The past year has been less of a roller coaster ride than a grey fugue the country stumbled through, like a blind man negotiating a highway in the wrong direction.
At the end of the year, after battling a plague and an economic meltdown, terrible uncertainty and a horrific body count, came the event billed as seismic and life altering – the Presidential election.
The American public was entrusted with the task of choosing their next leader, someone who would lead the way out of the fugue and escort the blinded country safely across that killer highway to the right side. The build up to the election of 2020 felt cataclysmic: millions of us voted, according to our convictions, which were the strongest they’ve ever been.
2020 has been the year, when voting felt like you were a contestant in a gameshow, where you had to choose between two doors – behind the right door was the way out to safety and bliss. Make the wrong choice and a trapdoor opens and deposits you into a dark, unending hell. No matter who you supported, the wrong door, according to your beliefs, was a hell trap.
Because of how important I felt this election year was, I volunteered to be an election officer.
After all the votes were counted and the theatrics over election fraud began, it occurred to me that my experience in my official capacity as an election officer gave me a special, grassroots insight into the process.
The process was as clean and flawless as a new born baby.
It began with my online application. I was then required to fill in an application in person at our local government center building. My ID was checked multiple times and cross checked with what I filled into different forms. I was assigned a precinct close to my home, in my daughter’s old elementary school, and told to report at 5:00 am on election day. I was also required to watch a two-hour training video, since in-person training in the middle of COVID-19 was out of the question.
On Nov 3, at 5:00 am, before the birds began to chirp, we gathered in what was the school gym. Our chief was already there, and the ballot machines stood bulkily in a corner. They required a special procedure to be opened and two of us were assigned to open and activate them. A poll watcher was present and there were at least seven other election officers milling around, prepping the tables and activating the poll pads.
To try to stuff those machines with fraudulent ballots would be the equivalent of performing a naked tap dance in a kindergarten classroom and hope no one would notice.
The polls opened at 6:00 am and voting public began to line up at 5:30, spilling out the door into the chill of the morning. There was a festive spirit in the air – people were eager to cast their ballot and make their tiny mark on history.
What really sold me on the experience of being an election officer was how democratic it was.
There was no bureaucratic hierarchy with the chief barking out orders. We were volunteers -many of the officers were my neighbors. We were ordinary citizens entrusted with making sure the voting process was fair and accurate.
The momentous, historic nature of the task was not lost on us. We joked about how we would tell our grandkids we worked the polls in the divisive, fateful, 2020 election. All of us took turns at sanitizing the tables after people voted, monitoring the lines, handing out ballots, checking in voters and handling the machines.
When I was checking in voters I realized many were neighbors I had never met. I also gleaned after chatting with my fellow election officers, that some had political leanings which were the antithesis of mine.
However, whatever our political bent, we were there to work at making our democracy a success – our small precinct was a study in how people with political points of view which are about as compatible as a spark in an ammunition dump, are capable of cooperation, in a sane and sensible fashion to further a common good – the right to a free and fair election.
After months of watching the meltdowns, vitriol and extremism on television, it was a relief to realize that the average American is someone like me, a regular person just trying to do what is right and leave a better legacy for our children.
At the end of the day after the polls closed, we tallied the ballots with the machine count, and sealed them in boxes which would be sent to the county clerk. There was no scope for tampering: all the officers were present and had to sign off on the final count before the boxes were sealed.
It was as transparent a process as could possibly be.
I know for sure I’m going to volunteer for every election, going forward. Understanding how the system worked made me realize how important volunteers, the ordinary, everyday people, with no axe to grind and no political connections, are essential to ensuring that this grassroots foundation of democracy is preserved.
I discovered that America’s democracy is much less fragile than it appears to be.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents