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May 2001 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

Hearing Aids on the Frontlines of Democracy
By Jill Hampton


The alarm went off and it was still dark. The clock read 4:00.

Now, you have to understand something. I am a night person. Staying up until four in the morning is one thing. Getting up at four is another.

I sleepily get ready in almost darkness. I kiss my husband's sleepy face and reset the alarm for him.

Out the door, I grab today's paper and throw it behind my seat. It's a short drive to the school where I will spend the next fourteen hours. It is drizzling. It always amazes me how many people are up and moving at five in the morning.

I get to the school at 5:15. My cohorts are just ahead of me. Mildred lives a block away and is in her seventies. She has always lived in St. Louis. Marie turns ninety this year and grew up on the Hill. She is proud to be Italian. Frank retired fourteen years ago. He lives in this precinct, but has lived in several states and also served in the Army.

We try to contain our yawns as we unpack our paperwork. We tease each other a little. No one is really happy to be up this early, but it's just part of the deal.

election paraphernalia

In less than an hour we will get our first "customer," as we will joke all day. This is the general election for the City of Saint Louis. We are the election judges and election supervisors in this small south City precinct.

Votamatics go together pretty easily. Apparently the lights don't always work, and you have to be careful when you pick them up that the legs don't fall out and drop on your foot. We have three machines and wonder if we will ever have all three in use at any time during the day. Voter turnout is usually low here. We are the only precinct at this polling place. Some have three or more precincts voting at once. It will just be the four of us all day long.

This is my second time as a judge. Mildred, Marie and Frank can't even remember when they started.

The day creeps along. At ten we start making jokes. The clock must be moving backward, because it just HAS to be later than that!

The customers come very slowly. There is a slight "rush" in the morning as people head to work. Then we might go forty-five minutes without seeing any at all. The school children wave at us sometimes. It is raining today so they are wound up.

As the day wears on, we take our turns going to lunch.

Frank and I end up doing two crossword puzzles and three word finds during the day. They eat almost all of the hard candy I brought. Last month we ate a whole bag of pretzels and most of a batch of brownies. Working the polls can certainly be bad for a diet.

I enjoy the stories we hear all day. Some people catch up on gossip. Others just tell you about themselves, or their day, or what's on their mind.

One gentleman was ninety and had gone to this same school when he was a boy. He started there when he was five. "That was eighty-five years ago," he proudly tells us, "and it was nothing but five wood frame buildings."

Last election there were two teenagers who had just turned eighteen. They were disappointed they could not vote for President. But they made sure they came to vote for their first election, even though it was only a primary. I have to admit that was special. I got to make sure that two kids got to vote for the very first time.

polling place

Many of the men tell us they don't mind coming out in any weather or for any election, because they fought for the right to vote and they plan to exercise it every time they can.

Things pick up around three in the afternoon. Around five-thirty we actually have one person standing line waiting to use a booth.

Voter turnout was very low in the morning, but ended up being good in the end. We were fearful we would not break 100 all day, but ended up with almost 130 ballots cast. This is one of the smallest precincts in the ward.

Being an election judge is not hard. If you must use a description, I would probably say boring is more accurate. We all get paid — a little — but we aren't really here for the money. We are here because it's a way to make sure the system works. The older people see it as a "duty."

With all the hype after the elections in November, I felt I should do my part to make sure people get the chance to vote. I wish more people would come out and participate in this process.

I would like to serve in another precinct now to get a better idea of the system in general. After working with my three other poll personnel, I can see that mixing things up a bit might be good. These three have worked together so long I wonder about their objectivity.

I attended a "class" at a union hall before the last election. They talked briefly about the mechanics of being a judge, but assumed a lot because so many of the poll workers have been doing their job for so long.

That class never discussed ethics.

Out of several hundred people in attendance at that "class," I only saw one or two other people in their thirties, like me. I would say the age bracket really started around fifty, and obviously goes up through the nineties. When I signed up downtown, I had a couple of workers say things like, "It's so good to see a young person signing up. We need more like you!"

After spending two days with these people, I have seen many ways in which we are the same. But there are also some very large gaps when it comes to political and social ideas. We had open discussions, and I was amazed at some of the things I heard. I was not raised in Missouri. I guess that changes my perspective more than I realized.

We really do need some younger blood working the polls. Marie can't hear very well, and none of the others move quickly. During the primary, Marie was speaking very loudly to each voter, practically yelling, "Republican or Democrat? You say Republican? Oh, Democrat! Here's a Democrat ballot!" Now everyone in the room and across the hallway knew that person got a Democratic ballot. It wasn't her fault; her hearing aid battery was dying.

One of my favorite stories all day happened near the end of voting. A nicely dressed woman came in to vote on her way home from work. She asked us if we knew we had a greeter outside. We all said no. Well, she said, a little girl was waiting outside at the door and as the woman approached, the little girl said, "Welcome to my school. Thank you for coming. Are you here to vote? Please step this way and go down the hallway."

I bet she grows up to be an election judge — or a politician.

Jill Hampton is a freelance writer and Internet publicist who works out of her home in south St. Louis City.

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