In the Trenches of Democracy: Reflections from a Milwaukee Polling Site
It was 6:10 a.m., cold and dark on a dimly lit street. “Who are you?” an obviously harried woman asked as I stepped out of my car. I told her I was there to work at the polls.
“Good,” she said. “Two of my people have had their phone numbers changed and another two aren’t answering.”
I had signed up to be a bilingual election worker for the City of Milwaukee. My assignment was at a small, one-room pavilion at a South Side park that seemed little more than a glorified playground.
The pavilion’s outside light wasn’t working, bolstering my sense that this particular electoral machine was not well oiled. My husband, who had an hour before he had to be at work, came in with me.
The one-room polling station was jammed — seemingly haphazardly — with tables, folding chairs and assorted park-related equipment, including a huge Weber grill. The polls were to open in less than an hour.
The polling station’s two chief inspectors were frantically calling missing workers and figuring out how to bring order to the chaos. My husband was pressed into service to help move the tables. I was handed thumbtacks and tape to put up necessary notices in English and Spanish.
“Welcome to the bowels of democracy,” I joked to my husband.
Within the hour, the pavilion was transformed. There were still a few rough edges but it had become a functioning polling station with all the necessary stations, forms and signs. All the poll workers had arrived.
“Hear Ye, Here Ye, The Polls Are Now Open,” the election chief proclaimed on the dot at 7 a.m. Lines had already formed. People were anxious to vote. Our day’s work began.
More than 15 hours later, at 9:45 p.m., I finally left the polling station.
I can’t remember the last time I worked so hard for so long.
I can’t remember the last time I worked with such a fascinating, humble, inspiring, and diverse group of people.
Life in the Trenches of Democracy
Starting at about 9 p.m., my daughter had started sending rapid-fire text messages from a New York City sports bar that had five big-screens, each one tuned to a different network.
“MSNBC is calling it for Obama!” she texted at one point.
“Elizabeth Warren won! Tammy Baldwin won!” another text read. “And all the ‘rape’ apologists lost!”
Cell phones were not allowed in the polling stations, so I had had no clue what was going on with the elections. Nor had I received those heartening text messages as they came in. As my husband and I drove home from the polling station, I called my daughter.
“Mahalia, life in the trenches of democracy is fascinating,” I explained. “But I feel like a soldier in a World War 2 foxhole, slogging away with no clue if the good guys are winning or losing. Tell me more.”
I don’t like war analogies, but I felt this one was appropriate.
What’s more, I was proud to have been a foot soldier. Reading analyses in the New York Times and following Nate Silver’s blogs had been a part of my life for weeks. But in the end, I learned much more about the workings of democracy at this little known, off-the-radar polling site on Milwaukee’s near South Side.
Above all, I learned how deeply people believe in the right to vote. They may not always exercise that right. But they want to protect it.
In the end, new rules adopted by the Republican legislature that complicated voting procedures ended up back-firing. (Wisconsin adopted one of the country’s strictest Voter ID laws in 2011, with the most restrictive measures in abeyance due to court challenges.)
In the 2008 presidential election, 275,042 ballots were cast in the City of Milwaukee, for an 80.33 percent voter turnout. Obama/Biden won 77.82 percent of the vote, McCain/Palin won 21.03 percent.
In 2012, 288,459 ballots were cast in the City of Milwaukee, for an 87.24 percent turnout. Obama/Biden won 79.27 percent, Romney/Ryan won 19.72 percent.
My Fellow Poll Workers
My fellow poll workers were a diverse group. There were several older women (including me, with my grey hair) some black, some white, some Latino. There was the bilingual election chief who wore a sports jacket and the coolest silver-toed cowboy boots I have seen in a long time.
A middle-aged mother and her twenty-something daughter worked side by side, both of them fulfilling the South Side stereotype of white working-class women who won’t take gruff from anyone and who speak in one volume: loud. An older black man dealt with the pavilion’s minimal heat by wearing his Green Bay Packers jacket and hat the entire day. A bilingual young woman who had graduated from Pulaski High School worked with me at a crazy-busy table for voters who had a change of address or who had never voted before.
Not to be forgotten: the white guy who had lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years and knew it so well that he could immediately tell people, based on their address, which of the three ward tables they should vote at.
We were slammed with non-stop work the minute the polls opened. We barely had time to go to the bathroom, let alone eat decently or take a break and relax. Never once did I hear anyone complain.
In many ways, our little polling site was a microcosm of Milwaukee. Whites were in the minority of voters, but still a significant percentage. About a third were African American — a fascinating development in a neighborhood that 40 years ago was a center of white resistance to open housing. A number of voters spoke Spanish, such as the gentleman who came in and explained that, at 60 years of age, he had decided to vote for the first time in his life. No one looked like they had much extra money to spend at the end of the week.
There were as many fascinating stories that day as there were voters. One woman impressed me the most.
Sometime in the early afternoon, at a point when I was feeling like a factory line worker and people were becoming a blur, a thirty-something African-American woman sat quietly in front of me. Without a word, she handed me information explaining her situation. I quickly looked it over.
It suddenly dawned me: the woman was a victim of domestic abuse. By law, she had the right to a confidential voter address, and she had taken the necessary steps. To be on the safe side, she had brought in a letter from a transitional housing center documenting necessary information. I looked at the letter’s date: Nov. 5, 2012.
“You went and got this letter yesterday?” I asked the woman, buying time as my mind processed the various hoops she must have gone through.
“Yes,” she said, pride and dignity in her voice. “I wanted to make sure I would be able to vote today.”