Inside a small-town polling place for an entire Super Tuesday

It’s one of those scenes most everyone takes for granted but shouldn’t — a makeshift polling station set up for the day inside a school gym, a neighbor’s garage, fire station, veteran’s club or, in this case, a church activity center.

You walk in, wait briefly, sign the book, take a ballot to a fold-up cardboard voting booth, slip it in the box and be gone, duty done. And sacred privilege exercised. No voter intimidation.

I’ve voted in pretty much every election since 1964, when the awe of that first moment prompted private tears in the booth. And I’ve spent more than my share of hours standing 100 feet away accosting voters for quotes on their choices.

But I was curious about the inner workings, as a reporter who’s covered politics one way or another since working the riotous 1968 Democratic National Convention across the street from the natural perfume of the Chicago stockyards in August.

So, this Super Tuesday I volunteered to actually work inside a tiny polling station in the church activity center of a Southern California mountain community with around 720 registered voters.

It was a fun day, actually. Inspiring at times. And a very long one, 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., including set-up and take-down. There were five of us, three women, two men, all qualified for Senior discounts. By day’s end, we were pretty good friends and cracking jokes from the morning.

The first voter arrived early because she had a 60-mile commute to a hospital ICU.  At 7 a.m. sharp she and all of us were asked to witness that the ballot box was empty before it was locked for the day. During the day we had four dogs, three wheelchairs and not one user of the expensive handicapped voting machine. Three people arrived to vote wearing rubber gloves.

My job was not exactly strenuous — point voters to an open booth, remind them to fill in the circle completely, reclaim their pens, steer their ballots into the slot without touching the paper, thank them and hand out “I Voted” stickers, which were surprisingly popular.

Perhaps a dozen parents brought their children to witness the important event. So, of course, each youngster got a sticker as Official Practice Voters. (So did the dogs, but don’t tell anyone.)

It was quintessential small town and casual — a lot of denim, boots and flannel. Poll workers knew most voters. They chatted. A large tree recently fell, destroying Mel’s brand-new trailer. And they bantered.

“I’m a Republican,” bellowed Randy, the plumber. “Can I vote here?”

“Not if you’re a plumber!”

In the first hour we had seven voters, two taking Republican ballots. This being California, the primary ballot system is hopelessly complicated with a half-dozen different primary ballots for various parties but many sought to cross-over to a  Democratic ballot with more candidates.

By mid-morning we were up to 44. By lunch, 63. The longest line was five. Two local individuals donated breakfasts, lunches and dinners. By 2 p.m., it was 110, plus a multitude of mail-in ballots hand-delivered because, they said, the mail can’t be trusted.

“I’m a Republican,” said one man, “but I register independent because the IRS investigates Republicans.”

Beverly said she had not missed one election once since 1961. The day’s oldest voter was 94, cast his first ballot for Franklin Roosevelt and helped engineer the triggering mechanism on the first atom bomb.

We held their canes while some voted. An elderly Oriental woman sent a son back to fetch her sticker. Before leaving, maybe two dozen voters announced to all the poll workers, “Thank you for your service.” One woman reappeared 10 minutes after voting to return the ballpoint pen she’d walked off with.

One suspicious man demanded to know why his ballot did not contain the names of Nancy Pelosi, whose district is some 300 miles away, and Chuck Schumer, a New York senator.

Anyone inside by closing time gets to vote. The last voter finished his ballot at 8:09.

The men dismantled tables, booths and signs for the next morning’s Bible study while the women counted the actual number of ballots, not the results. The papers were soon picked up for transport to the county seat for official tabulating. Results: 337 voters, 210 in-person and 127 mail-in envelopes.

Did I mention it was a very long day?