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VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES | Essay

Democracy Takes Patience

November 18, 2000|JOE SHEA | Joe Shea is editor of the online daily American Reporter

As a precinct inspector during last week's election at a busy polling place in Hollywood, I got a taste of our community's immense diversity and also the profound significance of the 2000 election.

Precinct inspectors are pretty much the final arbiters of who gets to vote on election day. The job fell to me after having worked for six or seven years at two other polling places. My father and grandfather were both chairman of the New York City Board of Elections, and an uncle was elected to the bench there in 1954 by 64 votes--the first Republican officeholder in Manhattan since my grandfather was elected sheriff of New York in 1909. I know the value of a vote.

Throughout the day, dozens of people were referred to me for resolution of their voting status. Latinos would tell me that the clerks couldn't find their names on the rolls after looking for the one on their driver's licenses, and I would send the clerks back to the rolls, knowing that the registrar's office had correctly recorded not the last name on their driver's licenses but the middle one--the surname of many Latinos.

For many first-time Russian and Armenian voters, I relied on a rudimentary knowledge of both to sort out complicated issues of spelling, reading, citizenship and registration in fairly short order. If a recheck of the primary rolls and supplemental lists that had arrived a few days before the election did not list them, I helped them prepare the provisional ballots that require either a driver's license, a witness or two other forms of identification with the current address printed on it. The immigrants who came to me usually satisfied one or both requirements, but a number of our natives couldn't do the same.

Unlike in Florida, where many voters said they were turned away after they realized they had miscast their ballots for Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach County, California voters are permitted up to three ballots if they make an error. We had just one of those out of 540 voters at my precinct, but last year I made an error myself. Getting a new ballot was no big deal.

The saddest job I had on election day was to turn down an Armenian man who was one of several who hoped they could register and then vote on the same day. They were entitled to register--and I ran out of registration forms included with the polling place supplies--but state law requires that Californians register to vote 30 days before the election.

I don't remember the fellow's name, but I will never forget the urgency he felt to cast a vote. "I work at my shop from 8 in the morning to 8 at night every day," he said. "Until now, I never had any time to go somewhere and register. But tonight I closed my shop early so I could vote."

For him, this would have been his first vote, and even in his 40s, he had no clue how it was done. He pleaded to see the ballot, and I took him to the sample ballot-punching device and showed him how it worked. His eyes glowed with excitement. I urged him to use the registration card available at the post office to get registered for the next election in April, when Los Angeles will select a mayor. We shook hands as he left, disappointed but eager to participate next time.

He and millions of Americans like him are the bedrock upon which the granite pillars of democracy are raised on this great continent. They create a nation that can endure the test of patience this presidential election requires of us. I felt privileged to help them vote.

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