Anger tinged with hope: a WI election story from the bottom of the hill

For Wisconsin voters, shit didn’t just get real this past week. It rolled downhill, thanks to the cabal of legislators and judges who insisted the April 7 election run in business-as-usual fashion – in the midst of a pandemic. That meant registered voters who hadn’t receieved absentee ballots in time to return them postmarked by 4 p.m. Election Day or weren’t in line at polling places by 8 p.m. didn’t get to vote at all. 

Anecdotally, an early sign of COVID-19 infection is losing your sense of smell. So it’s possible that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and the Wisconsin & US Supreme Court judges backing them considered their actions a creative way to solve the shortage of tests for the virus. 

Joking aside though, this sad crop of amoral hypocrites (who like to shriek about being “pro-life”) showed us their real thoughts about the sanctity of life. Which are that it’s nowhere near as important as staying in power. And, note, too, that most of them made their decisions from the safety and comfort of their own homes. 

There  have been a lot of pictures and stories about the election and its aftermath. This is mine. 

I live near a polling place that doesn’t get a lot of voters. On an ordinary election day, I go before work, shortly after the polls open. Sweetheart goes after, usually at about 5 p.m. I’m usually the third voter (give or take), and he’s usually about the 30th. But I decided we should vote absentee this year, just to be extra careful. So I requested our absentee ballots. We filled them out the Wednesday before the election. He witnessed mine. I witnessed his. And the next day, I drove them up to “my” library to turn them in. 

I wasn’t sure what that would look like. There was a line, and people were being very respectful about distancing. 

Dropping off ballots at the Mill Road Library

Inside the lobby was a desk-shaped wooden box with a slot in the top. Behind it sat a man in a chair. He was wearing gloves, no mask, and asked if I needed my ballot witnessed. 

I was glad someone was there to witness the ballots of voters who lived alone. 

The next day, an email went out from my work account asking for volunteers to count ballots on Tuesday. Those of us who said yes received a training video and instructions on when and where to report. 

Then, late Monday morning, the Election Commission sent this email, presumably to every department head in the city.

“I am recruiting drivers to place signs on the 180 polling sites redirecting them to the super sites. You will be alone in your car so complete isolation is observed.  The signs should be ready by Noon to get out this afternoon. Let me know if you have any staff who could do this.”

At 12:30, I drove to the address on the email, which turned out to be in the lobby of the same building where we were going to be counting ballots the next day. A bunch of us stood around, respectfully distancing from each other. Everyone got a stack of signs in plastic protective covers, a roll of green masking tape and verbal instructions to google the address of the location named on the sign. 

It was when I was putting up signs here, at Hampton Elementary School, that a woman told me the election had been cancelled. It was a little past 3 pm.

My 12 destinations were on the North Side of the city, in a roughly four-by-five-mile radius. I realized two things after piling the signs neatly on the passenger seat and heading off. First, they were slippery, sliding to the floor and getting mixed up with each other (we had three each for every site). Second, my phone was charging at home, so there was no way to look up addresses. Happily, home was about five minutes away, so that’s where I went. 

I took the signs up to my office. Grabbing binder clips and post-its, I sat down at my desk with the signs. In short order, each set was clipped together, the address where they were going stuck to the front. I arranged them as best I could by location after deciding which would be last. I fetched the phone, leashed up the dog and off we went.  

Librarians – give us a pile, we’ll sort and organize it

Our first location, the Keenan Health Center, was open. A nurse at the door took my temperature before letting me approach the security guard across the room. (It was 96.9.) I put up the signs where he told me and went on my way. There was a Department of Public Works building, a couple of churches, some Boys & Girl’s Clubs and a lot of schools. 

My faithful assistant, making sure to maintain proper social distance.

I didn’t see many people, but when a woman across the street from one of the larger schools told me the election had been cancelled, I called the official who’d sent us out, asking what I should do. 

“The legislature is suing to keep the election on,” he said, “so just keep going.”

“The woman told me it was all decided and she’d heard it on the news,” I said.

“No,” he said, “there hasn’t been a decision yet.”

I kept going.

En route to my last stop, I dialed up the friend who lived two blocks from it to see if she wanted to do a distance walk with me.

In the background, a voice I recognized yelled, “BUBBY!”

“He’s with you?” I said. “I didn’t know.”

So, that’s how I ended up getting to see Grand-Urchin 1 and catch up with D, his other grandmother. I’ve been seeing the Little Guy, but at a distance. Monday, though, we walked together. D & I were wearing masks, which turned out to be a good thing. On the way back to the car after we hung our signs, he decided he’d had enough day. I ended up handing the dog’s leash off to D and carrying the Grand-Urchin back to her place. 

Note the roll of masking tape and the last of the signs on the ground. (Note: The Grand-Urchin and my assistant are three months apart. Guess who’s older?) Also, that shadow in the door is D. She’s camera-shy, so I decided to not use the photo that includes her.

Then, I went home and found out that the election was on. I stomped around yelling in Sweetheart’s direction about people being endangered and disenfranchised while he agreed with me. Then, I ate my feelings, which were delicious and tasted like curried chicken followed by ice cream. I meant to wash it all down with alcohol, but I got distracted and didn’t get around to it.

Tuesday, just before 8:30 and still furious, I parked my car in the structure adjacent to the building where I’d picked up posters the day before. I had a small purse, some food (we were promised lunch and dinner, but allergies mean never assuming what’s served will be safe) and snazzy new masks from my oldest and youngest daughters.

The oldest had given me an N-95 that one of her Chinese friends had sent her; the youngest sewed a cloth one to go over it so I could re-use the N-95.  All three offspring were beside themselves that I’d left the house to spend the day in the company of many people. (I was the recipient of many scolding texts during the day containing variations on the theme of being smart about staying safe.)

My ballot counting finery

“AMY!”

Brandie’s ballot-counting finery

“BRANDIE!” 

Our reunion was everything a reunion should be, with joyful screeches standing in for warm hugs. We fell into conversation, walking toward the line together, where we remained for the next three hours. 

The three-hour line

The holdup, we found out about 35 minutes in, was that everyone had to have their temperatures taken before being allowed upstairs. Once we got inside and saw that two nurses with oral thermometers were attending to hundreds of us, the wait made more sense. (And it’s easy to throw shade and point fingers regarding poor planning and inefficiency But bear in mind that election officials were trying to manage a whole host of unprecedented and unplanned-for realities. On the upside, though, one of my snarky tweets while standing in line made Buzzfeed.) 

Once upstairs, we signed in and were issued badges (stick-on name tags), gloves and pens. After a short wait, we were shown to a table. Another worker brought us a basket containing ballots and paperwork, and we were off. 

We all sat at tables in pairs, one of us checking to make sure the ballot was witnessed, the other making sure the voter was on the list and the ballot recorded as being received.

The ballots were run through the machines, but not counted.

We finished one ward, went to lunch, came back, got another, bigger ward to count, then went to dinner. By the end of the day, we were told, we had counted upwards of 62,000 ballots, more than had ever been processed in a single day. 

Between rounds of counting, we moved around the huge room, visiting with other unoccupied counters – a lot of library people, some community members and workers from other city departments. Everyone was mindful about maintaining a space cushion, but Ballot Counting Day was heavily weighted toward the social part of social distancing, and not just because I was seeing and talking in real time to so many people I knew and liked. 

As angry as I’d been, and am still, getting to see and physically handle actual ballots from real voters gave me a sense of hope. The people who tried to suppress the black vote did not prevail. I know my city, and I know my neighborhoods. We counted votes, and lots of those votes were from black people. 

So yes, I am angry about the number of people who were endangered by voting in person. I am angry about the number of pollworkers, my manager among them, who put their lives at risk to spend 14 hours on Tuesday making sure every voter in line got to cast a ballot. And I’m angry about voters like my mother-in-law and my 90-year-old cousin who were disenfranchised because they chose not to vote in person (cousin) and/or didn’t get (m-i-l) the absentee ballots they requested or were unable to return them in time. 

There were more ballots to count on Wednesday and Thursday. People came back to count them. I didn’t, because of Passover. I wanted to make a Seder for Sweetheart and I, one that was as special as the one I would have made had it been the company meal I’d imagined. 

Which I did. And when we poured out drops of wine to represent each plague, we poured out extra drops for Vos, Fitzgerald and the Supreme Court judges. 

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