Friday, March 21, 2014

We've Only Just Begun

In the category of coincidental and strange these two events both happened during this past week. On Wednesday night I was at church waiting in line for a bowl of soup at our Lenten service when I looked on the floor and saw a tiny slip of paper. I picked it up and found it was a fortune from a cookie. It read “All of us are ignorant, only on different subjects.” I put it in my pocket.

Thursday my wife brought home Chinese food from a local takeout joint and in it were two fortune cookies. I opened mine and found, for the first time ever, no fortune. It took me until today, when I found Wednesday’s fortune in my pocket, to put the two events together. I can only surmise that the message on the tiny paper I found the night before belonged in that empty cookie and was especially meant for me. We all know, or should, that we’re ignorant, but it’s good to be reminded.

And now to the week’s main event:-the primary election. I was an election judge for the first time. Why? That’s a good question. My Mom was an election judge. I grew up in a part of Illinois where there were so few Democrats it’s possible everyone with that affiliation worked the polls. I’d served as a poll watcher for a couple of elections, including Obama’s election six years ago, so I was familiar with what went on. I believe we all need to be involved in our political system, and this was a way to do so. So I applied to be a judge. I don’t think they turn many people down.

There must be a balance you know, in Illinois’ system, of a Democratic judge for every Republican judge. In the precinct I worked, not the one in which I vote, I served with two Republican judges, a middle aged couple who had been working elections for a very long time, and a seventeen year old from a local rural high school. I think it’s smart to involve young people. He was excited to have been selected as a judge, to have the day off school, and to enjoy 4G on his smart phone all day. He and I were lucky to be serving with veterans who were nice people that knew what they were doing and helped us learn.

Every judge attends a training every year and receives a handbook of rules that outline their duties and details every part of what happens at the polling places; when to allow provisional ballots, how to operate the ballot reading machine, how to care for the ballots, how far from the door of the polling place campaign materials may be displayed, how and to administer the oath and to whom. I had no idea. On paper it’s intimidating but in practice it went very smoothly. The training for judges was conducted by our County Clerk, whom we also elect. She knows her stuff and is a hands on county official. If we had a question her office was a phone call away and they answered immediately. In addition they sent people to the polling place to ask us how things were going. I was impressed.

There is no head judge but rather we make decisions as a group on a consensus model. Duties are segregated so that Democratic and Republican judges share them equally. The ballots and the system for counting them are closely monitored and controlled with lots of checks and balances. The count on the machine must agree with the number of ballots distributed and the number of ballot requests singed by registered voters on the spindle. There are lots of ways to make sure everything is in order. It works. The only feasible opportunity I can imagine for fraud in the system would be collusion among judges to stuff the box with ballots of people who did not vote. I worked in a large hall that served as the polling place for six West side Ottawa precincts. Looking at the people serving as judges in those precincts, many of whom I knew, there’s just no way that would occur. From observing who showed up at the training and at the precincts as judges I know good people are involved. I can’t speak for the rest of the state, but here in LaSalle County I’m confident we have the concept of free and orderly elections under control. I have a new respect for the process. Developing democracies should be so lucky.

Not that elections are cheap. Election judges are paid. I don’t know all the costs to running an election but if there are four judges at each precinct, the cost of judges being reimbursed for their efforts in the 119 precincts in LaSalle County alone is a little over $57,.000. That does not count printing costs of all the many ballots, the investment and maintenance involved in the voting machines, and other things of which I’m sure I’m not aware.

Very few of us voted in this primary. LaSalle County has a population of 112,973. Of those 66,775 are registered to vote. Between early voting and Tuesday’s showing 12,244 ballots were cast for an 18% turnout. In the precinct I worked 579 voters are registered and 74 of them voted, for just under 13%. That’s low by every standard. Republican ballots were taken by 45 voters, Democratic ballots by 29. That’s not to say there were Republicans or Democrats in those numbers, it only reflects the ballot they chose to take that day.

Of course in Illinois you must request either a Republican or Democratic ballot. I gather from Face Book that bothers people. I honestly don’t know the arguments for and against that practice. I do know that a lot of people crossed over, or took ballots of the opposite party in order to participate in another contest. In Tuesday’s election that would be primarily Democrats taking Republican ballots in order to vote for a particular candidate for Governor, which I’m guessing would be Dillard over Rauner. I’m just guessing because it’s a secret ballot, but I’m fairly sure about the crossing over because it’s a small community and I knew many of the people voting.

People I’ve been with in Springfield identifying with and participating in Democratic party politics took Republican ballots, sometimes sheepishly, in order to influence the Republican gubernatorial race. My Republican election judge counterpart was especially interested in our precinct results for that contest. When he saw our little precinct had, at the end of a slow and boring day, Rauner winning by five votes he let out a worried sigh, taking it as an ominously bad sign. He proved right. Of course it all depends on how you look at it. His primary interest is as a state employee. He has been involved in AFSCME as a local union leader and fears a Rauner administration would be “a mess” for state employees. I’m guessing he may be right on that count as well. But we’ll have to see.

There are people of both parties in all kinds of occupations, with divergent views on every issue, who have as many different takes on politics as you can imagine. When we begin to generalize about each other according to what party we say we belong to we’re just fooling ourselves. Nothing and nobody is that simple. You are reminded of that when you give your neighbors their ballots. I know many of them as individuals, not Republicans or Democrats. As real people we are much too complex to be thought of as a package of beliefs espoused by the party with which we identify. That’s worth remembering I think. It is so convenient to pigeonhole each other, to think we know what other people believe because of a political label. Doing so is ignorant of human nature. And it’s good to realize our ignorance every so often, as a wise author in a fortune cookie factory once wrote.

Elections are humbling experiences because all kind of people vote-rich and poor, young and old, working and retired, professional and non professional, white and otherwise, informed and without a clue. It’s truly the people, warts and all, choosing for whatever reasons they hold dear, based on whatever information or lack of information they’ve gathered, who will represent them. It’s the collective us choosing them. It may not be pretty but it is certainly democratic. We’re hurt however when so few of us participate. It allows politicians to be chosen by too few. In elections I’m pretty sure the more voters the better.

Not that voting is an especially invigorating experience, especially in the primary. On the Democratic ballot there were virtually no contests. It was either no candidate or one candidate save for County Treasurer and State Central Committeeman. And few if any present in the hall Tuesday knew what a State Central Committeeman actually does. Conventional wisdom among the election judges I talked to, twenty of them or so, was that they act as the precinct committeeman’s committeeman in Springfield. We do not believe they get paid. At least we hope not.

I was interested in the County Treasurer’s race because one of the candidates running was a bright young man, the same age as my son, with a MBA and a desire to get involved. That’s rare and should be encouraged. I think there must be so many ways we can modernize and bring efficiencies to local government using the ideas, especially around technology, of smart young people. He won by a thin margin over an older candidate with some political experience and a good local name. That’s positive I think.

Other than those races there were no referenda and little actually happening. Aside from the Governor’s race on the Republican side their ballot was equally dull. We’re still electing both a State Comptroller and Treasurer, rather than combining those offices, for no apparent reason. We’re electing a Regional Superintendent of Schools. No issues arise concerning those offices. Few of us understand their duties. In LaSalle County we’re filling a large portion of our 29 County board member seats. At least we were spared the township elections. I’ve been told that in Illinois we elect more public officials than in any other state. I believe it.

It’s not a well oiled operation, Illinois politics, it’s clunky and old and due for an overhaul. But I think you have to be part of it, pay attention to it, and be ready to vote for change when change is needed. It starts with the primary. I’ll be there working at the general election too. I’ve sort of signed on for a cycle here. The silly season of election year politics is just getting underway. I’ll report again in November, or maybe once or twice along the way. Who knows what happens next?

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