Where I Stand: I miss the election days of my youth

By Carolyn Dowdy

Quincy

Well, a person would have to have been living under a rock for a long time now not to know that 2020 is a general election year. It’s one of those years when we will choose not just a dogcatcher, school board member, or trustee of some sort but a new president. The hoopla has been in full swing for months and has turned into a 3-ring circus. And, compared to the campaign, the election could be a real barn burner. My recent trip to deliver my ballot made me start to think about how much the voting process has changed, and thinking about change always reminds me that I’ve gotten very old.

Back in the day when I was young, Election Day was a family affair and a really big deal in our household. My Aunt Ruth, who lived catty-corner across the street from my mother, father, and me, put things in motion weeks ahead of time by recruiting and training the ladies who would work on the election board with her; and she had to nail down the precinct polling place, which was always the multi-purpose room at my elementary school.

I’m sure some of the other women signed on to discharge what they saw as their civic duty. My mother may have felt that way to some degree, but let’s be honest, she did it for the money. The pay wasn’t much, but we were poor, and a few dollars of mad money to squirrel away for Christmas or splurge on some little frivolity like a new hat was always welcome. My aunt needed the money, too.

As a spinster daughter who hadn’t left home, she had become the caregiver for her elderly parents. After that, Aunt Ruth lived alone on very little in the way of financial resources. But the main motivation for her was an opportunity to get out of the house and be bossy. I think she especially loved giving orders to her little brother and her sister-in-law.

My father’s job was to set up the voting booths, cumbersome structures which were delivered to the polling place by truck from the county seat, along with the ballots, ballot box, a gallon can of midnight oil, and all of the other equipment and supplies needed for the Big Day. Each booth folded up so it could be stacked flat; but, when stood upright and opened, it resembled a phone booth, something else you never see anymore.

The booths were made with wooden frames and enclosed on all four sides with white canvas from the top down to about hip-level. The front panel was a flap that opened so the voter could enter, then close it, and have complete privacy to pick his or her nose or whichever candidates he or she chose. The selection of those public officials was done by marking an X on a ballot with a rubber stamp and tiny inkpad that came in its own little tin box.

The night before Election Day, my mother would lay out my school clothes for the next morning because she would be long gone before my feet ever hit the floor. Across the road, Aunt Ruth was winding up not one but two alarm clocks and putting one of them in a metal washtub because there was just no way in hell she was going to oversleep and be late. Aunt Ruth’s title was “Inspector”, and that meant she was the Grand Poobah In Charge. My mother was always the “Judge.” As such, she was the executive officer, and, if my aunt were to die on the job or go to the potty, Mama would assume command. All of the other workers were, as I recall, “Clerks.”

My father was, in most respects, a dud as a dad, but he would make sure I was decently dressed and had a bowl of Cheerios under my belt before I left the house on Election Day. When I got to school, I would drop in to see my mother, who would whip a brush and my barrettes out of her purse and try to tame my thick hair into something resembling an actual style before the bell rang and I headed to my classroom.

I would usually stop in again at lunchtime because, by then, some kind-hearted voter might have gifted the poll workers with a batch of cookies or a box of candy, and Mama might slip me a chocolate when nobody was looking too closely. After school, I’d pay one more visit and say goodbye, because I knew I wouldn’t see my mom again until the next day. That night, Daddy would warm leftovers or heat something from a can for supper, and I would have to start thinking about going to bed just about the time the pace began to pick up back at the schoolhouse.

After the polls closed, the ladies had to open the box and count the ballots by hand. It wasn’t such a big job for the smaller contests but took a lot more time for the primaries and could be almost an all-nighter for the big, November general elections.

When the votes were tallied, the ballots were placed in large manila envelopes and closed with sealing wax, which didn’t seem waxy at all. It was a stick of something really hard and very orange that liquefied when heat was applied. I knew this because my mother once brought home a leftover piece to show me. There was also a candle provided in the supplies, and this was used to melt the end of the stick and drip puddles of hot wax, which quickly solidified and sealed the envelopes.

The last step was to deliver the ballots to the county courthouse. It might have been 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning by then, and the ladies were exhausted. I’m sure each of them wanted nothing more than to go home at that point. But they needed to make sure the driver stayed awake or wasn’t accosted and robbed en route, so they all piled into someone’s car and raced off as if their hair were on fire. And that is not just a figure of speech. One night, as they were crowded together in close confines and speeding down the road, one of them lit a cigarette and did, in fact, set fire to another’s coiffure.

The next morning, Mama would be home again when I got up. She’d be bleary-eyed and mumbling about needing a nap that afternoon. But I would find a used rubber stamp and an inkpad waiting for me so I could play election. My father still had to go back to the school to knock down the voting booths and stack them for when the county truck came back. And we still had to wait to hear who our new president would be. Things just took a lot longer back then.

I read in an old cookbook about Eleanor Roosevelt’s election night tradition at their Hyde Park, New York, estate. She invited the neighbors in for the evening and served a simple buffet. How gracious, I thought. Now she wouldn’t even have time to get the cake out of the oven before the results would be in and all the suspense was over. The guests would glance at their Smart Phones, holler, “Congratulations, Franklin!” and head for the door.

I suppose there are advantages to the new ways of doing most things, including the manner in which elections are handled. I’m sure the taxpayers are saving money; and, as a taxpayer, I applaud that. But speed and efficiency have sacrificed the old customs and traditions. Sure, voting at your kitchen table means you don’t have to stand in line at a polling place, but it doesn’t seem as important as waiting your turn, signing your name in a book, accepting a ballot from a real person, and entering a privacy booth.

Unless you run into someone when you go out to deliver your ballot, you might not see your friends and neighbors on Election Day. In the town where I grew up, everybody knew everybody else…the voters as well as the workers…and always chatted and caught up on gossip when they met at the polls.

No midnight rides with blazing hair…probably a good thing. No candles and sealing wax? No chocolates for little girls? Well, all in all, I miss the old days and the old ways…the pomp and circumstance. I said things had changed, didn’t I? I didn’t say they had changed for the better.

 

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