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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A Good Ol' Fashioned Election Day

I had planned this somewhat corny narrative for The Triangle, but didn't get it written in time for it to go in post-election day. It's a little targeted for the general apathetic college student, but I hope you enjoy it...

A Good Ol’ Fashioned Election Day

I can’t think of a more inspirational way to wake up on Election Day morn’ than to the sound of a woman and child belting out a rendition of “Yes We Can” on the streets of West Philadelphia. We hear the rhetoric on TV and watch the YouTube videos, but nothing the candidates or media can say ever hits home quite as hard as hearing friends, neighbors and even complete strangers talk about “Hope” and “Change.”

The air was electric as I biked to class and back from campus before voting. Around Drexel and up Walnut Street through Penn’s campus, students were out in force in their “Barack the Vote” T-shirts (myself included). Signs were plastered on buildings and in cars, polling places were surrounded by campaign signs and voters wandering in and out.

Going to vote around lunchtime, my polling place at 42nd and Ludlow streets was rather quiet. After waiting in line for all of a minute or two, I signed in and ducked inside the blue curtain. The giant electronic ballot in front of me was a little intimidating: a grid of names and flashing red lights. I was a little confused at first at the lack of buttons, but it was easier than it looked – just touch a finger to the name you want, and the light next to it turns solid red to indicate your selection. Once you finish, press the big green “VOTE” button. As an interface design enthusiast, I was pleased overall with the experience, except for the sudden extinguishing of all the lights upon pressing “VOTE.” The lack of confirmation that my vote had been counted, and had not just disappeared into the ether, was rather unsettling, but I trusted that the system did its job.

I stepped out of the booth and looked around to see if there was anything more I needed to do, and then wandered out. For a moment it was a bit anti-climactic, but soon a small, satisfying euphoria took hold. It had been my first time going to vote in person; absentee ballots ain’t got nothin’ on a good old-fashioned polling place.

Returning to campus, I changed into my glaring yellow Drexel Votes 2008 T-shirt and took my place out front of 3500 Lancaster Ave., answering questions and passing out water and candy to anyone who came to vote. Mid-afternoon saw a small but steady stream of voters disappear into the Community Education Center to have their voices counted. Some came out smiling, faces aglow, while others just skittered away from our overly-enthusiastic cheering as quickly as they could.

Later in the evening, I got up close and personal with the process, assisting the poll workers with signing in voters and checking their IDs. Every voter got a number, and as the evening wore on, the poll workers were excited as we approached an exceptionally high (though not record-breaking) turnout of 425 voters. It was really disappointing how many people we had to turn away because they were at the wrong polling place, they weren’t registered in a party, or their registration had not been completed. If you want to vote on campus in the November election, make sure you are registered with your campus address, NOT your home address. And make sure you know where you’re going on Election Day – 3500 Lancaster is the polling place for the dorms and the immediate campus area, but most off-campus apartments vote elsewhere, even those just on the north side of Powelton Avenue.

The paper trail left behind is unbelievable. Granted, it would take a while to sift through it all if the need arose, but it’s there, just in case. Each voter who signed in was recorded in the sign-in book, as well as on a little slip of paper with their name, party and their number in line, and additionally two handwritten books that corresponded to the individual slips of paper – all of that just to keep track of who and how many voted. At the end of the night, the polling machines spat out in triplicate long receipts detailing the tallies for each candidate and question on the ballot, reporting in physical form what had been stored electronically throughout the day.

In our age of instant internet polling, it might seem like such a simple task, keeping track of a few hundred people and their opinions, and sending the numbers off to be added to the county- and state-wide counts. The decentralized system is simple but elegant, as long as everything goes smoothly. The volunteers, who had clearly been working the polls for years, functioned like a well-oiled machine; it was rather enlightening, facilitating democracy at such a literal level.

Finally, we boxed up the paper trail and folded up the polling machines; the neighborhood poll workers bid each other farewell until November. Finally, the long-awaited April 22 Pennsylvania primary was over.

Finally, we’re free from people pestering us with “Are you registered? Are you voting? Who do you support? Would you like to volunteer?” (I was one of those people pestering you, and trust me, we’re as sick of it as you are.) We’re free from phone calls recorded by candidates and their spouses, from seeing the same commercials over and over, from literature crammed under our doors. At least until the fall.

But as aggravating as the pre-election pressure-sales gets, at least we have the opportunity to have our voices heard. As cliché as it may be, appreciate that you have the right to vote. Remember in November when we hit the real round of election madness, try to have patience with the campaigns. With freedom comes sacrifice; and honestly, we can all afford the few minutes it takes to cast a ballot, and we can certainly sacrifice those few seconds it takes to say politely “Yes, I’m registered” or “No thanks, I’m not interested.”

Maybe “Change” will happen, maybe it won’t. But at least good ol’ American democracy will mosey on, and the voice of the people, however filtered by the current political climate, will be heard.