Inside the election

Rumford Falls Times
November 12, 2008

What a year it’s been! My involvement with the 2008 election began long before I attended, for the first time, my party’s caucus on a stormy night last February. It ended in the early hours of last Wednesday, after my son and I returned at midnight from counting ballots at our town office and flopped down on the couch to watch a couple of hours of post-election coverage before heading off to bed.

I have voted in every presidential election since 1980, but I couldn’t tell you, without looking it up, what the central issues were, or the margins of victory, or even the names of all of the candidates in each of those contests.

I don’t think that will be the case with the presidential election of 2008. The conflicts, setbacks, gaffes, triumphs, and larger-than-life personalities of this campaign will be remembered for a long time, as will its history-making outcome on November 4.

My son, Will, was excited to learn last year that, because he would be turning 18 before the general election, recent changes to Maine’s election laws allowed him to participate in the February caucus as a 17-year-old. I had never been to a caucus before and, until this year, my independent husband had never even registered with a political party, but with Will rapidly turning into a political junkie, we wanted to be supportive. Besides, we were all curious about this grass-roots political process, used in lieu of primaries by more than a dozen states, including Maine, to choose convention delegates.

At the caucus, we assembled in the high school auditorium with people from several towns to listen to speeches in support of the candidates, after which residents of each town were sent to different areas of the school. Meeting in groups by town, we had one last chance to try to persuade our neighbors to back our favorite candidate. Then, in a process that reminded me of a grammar school rainy-day game, supporters of each candidate physically moved to separate corners of the room to be counted, and the results were tallied.

A few weeks after the caucus, Will and I attended a meeting of our party’s Oxford County committee. We found we were both hooked on the political process, and somewhere along the way—either at the caucus or at the county meeting—we must have signed our names to lists of willing volunteers. As the election drew closer, Will began receiving calls from energetic young campaign workers, urging him to volunteer at party headquarters. And I received a letter from the Greenwood town office addressed to “Dear Election Worker.”

I called the town manager, Kim Sparks. “Am I an election worker?” I asked. She laughed and told me I must have put my name on the list at some point. OK, I decided, but if I was going to work at the polls, so was Will. He might as well see the end of the process, as well as its beginning. We both signed up for the 8 p.m. to midnight shift to count votes after the polls closed.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Will spent much of his free time at our party’s Bethel headquarters, phoning prospective voters. He discovered that calling strangers—and even people he knew—to talk about the candidates came easily to him. He hung out with other like-minded volunteers, and their enthusiasm was infectious. He also learned a great deal about the importance of the campaigns other than the presidential race, from the U.S. Senate and Congressional races, down to the local contests for state and county offices.

The week before the election, we took advantage of Maine’s early voting to make sure nothing would come between us and the polls. On Election Day, Will spent a couple of hours after school phoning and canvassing in Bethel, helping to urge last-minute voters to the polls, then at 7:45 we headed over to the town office.

Our job was to help count the votes—for seven offices and three referendum questions—on the 457 ballots cast in the town of Greenwood. Each ballot is counted and tallied at least twice, by one poll worker representing each of the two major parties. If the results disagree, they are counted again.

We had four vote-counting teams. As the “newbies,” Will and I were each paired with a veteran election worker. Despite the record-setting voter turnout in Greenwood, with 80 percent of registered voters casting ballots—nearly a third of them through early or absentee voting—things went fairly smoothly. There was pizza and cake, there was laughter, and there was plenty of counting and recounting.

In the end, we wound things up just a few minutes shy of our projected midnight finish, and we hurried home, arriving just in time to see Barack Obama deliver his acceptance speech.

Next year at this time, Will hopes to be a college freshman majoring in either government or political science. His involvement in election politics over the past few months clarified his strengths and interests, and helped him to decide on a college major, and even a possible career. For me, it was an enlightening glimpse at the behind-the-scenes work that goes into ensuring that every vote is counted, and that every vote counts.

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