Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election! 24 Hrs--Part One, The Work

There's obviously plenty to talk about, and all kinds of races and campaigns I could deconstruct right now--but the fact is I'm still a little beat/hung over, and I fear it would be like explaining a joke everyone already got. The Democrats won, we get it.

So instead of that, I'll tell you about how I spent Election Day, in an attempt to walk my talk about the necessity of getting involved and effecting change one person at a time. I'd arranged to come down to the Clackamas County Dem HQ in Oregon City, so once Tuesday dawned and the kids got off to school, I saddled up the scooter and headed down to the riverbank and then right back uphill, to a barely noticeable office complex a couple of blocks from the action of a big strip mall.

As you probably noticed if you live west of the Cascades, it was a wet morning Tuesday. Turns out that police-grade outerwear pants are not so much waterproof as water-repellent. When those rain drops start hurling themselves at you at 40mph, they make it right through whatever nylon/spandex weave the pants people used, leaving you with the uncomfortable feeling of wearing a damp blanket over a wet coat. Anybody who wishes for the return of pollbooths in Oregon perhaps doesn't remember what the weather's like in early November, and even though I was out working to help others vote, I was glad I needed only expose myself to the elements for the trip from door to mailbox when casting my own vote.

I got to the office shortly before 10, and was met by a sign I took as ominous at the time--lights off, nobody home. Where was the hustle, not to mention the bustle? What happened to the crackerjack GOTV operation I'd been told about for Clackamas? Someone arrived to open shop while I considered my options, and she seemed as surprised as I. "They told me they'd be sleeping here last night!" It turns out that the noiseless campaign office was a function of success--they'd accomplished pretty much all they'd wanted to, and the only thing left was to go through a few pages of insufficiently bothered potential voters, leaving messages and reminding them of the deadline.

After I'd mowed through a pair of call sheets for Senator Rick Metsger and county Commissioner Lynn Petersen, state House candidate Mike Caudle and his campaign manager Jonathan Singer dropped by. Singer put together a few pages of Democratic elderly voters who'd been called but not yet reached for me to work on, while Caudle did a little calling and mostly paced around in a bundle of nerves.

I was surprised at the large number of old people who now had answering machines! and were otherwise able to chat coherently and hear just fine. And I'm not talking about 65 year olds--I called people over 95, plenty in their 80s, and while some were cranks most of them were glad to be reminded even if they'd already done it. The elderly still treat callers pretty nicely; the younger the person the more jaded the response to the call, I found.

And while I called--joined after a time by a precinct captain--the rest of the staffers appeared to be watching Monday's Daily Show rerun on the web. Not even an espressobev (acquired after a squall-aggrieved walk to a nearby java-hut) sufficiently enlivened the proceedings for me. I guess if they had things under control they were telling the truth--and who can argue with the results--but it was just not the Election Day experience I was looking for. Is that wrong? It's not the grunt work; that's pretty much all I expected to be given--but calling old people by yourself in a quiet office felt less like achieving democracy and more like death by actuarial.

So around 130 I finished a couple more pages of seniors and motored all the way up Highway 43 along the mighty Willamette and into Portland, across the bridge and over to state Democratic HQ, just off Burnside near the Jupiter Hotel. Now THAT place was hopping. I had a pair of donuts generously offered by the Clackamaniacs, but the Multnos had a freakin' hot buffet for people.

Sweet! I wish I'd had time to eat it; I saw Jenny Greenleaf, DNC state rep, who's been working like a mad dog in a boxed cubicle trying to pull votes out of the city's streets, and as a result of those efforts the lines at the county elections building were out the door and leading to traffic problems in the blocks around the dropoff point. Earlier the Our Oregon/AFL-CIO people (who really put a lot of effort into this election and accomplished every single one of their ballot and major candidate goals, so ups to them) had been collecting ballots "unofficially" into Container Store tubs. They had to move on however, and volunteers were needed to take their place to allow people to give them ballots and get out of line to keep traffic moving.

We held wooden boxes with a padlock and "Unofficial Ballot Collection" on the front. So it's no wonder people were like "WTF? Unofficial?" and many refused to use us. (One cranky lady shouted at us, "What are you dooooooing??" as she shook her head from on high in her SUV seat). I agree skepticism was a very healthy response in that situation, although when we said we were with DPO most people figured we wouldn't trash Dem ballots--I guess trusting that we were in fact DPO. Which of course we were, and we saved a lot of people time, and frankly helped out an overwhelmed county staff and sheriff's office. More on that in a minute.

After a little more than an hour holding the box up and walking along the street, I had to excuse myself. A nice young feller with blond hair said he had the key, and if we brought him the box he'd unlock it and give the ballots over. I figured this was the smart thing to do, so I went looking for him, holding the box. I got to the county building and stood there looking for blond feller. While I searched in vain, a woman came up and dropped a ballot into my box. I said, uh, OK, thanks! and kept looking.

This brought the ire of a county worker who said, "Hey, you can't collect ballots within 100 feet of here!," something DPO people hadn't mentioned, and which I simply wasn't thinking about. I had to pee, man. She's a little wigged out and the sheriff's guy directing traffic at that intersection gets involved and asks if I know about the 100 ft rule. I don't, and he says well you gotta go. I said I'm looking for the guy with the key? What guy? The blond feller (I didn't say feller to the cop), who I cannot find. He asked me for ID and I asked why and he said what are you doing? I said I was volunteering and I was going back up the block to look for a key person.

OK, so no soliciting ballots in front of the official place. Fine. I promise after that moment I made no attempt and certainly accepted no ballots within 100 feet. But once I left the box with another worker, I still had to go to the john. The county building is in the Central Eastside, which is slowly getting retailed but is still mostly warehouses and rail lines. So it's not like there's a Haggen's to go pee at. The county building? Not near that entrance, or any I found.

I finally found a deli, went, and got a great chicken sandwich in the bargain for a good price, and set about eating it while walking back to the pickup point. As I walked, I realized I'd still be eating sandwich when I got to the box, and I couldn't very well eat and collect at the same time, so I slowed down and watched all the people inside the county building telling their tales of electoral woe and filling out new ballots. It was pretty interesting, and what's more it was great to see the building packed.

But apparently I'd tripped a silent alarm, and violated Vera Katz's Sit-Snack Ordinance--using a public byway to eat lunch on the run while volunteering. Or maybe the county workers were just strung out on too much Red Bull, winos and generally dumb people. But a different lady from the first went after me saying, "We warned you, get out of here, or I'll call security!" I looked at her dumbfounded. "I'm eating a sandwich." She said no you're not, you're a ballot collecter. I pointed out I didn't even have a box, and my hands were full. This neither persuaded nor placated her.

"Security! Security!" she yelled. Of course, "security" turned out to be the very same guy who'd given me the bidness earlier, but now he seemed to be on my side. He ordered the county woman into a neutral corner, ordering me to stay where I was in front of the building, and heard her out. He seemed to get her to calm down a little and then he came back to me. I showed him exhibit A--the sandwich; and the lack of exhibit B--the ballot box I did not have, that proved my point. I downplayed the whole "watching people vote through the windows" part, which in retrospect was probably a good move. In any case, he sent me on my way, eager to deal with someone else, anything.

On the cusp of a return to the squalls that had punctuated the early morning, I took leave a few minutes after four and returned home for a shift and some pollwatching. More on that in part two.