From the Other Side of the Mechitza

I have never been invited to a wedding where I couldn’t pick the bride out of a line-up. Despite the glow of joy and expertly applied makeup, it’s easy to recognize a friend’s face. But when you don’t know the bride to start with, it’s hard to pick them out. Thankfully, that’s why brides wear a white gown and veil.

Attending a frum wedding as a friend of the groom is a different experience. There’s no pressure to line up to greet the bride. There’s no concern over being ready to dance before the first beat of the drum. All you have to do, as a woman, is congratulate his mom and make sure not to step on the bride’s hem.

That, I can do.

Election Season Reading: #tbt

Four years ago, I was sitting in a church in Brooklyn, listening to someone drone on about how to be a poll worker. In honor of Throwback Thursday, here’s what I wrote on the Terrifying Tuesday – election day – that followed:

Working the polls wasn’t what I thought it would be. I thought I would sit, greet my people as they ought to be greeted, hand them their ballots, and go back to my crochet or conversation. It wasn’t like that. It was trial by fire.

From down the block, I picked out the polling station by the line of people lined up down the street. That line lend me around the school building, through the front door, past the PTA coffee&tea table, down the hallway, and into the gym. Inside the gym were – I later learned – six districts, each with its own table and a heart-sickeningly long line.
My fellow stand-by worker – how I came to be a stand-by poll worker is a story for another time – and I found our Poll Coordinator, Randy. Randy, sunglasses propped on his head, papers in hand, and bold red shirt, was barely holding on to control. Needed everywhere at once, Randy greeted us as generously as he could – he gave us two seconds of his time. An efficient man, who believed in delegation, he told us each to man one of the two most overwhelmed tables. I took the one with a single person and an extra chair. As I sat, the harassed poll worker who had been on her own turned in Randy’s direction and demanded, “Does she know what she’s doing? I CANNOT have anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.” Randy, without knowing my name, muchtheless the fact that I’d been trained a day earlier in an abridged session that skipped much of the usual content, said, with authority, “She’s a pro.” It seemed safer not to contradict him.
My fellow poll worker told me the tables’s Electoral District, Assembly District, and which number voter and ballot we were on. I filled in the voter cards, she checked in the people. Fifteen minutes later, she’d judged me capable and left me alone at the table as she took her first bathroom break after four exhausting hours on the job. It was 9AM.
The voters were a delight, if utterly baffled by the lack of levered machines and excess of paper ballots. Apparently, voters hide under a rock between presidential general elections. Most were happy to be there, if utterly confused on how to vote, and some were flat-out thrilled that they could have a ballot of their own. Despite the wait in line – over 30 minutes when I arrived – they were courteous and generally kind.
The only people who had trouble were the affidavit voters, and that blame falls squarely on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The day before the election Gov. Cuomo announced that anyone could vote affidavit [absentee voting from a polling site] – but he didn’t discuss this with the people running the election. In the normal course of events, your vote cannot be counted unless you go to your polling station. What Cuomo tried to say was that if you cannot reach your polling station because your home, neighborhood, or polling station has been devastated by Hurricane Sandy, you can vote anywhere via affidavit. Practically, it meant that people showed up because they were in the neighborhood already and didn’t feel like going to their polling station later. One person, when I explained that she’d have to go home to Long Island to vote, even though she attends college in the neighborhood, demanded a further explanation. When I clarified that only people affected by the hurricane could vote by affidavit, she wanted to know why she couldn’t just claim to be a hurricane victim for voting purposes. It was the first time* I’ve ever had to tell someone “I cannot advise you to commit a federal crime.”
That was bad enough, but then we began to run low on affidavit ballots. Randy, the voice of authority, called the Board of Election. We were promised ballots; none came. We ran out of ballots; none came. The clock clicked closer to the end of the polling day, and nervous voters – some of whom has been sent to us by other polling sites without ballots – sat around. Then one of those earnest voters came over to my district table and demanded to know why the woman next to us was doling out an affidavit ballot to her daughter when she wouldn’t give him one. Randy, who had kept his cool with angry voters and a recalcitrant Board of Elections during that harrowing day, swooped down on the table live an avenging angel. He seized all of the poll worker’s affidavit ballots and demanded to know who she was saving them for. She claimed that she had just happened to find them at that moment. Randy glared in silence. She said she hadn’t realize no one else had any of them. We had been talking about little else since the polling station had handed out ‘the last one’ over 30 minutes prior.
Randy gave the ballots to those who needed them until they ran out too. He kept a close eye on that poll worker for the rest of the night.
Despite such hiccups, the poll workers were a dedicated and hearty bunch. From 5AM-12AM we worked the polls, making democracy happen. As we closed down the poll, the news came through the wire: Obama wins in preliminary polling. With a shout, Democrat and Republican poll workers embraced. It was a draining day, and it was a beautiful day. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back.
*Not the last.

Where Everybody Knows Me

The hatred to which this election has given voice would have been enough –

The nonsense, the vitriol, the lies  would have been enough –

The negation of civic rights and duties would have been enough –

enough for me to say that this is the most traumatic election in which I’ve voted. But then, it got worse: I went to vote.

I do not live in a swing state. There are no contested races on my ballot. No one protested my right to vote, no one shoved a pamphlet in my face, no one even tried to poll me about my potential vote. No, I faced no threat from people who oppose me, my views, or my right to vote. Instead, I faced the Board of Elections.

As usual on an election day, I voted with multiple districts in one polling station. As usual, I know my poll workers and they know me. I made a beeline to my district’s table and encountered the first  surprise of the day – there was a line. I’ve never had to wait before, but it was great – it gave us compatriots, in our orderly line, a chance to chat. Then, things got back on track. I greeted my poll worker, gave her a bag of candy, and she welcomed me by name. She wondered where I’d been all morning; I explained that I’d tried to come during a lull since I figured it would be busy early on. She smiled in appreciation, telling me that this was busier than the last presidential elections. She handed over my paper ballot, I filled it out in a private booth, was directed to a scanner, and slide in my ballot.

That’s when my problems started. The Board of Elections’ scanner spit out my ballot, insisting it couldn’t read it. The Board of Elections’ poll worker manning the scanners came over and started to inspect my rejected ballot,  candidate by candidate.

“It’s a secret ballot,” I informed him with a glare. He looked at my in surprise and then shoved the ballot at me.

“I was only trying to help,” he said while backing away. “It’s a secret ballot,” he muttered to himself as he left me with my ballot and a machine that had rejected it.

Without any other options, or assistance from the people responsible for ensuring my vote counted, I gave my ballot back to the machine. This time it ate my ballot. A different staffer, a first-time poll worker, decided to fix the problem. First, she shooed me and my questions away. Then she tried prying off the top of the ballot-tray to break into the machine and get my ballot back. Her supervisor caught sight of what was going on and stopped her before she ruined the machine – if a vote scanner is tampered with it shuts down the entire operation. Instead, they called over the poll worker who was trained to deal with this exact issue. She, in turn, gathered a Republican poll worker, Democrat poll worker, and a police officer. With all of them present and watching, she released my ballot and all four of them inspected it. It was interesting enough that a fifth poll worker wandered over and joined them.

“Is there a problem?” I asked. They didn’t notice me.

IS THERE A PROBLEM WITH MY BALLOT?”I asked, this time at a louder volume. The officer looked at me in surprise, and the held up my supposedly secret ballot – no longer a secret to those five.

“Is this yours?” She asked. None of them had realized that the person whose ballot they were reading was still present and interested in having her vote counted. This wasn’t their fault – but they were ill prepared to handle the situation.

I confirmed it was my ballot. The poll workers sent me back to my beloved district table, told me to tell them to spoil the old ballot and hand me a new one. My trusty poll workers gave me a second ballot without question when I gave her a folder with the original. Again, I filled out my ballot. Again, I approached the scanning machines. But by this time, they knew me. They had me skip the line for the scanner, since I’d already voted – albeit without having my vote counted. They directed me to the formerly jammed machine. I put in my ballot. It spit it back out as unreadable. With a poll worker standing at each shoulder, I wondered out loud if maybe I should try another machine. No, they told me, vote again – here and now. I did. This time, I clocked in as voter #533.

I high-fived my poll workers, and they high-fived me. Because no matter how traumatic the election season is, friends cheer for friends who vote.

UPDATE: The Board of Elections spent the day directing technicians around the city to fix broken machinery.

How Not to Endorse Donald Trump

Donald Trump once asked me if I knew why he was so smart. He said he’s smart because people think he’s smart – he has the best developers from all over the world coming to him with projects, because they knew he can make the biggest and best of their ideas a reality. So he has the ability to take the very best that’s coming from the best, and put his name on it. In the end, it’s not about being smart, it’s about having the integrity not to skip over the best of the best in favor of the promoting your friends. It is recognizing that if you’re going to continue to enjoy this reputation for being smart, you have to work at it and keep it up.

-Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress

How to Endorse Hillary Clinton

Politics has been called the art of the possible. Making consensus, creating such a political work of art, is the best way to describe my role in Hillary Clinton becoming the junior senor from New York, a platform that has put a serous run for the White House within her reach.

…Hillary Clinton was the big draw, and she was good as she always is.

-Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress

He said he wasn’t supposed to tell me, but the problem was determining exactly where I lived. I said, “Judge, there must be something else to this. Take my word for it, I have been very honest with them about where I live, because I have never lived anywhere else.”

…My worry was disrupted near the corn of 132nd and Lenox. There was the usual crew…they turned around, looked at me, and said, almost in unison: “Where the hell have you been and what the hell have you done? The FBI’s been looking for you for over two weeks. We told them we didn’t know who you were, and we knocked on every door on this block to tell these people to tell the FBI that they didn’t know you either!”

…I will never forget knocking on all the doors on my block and saying, “I’m Charlie Rangel, Charlie Wharton’s grandson. I’m not in any trouble; the FBI wants to help me.”

…As far as the FBI is concern, it was then that I realized it’s not nearly as efficient as I’d always assumed.

– Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress