the rolls somewhere else, or if similar envelopes bearing their names appear in other precinct security envelopes, they may find themselves being prosecuted for a felony if they voted twice or more by doing the same thing at other polling places. In a recent election, that appeared to be happening frequently at the precinct I worked in, but an investigation by the Secretary of States Office produced no charges.
Unlike in Florida, by the way, where some voters have said they were refused new ballots after they realized they had miscast their ballots for Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach County, California voters can get up to three ballots if they make an error. We had just one of those out of 540 voters at my precinct, but last year I made such an error myself. Getting a new ballot was no big deal.
But the saddest job I had on Tuesday was to turn down an Armenian man who was one of several people of various ethnic groups who hoped they could register to vote and then vote on the same day. They were entitled to register -- and I ran out of the registration forms included with the polling-place supplies -- but state law requires that Californians register to vote 29 days before the election.
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I dont remember the fellows name, but I will never forget the urgency he felt to cast a vote. I work at my shop from 8 in the morning to 8 at night every day, he said. Until now, I never had any time to go somewhere and register. But tonight I closed my shop early so I could come over and vote.
For him, this would have been his first vote, and even in his 40s he had no clue how it was done. He pleaded to see the ballot, and I took him to the sample ballot-punching device and showed him how it worked. His eyes glowed with excitement. I urged him to use the registration card available at the post office to get registered for the next election in April, when Los Angeles will select a mayor. We shook hands as he left. He was disappointed but eager to participate next time.
Unlike other precincts Id worked, where voters such as Matt Drudge (in 1996, the year he broke the Monica Lewinsky story), sportswriter Diane K. Shah and Richard Dreyfuss appeared in person to vote, I didnt recognize anyones name on the rolls. I did get one thrill, though.
My final job of the evening was to go to the doors at 8 p.m. and shout, The polls are closed! The night was still, and not even the dogs barked back. I liked that.