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Oiling the Wheels of Democracy

Voting: Poorly paid polling place workers toil through the busy times and the slow, watching the process unfold.


You could tell who they were by the things they brought with them: a sample ballot filled out with mom's help. A bag of candy for the precinct workers. An editorial page with a newspaper's suggestions. An absentee ballot. A sleeping child.

Leona Riklan, 72, dragged the oxygen tank that keeps her alive. Husband Frank, 80, carried Leona's purse. Frank, I need my glasses. Mary Garrity, 57, voter and precinct worker, sported the rhinestone flag brooch her mother wore when she worked the polls all those years ago, all those miles away.

In the chilly gray lobby of the Torrance Venture apartments ("Families Welcome" "Caring Management") they trickled in over 13 very long hours, armed with dramatically differing opinions, united by a common goal to do the work of democracy, one small vote at a time.

"I'm so glad I did the voting," beamed Noorbano Ganatra, 30, a newly naturalized Pakistani immigrant who cast her very first ballot on this Tuesday morning. "It's freedom. Back home, they grab you and make you vote for who they want. Here, you can do what you want."

Here at Precinct #7150161A, in the electorally volatile 36th Congressional District, you most certainly could do what you wanted this election day, as long as you came.

On a day when citizens nationwide were expected to turn their backs on the ballot box, all that these good precinct workers wanted you to do was show up and they would help you do the rest: Make sure you got your ballot aligned, teach you how to poke the holes in the proper places, forgive you with a brand-new ballot if somehow you happened to slip and (no!) vote the wrong way.

"Sometimes we sit here for an hour and don't get anybody," Bonnie Werts, 67, said as the precinct opened in the silvery morning light. "That's good. Two [voters] at 7. That's good."

Two voters at 7 a.m., 25 at 8 a.m., 54 at 9, 74 at 10. By the time the polls had been open for five hours, 136 voters out of an eligible 765 had stepped through the open plate-glass door to do their civic duty.

There was 18-year-old Laurice Brewer, with the black toenail polish and Republican dreams. Heather Barnes, a 25-year-old Democrat with a few bars of "Tuesday Afternoon" by the Moody Blues tattooed on her left ankle, who still doesn't trust any woman in politics. And Yuehan Chen, a first-time voter at 68, who laid a hand over his grateful heart: "This is a privilege."

It was 1 p.m. Precinct worker Dick Werts had already gone home once to refill the communal coffeepot. Campaign workers for an unnamed candidate had already dropped by. Their mission: take down the names of those who had not voted, get them to the polls, and drop off a dozen doughnuts in the process. A woman who lives within 100 feet of the polls had been politely asked to take down her "Yes on R" sign in favor of Torrance's school bond initiative.

There had been two rushes and more than a few lulls. Breaks had been planned, dinner had been plotted (KFC at 6 p.m.), and the precinct workers had monitored turnout like half a dozen worried parents hovering over a sick child.

"We could go over 300," said an excited Bonnie Werts at 10:40 a.m. "We're already at 82. We could do really well. I worked an election when we had 1,500 signatures of people to vote and 90-something showed up in 13 hours. It was so pathetic."

Turnout, of course, is everything to a precinct worker, whether or not it's a crucial election like this one, with the California governor's office up for grabs along with one U.S. Senate seat. In this neighborhood, a tight race was run for the seat vacated by Rep. Jane Harman, and Torrance tried for the fourth time to get a school bond issue passed.

Turnout was most of what they talked about this day, voters and precinct workers alike. Just listen to them here at noon, when Los Angeles County was reporting a turnout of 19.64%, and 119 voters had shown up at this precinct: How's the turn out? Good. Did I hear you say it was better? Much better. I think everybody should vote. It's a free country. You have to a keep it free. That's right. Have a good day."

And again at 2:40, when the local vote count had risen to 162: On the radio they were saying turnout would be low, 50% or so. That's better than that one time, where there were only bonds on the ballot--17%. That was pitiful, wasn't it? That's the worst.

Just after 4 p.m., no one is voting. Traffic whizzes by on busy Anza Avenue. There is time to chat about attorney daughters and an upcoming wedding. About selling houses and getting glaucoma and moving to Simi Valley. About how annoying it is when broadcasters call national elections before the polls close in California.

The sun begins its slow descent, briefly blinding the precinct workers, who shouldn't have to be uncomfortable in addition to being underpaid. A sign-up sheet is taped to the folding table where voters pick up their ballots: "WE NEED YOU!!" it exhorts. "Won't you consider serving as a poll worker?" There is one taker long after dark has fallen.

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