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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2008


Poll Position

Our intrepid reporter spends a day as an election judge, to see if anybody really does try to vote early and often.

By Jeff Berg

The New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum has hosted a number of small cafes in its restaurant area over the years. None has been successful, and the space now stands vacant, offering a beautiful panoramic view of the Organ Mountains, if you peer over the human blight that is at ground level.

It was from this spot that I saw the sunrise on June 3, 2008, when I worked as an election judge for the primary election that netted us any number of worthy and unworthy candidates.

Answering the call of civic duty and easy money, I decided to give this job a whirl, since it seems that there are never enough folks to safeguard the sanctity of our elections. Nationwide, almost 2 million people will be needed as poll workers for next month's general election. So desperate is the need that some companies in Virginia offer paid time off to elections staffers and one Nebraska county "drafts" people for the job, much like jury duty. (A Cornhusker state spokesman admits, "There is some resistance to it.")

I responded to the trumpet of activism after seeing an ad in the daily Las Cruces Sun-News, which tooted the need for help by the county bureau of elections. I called in and spoke with a pleasant-sounding young woman who asked my name, phone number and e-mail address. Then she asked, "What is your party affiliation?"

I wanted to say "Socialist Party" (the most honest of the responses that ran through my head) or, if not that, to allow that I am a fanatical supporter of General Zod (see the elaborate spoof site at www.zod2008.com) or even to offer the Green Party, an occasional party of choice, but not this time. No, all I could gurgle was, "Independent."

The nice young woman said she would get back to me with information about the upcoming training sessions. But she cautioned that I probably would not be used as an election judge, since an even number of Republicans and Democrats were required — I was now at the bottom of the list.

Harrumph. Further proof that the two-party system is elitist and dysfunctional. Just how has it come to this?

The call came for the training, with several different times and dates as options. I chose a mid-afternoon session, and hurried down to the Dona Ana County offices — a nice new building, which some locals call the "Taj Mahal," not understanding that even (non-elected) government workers deserve better than port-a-potties to work in.

The training was held in the same room used by the county commissioners for their gatherings. It is spacious and bland, and I did not see anything remotely resembling the Taj Mahal. There were about 50 people present, almost all Anglo, mostly older, which in part is explainable since it was a weekday afternoon. We were handed packets of information, and told that the training would begin promptly at 2 p.m. Amazingly for Las Cruces, it did.

A young man, who in another life could have been an auctioneer or carnival barker, introduced himself. He cautioned us to pay close attention, but also said that there were several "lifelines" available if we had questions once we got to our assigned polling place in a few weeks.

He ran through the information, spending most of his time showing us how to plug in and set up the voting machines. He apparently thought that all of us were veterans at this job, a very poor assumption. Many of us left the session scratching our heads, but armed with the long list of phone numbers to call for help on Election Day. We filled out potential time sheets and were sent on our way.I was again cautioned to not expect a call.

Several days before the primary election, the phone, of course, rang. It was the folks from the election office, advising me that even though I am an Independent (still having not deciding between the Green, Socialist, Prohibition or Pizza parties) my services were needed.

It was gentle chaos when I arrived at the museum at the same time as other judges, the guy with the voting machines (we had been told they would be set up the night before), and someone with a key to unlock the gate that prevents access to the museum grounds after hours.

For the primary, the museum hosted two polling places — one for the precinct that I live in and one for a nearby district. I was assigned to work with my "homies," and met my co-workers of the day: Al Vickers (R), who is in charge of this outfit, Al Krueger (D) and Jean Stipe (R). I was already acquainted with the two Als (and you should be acquainted with one yourself — see "Generations Growing Together," September 2008), as Vickers is the former chair of our local homeowners' community and Krueger used to be a volunteer at Dripping Springs Natural Area, where I first worked when I moved to Las Cruces.

Vickers and Krueger were both experienced at this job, and worked hard to sort out the small melee that occurred as we worked to get the polling place open and set up on time.

Everything went according to plan, other than the fact that a fifth judge (D) never showed up or called in. All of the voting machines tested okay, including the one for those with special needs, a truly amazing device. We were soon ready for the onslaught of voters.

The polls opened and no one showed up. This was kind of how the day went.

It was nearly an hour before anyone showed up to vote in this not-so-gripping primary race, which ran the gamut from US President (R) to Magistrate Judge (blah).

During that hour, Vickers reminded us several times that under the rules, we were not allowed to talk politics — especially after I started to rant about King George — but every other subject was okay. We drank coffee and iced tea, spoke of the problems in Mexico, health (our own and the health-care needs of others), movies (ahhh), and of course politics. In between, we were treated to a beautiful show by Mother Nature, who always gets my vote, especially when shadows chase across the Organ Mountains.

We also talked about ourselves. I found out that Jean Stipe was actually the volunteer office manager for the Dona Ana County Republican Party, and was here because of a lack of volunteers. Stipe spent 18 and a half years in nursing, some of which was as a school nurse. "That was the hardest job I ever did in nursing," she confided.

She has been in Las Cruces since 1978, after a winter that included 30 inches of snow on the deck of their home, loves it here, has four kids, all grown and gone, was raised in Pennsylvania, and her husband is an architect.

"I love the desert and the mountains," she said, "and love to hike."

This came as we both wistfully looked out the large window at the inviting mountains, trying to keep from dozing off.

Al Vickers said that he feels that being an election judge is a civic responsibility for him. "I've been doing it for three or four years now, and like to find things to do that have value to the community."

He is retired from IBM, and works now with SCORE. For Primary Day, he was the Presiding Judge for Precinct 110.

Al Krueger, who is built like a football player, turned out to be a retired teacher who moved here from Virginia. He was also a veteran of previous elections, and said with a smile, "When they called, I answered. This is similar to jury duty for me."

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