It began at four a.m., waking up, hitting the shower and making sure that my game plan was in order and ready for execution. I seldom ate breakfast because my stomach was always nervous. It was election day, another cold, bleak November morning – and time to place wake up calls to the lieutenants in the field – to make sure they were ready for the ensuing battle. It was Chicago – and we were outnumbered and under-armed – but we would once again venture into the fray, if not expecting victory, intent on doing our best as a matter of civic pride and honor. Despite the overwhelming odds we were going to give it our best shot – and make sure that each of our voters made it to the polls.
By six the polling place next door to my apartment building had opened for business. It was the responsibility of my volunteer poll watchers to make sure that within the precinct no monkey business was conducted. In some years, depending on the intensity of the election and the offices up for grabs, that proved more difficult. But I had learned some tactics over the eight years I had engaged in this campaign and had pre-planned to minimize or negate the enemy’s tactics. There’s one good thing about having your opponent stick with a tried and true plan. They seldom deviated from it – which provided as much insight as the opposition coach getting his hand on the other team’s playbook.
My Democrat counterpart was an efficient woman who had run the precinct as though it was her own (and it pretty much was) for decades. Although it could never be proven, her job with the Corporation Counsel’s office depended on her getting out her voters and bringing in the precinct with both a vast Democrat majority and a large percentage of voters having cast their ballots. The goal was 100% of those who had registered as Democrats. She usually came pretty close to bringing in that number.
But for those who had indicated no party affiliation on their registration she had one last tool that she had employed with success for many elections – a last minute reminder that the Chicago machine wanted them to have before they cast their ballot.
Officially, there was to be no “politicking” within 100 feet of the entrance to the polling place. So the night before the election she would park her car directly in front of the entrance and put placards and bumper stickers within the car – and leave it there. The car was parked legally, even if the material in the windshield and side windows was not supposed to be displayed. That year I beat her to the punch. I waited until that space was available a few days earlier and parked my car there – and then took the bus to work until election day. She was not amused at my defusing her strategy – and on election day she let me know that in no uncertain terms. Despite my having acquired this most desirable spot, I did respect the laws and did not have any political placards within the car.
In those days, prior to early voting, election day was the day for casting a ballot. The number of absentee ballots represented a fraction of one percent of eligible votes that would be cast. So the primary job was to make sure that my voters got to the polls. In close co-ordination with the poll watcher who was keeping track of who had voted, this meant placing calls, ringing doorbells and, most importantly, transporting those who were elderly to the polls by car. Of course I had to rent a car for the day as mine was situated in front of the polling place’s door. I didn’t have a cushy job with the city or any other government agency – so I bore that expense myself.
On election day there was usually a large group of voters who would show up as soon as the polls opened so that they could do their duty and then go to work. After that initial flurry it quieted down with people coming in sporadically through the midmorning and early afternoon. This was an ideal time for me to garner my voters and drive them to the poll. As we approached the closing at seven p.m., the pace picked up once again. And after the last voter in line had cast her ballot, the poll was officially declared closed by the Judges of Election. It was now time to record the results from the back of the voting machines.
Someone once said, “It isn’t how you voted – it’s who counts the votes.” That someone must have been a Chicago resident. As the two Judges read off the tally for each office, my poll watchers and I verified the accuracy of the number they claimed was on the machine – and one of us watched as that number was written down on the official tally sheet. On more than one occasion we found that “237” was written down as “327”. Perhaps it was an honest mistake – or perhaps not. The Democrats talk about their famous ground game – and transposition of numbers was part of it – at least in the Windy City.
Fortunately, because of the lulls in voting during much of the day, I had the opportunity to run home and walk and feed the dogs. I think they sensed that something was up and they weren’t going to be on their normal schedule. My Irish Setter, Tristan gave me a look that said, “Why are you doing this to me?” But he was a forgiving sort and I always tried to have an extra special dinner for him and his Belgian Shepherd/Newfoundland mix companion, Josh. Josh was a lot more tolerant than his compadre. So the two of them got their dinner off schedule and after they had eaten I returned to the poll for the countdown.
Other than in years when there were a large number of judicial paper ballots, I usually got home at nine, after recording all the numbers for each office on my own tally sheet to be turned in to Republican headquarters to make sure that they hadn’t been changed en route to the Chicago Board of Elections’ offices when the official canvass was conducted later in the week. In one respect, there are those who might consider this an exercise in futility as the final score was always lopsided: Democrats – a million; Visitors – forty-seven.
Looking at the final tally, a reasonable person might argue that, “Only an idiot or a masochist would expend the amount of time and effort just to prove that once again he or she would go down in flames.” But to my way of thinking, my job, irrespective of how bleak the results, was to get out every one of the comparatively few votes on which I could rely – and if I succeeded in doing that – I had accomplished my mission.
The other day at his news conference, President Obama, in commenting on the election results, made the point that, “Two thirds of the eligible electorate didn’t vote.” Somehow we were to take that as a tacit endorsement by those non-voters that they approved his policies and had they bothered to show up, things would have been different. That statement stems from pure vainglory and wishful thinking on the president’s part.
We have made it so easy to vote – in my view, too easy – that those who do not exercise this fundamental right and obligation, have no voice in the discussion. They themselves, not restrictive voter ID laws, bad weather or any other excuse, are responsible for their lack of civic duty. And if they want to stay home again two years from now, it would be fine with me.