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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."

Krueger is married, has two grown kids, and is also very active in wilderness and environmental issues locally. He works as a volunteer for the BLM as part of its Wilderness Watch program, where a couple of volunteers are sent out monthly to spot-check BLM land holdings for needed maintenance or other issues that may arise.

By noon, only 70 of 630 registered voters in Precinct 110 had shown up. That is about 10 an hour. Everyone had brought some type of busy work to help occupy the time, and since we were not allowed off the grounds for the entire day, I went to speak with some friends who work at the museum to see if we could use their lunchroom. Not a problem, and soon we were taking turns, one at a time, for a half-hour lunch break.

Things didn't pick up during the lunch hour, and by this point, since we all knew that these day-long relationships would end early this evening, we had pretty much imparted what we wanted to share to each other. Al Krueger and I secretly talked about politics, trashing almost everyone who is currently in office, locally and nationally. We continued to watch as the mountains and their shadows changed color. I had forgotten how much I missed living in the park at Dripping Springs, which is flush against the Organ Mountains, and is certainly one of the most beautiful spots in the state.

Voting got a bit busier later in the afternoon, but not much. I tried to bring on further excitement for myself by browsing the rosters to see which political party my neighbors affiliate themselves with, and was truly surprised by the almost 50-50 split between (R) and (D). In fact, some that I assumed would be (D) are in fact not.

Several voters who, like myself, are (I) came in to vote, not knowing that unless you are an (R) or a (D), you don't count this time. All complained, I agreed wholeheartedly, and we all concluded that the entire election process is seriously flawed from start to finish.

A couple of people found the machines too difficult to operate and did something wrong while trying to simply slip the ballot into the machine, in any direction, unfolded. Origami was popular. Later, a mismarked ballot (not a hanging chad) kept us at the polling station for an extra hour.

The biggest excitement of the afternoon started when a man came in and tried to vote at the other precinct station that we are sharing the space with. The problems arose for several reasons: He apparently can't speak English (something I questioned, since he did seem to pay attention to conversations around him), he was not in the proper place to vote, he was not on anyone's register, and, worst of all, he appeared to be a complete moron.

For almost 45 minutes, the judges at the other polling station worked with the man, first trying to get him to go to where he should be, and then finally allowing him to vote. But then he had no idea how to vote or whom to vote for. If it were me, I'd have sent the man packing after five minutes, but he voted somehow, and then he hung around for a while longer asking questions that no one understood.

Finally, it was time for the polls to close. During the 12 or so hours that we worked, a total of 156 residents voted, 67 (D) and 89 (R) for Precinct 110. I was surprised by the low turnout and by the number of (R)s in the area, where Pearce beat Wilson 57-32. I was pleased that some of the folks I would have voted for, had my constitutional right as a registered voter in the kingdom of New Mexico been extended to me, nevertheless won.

I was also surprised to note that there were no couples who would cancel each other's votes come November — if the husband was an (R), the wife was an (R), too. There were no young people at all, except for a few "homemakers" with small children. Probably the youngest voter was my neighbor, age 34, who tried to pick up a registration form for her partner and had words with the Presiding Judge (R) of the other precinct because of New Mexico's ridiculous voter-registration laws.

Somewhere, I made a note about how much this whole process cost per vote, which included the huge cost of the new high-tech voting machines, the salaries paid us for our work (I received $150 for about 15 hours' work, and there were a total of eight judges at our polling place alone) and other expenses. I misplaced that note, but it averaged out to about $1,000 per vote.

So, will I work in next month's general election, even if General Zod isn't on the ballot? Maybe. I can always use the money, and I might have the chance to spread this thought from Gene Admondson, the 2008 Prohibition Party presidential candidate: "Third-party people do not win but we say wise things."

And Lord knows, the current system is enough to drive anyone to drink.

Senior writer Jeff Berg casts his ballot in Las Cruces.



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