Noontime at the Saturday polls: Notes and impressions from my early-voting excursion

October 29, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 29, 2014

Voting turned out to be a strangely festive experience this year.

I went to the Durham County Board of Elections around noon on Saturday, Oct. 25. Sometime this year, the board relocated from a single-story commercial office complex off of West Corporation Street to a building known as the Judicial Annex, which is downtown on Roxboro Street just north of Main.

(I think that happened this year. I remember stopping at the old offices to cast a ballot during early voting for the May primary immediately before departing on a trip to New York. Anyway…)

I’d never been in the Judicial Annex before, so the whole scene was a bit of a surprise. I parked in what had been (and may again become?) a pay lot located west of the annex and north of a building that locals used to call the new courthouse.

I don’t know how people refer to the so-called new courthouse now; sometime last year (again, I think), the new courthouse was replaced by an even newer, much larger and much more modern courthouse. In fact, I don’t even know what is currently being done with the building that I used to refer to as, simply, the county courthouse. (According my ever-so-correct parlance, the structure that many locals called the old courthouse was simply the “county administration building,” because it now houses the county manager’s office and several other Durham County employees.)

At any rate, I parked my car in the nearly full lot and walked east, stepping across the curb that delineates the parking lot from the pavement that surrounds the annex. This latter space was well populated with campaigners. There were people handing out flyers and (I think) stickers and buttons. There were people wearing matching T-shirts that variously seemed to be declaring support for different candidates and get-out-the-vote initiatives.

In one corner of the annex’s lot, some people had set up a booth, like one would see at a street fair. I never quite made out who these people were or what the purpose of the booth was. Standing near the booth, however, were two musicians: A man playing a guitar and a woman playing a violin. They played a few songs as I waited in line outside the annex.

When I got there, there were about 15 people lined up outside the entrance to the building. I stood in my spot and eavesdropped on the couple behind me. The man in particular said two interesting things — one half-joking, one entirely joking.

“The only silver lining in my dad’s passing is I’m not here to cancel his vote,” he said, telling his female companion that he and his father had quite different political views.

A few minutes later, without my noticing it, the couple must have started talking about the state of North Carolina’s new voter regulations, which include a voter-ID requirement that will take effect in 2016. “It’s gonna suck when we can’t do voter fraud any more,” the man said.

A few minutes after the man said that, as I approached the building entrance, I noticed a sign — I have no idea if county staffers or other people put it there — that said, “No photo ID needed to vote in this election.” (I suppose the couple may have seen the sign as they approached the back of the line from a different direction than I had.)

When I got to the front door, I saw that another 15 or so people were lined up inside the building. To the left, there was a stairwell. The flooring there caught my eye — an array of rectangular and squate slate, red and green tiles that just screamed “1970s DESIGN ETHOS!!!” to me and summoned flashbacks to my childhood.

After a few minutes, I advanced down the front hallway to a side entrance to the elections office. There was a poster on the wall that explained the new voter-ID requirements. There were also a few announcements taped up notifying readers that, per statute, cell phones could not be used in the voting area.

When I stepped inside the room, I noticed a man sitting on a chair with his back to me. He was accompanied by two children, the younger of whom — a girl, although I couldn’t tell the kid’s gender at that moment — was squirming on the floor. This was an extremely cute sight, and I would have snapped a picture of it with my cell phone had I not powered down that very device moments before.

Getting a ballot is a two-table process in Durham County. First, I went to a table and gave my name to the elections clerk. She then printed out a personalized form — I think it’s called an authorization to receive ballot. I believe that by signing this paper I certified that the information printed on the form about me (name, address, voting districts) was correct, that I was qualified to vote and that I would not attempt to cast a second ballot on election day. I think the election worker also signed the form.

I took this paper to a second table where I dealt with two workers in quick succession. The first clerk reviewed my form and then produced an actual ballot — the one suitable for my state legislative voting areas — on which she wrote some numbers. The second worker checked my form against the ballot to make sure they matched. She used a handheld bar-code scanner to check some marks on the papers before giving me the ballot and taking the authorization form.

Voting from that point forward is also a two-stop process in Durham. (It was the same way in Vance County, where I lived, worked and voted from early 2004 until midway through 2008, which was when I moved to Durham.)

I took my ballot to a voting enclosure. This is basically a lightweight metal stand that features a flat writing surface that’s roughly level with the middle of my ribcage. Back and side panels block the view of anyone who might attempt to peak at how a person might be marking her or his ballot. There’s an indentation in the writing surface parallel to (but opposite) the voting booth’s open side. In all the booths I saw, a single pen was cradled in each of these grooves.

The booth, of course, is where voters mark their ballots. I don’t want to say much about how I voted, although those who know me — or who have read the pieces tagged politics that I’ve posted on this blog — are aware that my political views tend toward the left of center. In other words, most tea party types would call me a raging communist, and most liberals would call me a moderate.

I will say this, however. For the past few years (I don’t remember when I started this practice), I haven’t voted in any contest in which there is only candidate. So I didn’t mark my ballot for a number of races — for Durham County sheriff and district attorney, and for one of my state legislators.

The second (and final) step for voters who have marked their ballots is feeding them into a tabulating machine. In Durham (and also in Vance, as I recall), this is an optical scanner that checks each ballot as the voter inserts it. I’m not sure, but I think these machines can issue a warning if a voter has spoiled his or her ballot by marking too many candidates in a given race. (Usually, only one person may be chosen, but in the Durham water and soil conservation district supervisor election, voters were allowed to choose up to two people out of the three candidates.)

My ballot hadn’t been over-marked, so after I fed it into the scanner, a number appeared. My ballot was the 2,885th inserted into the machine at the Board of Elections office. (Presumably the counting began at the start of early voting on Thursday, Oct. 23.)

In my experience, there’s always a clerk standing by the tabulating machine in case a problem arises. Once the ballot’s been inserted, this person usually thanks the voter and distributes an “I voted” sticker, which of course is what happened in my case.

Much as I was caught by surprise by the musicians who were playing outside the office building, I had an unexpected encounter on my way out. I’d just stepped out of the room with the voting booths when a man behind me asked, “Are you Matt?”

I turned around. It was a big guy. I’d seen his back earlier — he was the guy who had sat down to vote near the entrance to the room as two children squirmed and cavorted around him.

In fact, seeing his face, I realized that I knew this guy.

“Yes,” I said. “And you’re Matt too, aren’t you?”

It was Matt Sears, a former Durham public school teacher. I hadn’t seen him in years; he’s currently a member of the county school board. We chatted for a few minutes. I told Matt that his daughters were adorable (which they are, although he seemed exasperated by all their activity when he was trying to fill out his ballot) and asked about the younger child’s sweatshirt, which said WALLOON. That’s the name of a lake in Michigan and not, as I’d erroneously thought at first, something to do with the Oompa Loompas or any other denizens of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

We said our farewells and I made my way to the exit. I nearly ran into the woman in front of me when, as she was on the verge of opening the door in the stairwell, she paused to wonder if it would trigger an alarm. I suggested that it would not, which turned out to be true.

I returned to the annex parking lot and quickly made my way past the voters and campaigners and musicians, having proudly discharged my duty as an American citizen.

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