Dispatch from a voting expert


Tuesday, 1:52 p.m.:

I signed up to be a polling-place administrator three years ago with recruiters at the Reynolds Club. It’s a good gig for a college student; the Chicago Board of Elections Commissioners paid $500 the first time—now it’s down to $300—for Election Day work and a few hours of training beforehand. It’s a fancy title for a simple job: I’m in charge of fixing electronic problems that the voting machines rarely have. Little expertise is necessary to plug in the ballot scanner or to press the green “override” button on the touch-screen unit whenever something goes wrong. For the most part today, I have done homework and written this blog entry.

This is the first time I’ve served as an administrator for a presidential election, and though my tasks are the same, it feels different. There are three precincts here at the Christ Way Baptist Church on 62nd and Woodlawn, and one other polling-place administrator. The morning brought hordes of people who lined up by 5:30—half an hour after we had arrived and begun setting up—and stood waiting. Ten minutes after the polls opened at 6 a.m., the large room had filled with more than 50 voters, and traffic was steady until 9 a.m.


I feel like I’m at the center of things. More than a few people have had to vote using provisional ballots, and anxiety is high, but so is the excitement. There’s an almost tangible sense of community. “I know most of the people coming in to vote,” one Democratic judge tells me. “I’ve even met Michelle and Barack Obama.” I nod mutely, not allowed to say anything. A young Republican judge has to lend his white sweatshirt to a voter because she’s wearing a bright red Barack Obama “superstar” T-shirt. A discussion ensues about whether voters should be allowed to wear partisan gear to the polls. It’s a tough rule, one judge says, “especially for our people.”

I stand out here—the only white poll worker out of more than 20. Almost all the voters are black too, and my laptop and grapefruit slices don’t help me blend in. Neither does the Magazine’s photographer, causing an uproar with his camera. “Strike a pose!” the women across the room call out. Later they ask why I’m sitting on the floor to type. Turns out this job is a great way to meet my neighbors—I live half a block away. During the slow middle of the day we pass around ham sandwiches that a judge brought, and sugary fruit punch. The day is in fact a procession of food: representatives from 20th Ward Alderman Willie Cochran's office also stop by with lunch and donuts.

Many of my friends are spending the day canvassing in Indiana and driving voters to their polling places. Others are in class, reading the latest polls on their computers and not hearing a word their teachers say. They’re enduring the day anxiously, promising to catch up on the week’s neglected homework as soon as it’s all over. I may have originally signed up for this job to get paid, but now I would rather be here than anywhere, living this election instead of watching it.

Shira Tevah, '09

Woodlawn's Christ Way Baptist Church (top), watched over by a mural of Consuela York, the current pastor's mother, serves as a polling place on Election Day; as a polling-place administrator, Magazine intern Shira Tevah (bottom) gets a ground-level view of the presidential election.

Photos by Dan Dry.

November 5, 2008