Why I swore never to volunteer on Election Day again

A personal tribute to the men and women at the polling stations.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
March 28, 2006 23:43
Polling station

polling station 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Sitting on a filthy, cigarette-butt-strewn patch of floor at Binyenei Ha'uma at 3 a.m. with tears in my eyes, I made a vow to God that if I emerged from this fiasco unscathed, I would spend the rest of my life repenting for my stupidity. Why - I asked myself - hadn't I listened to my friends (all of whom had made plans to vote early, then spend the rest of the day frolicking), when they told me I'd "lost my marbles" for volunteering to work on Election Day?

Elections 2006
In hindsight, the answer escapes me completely. At the time, however, I was truly excited about taking part in the process. Not merely the democratic one, but the actual, technical workings of the system. There were two reasons for my interest. One was ideological. The other had to do with my children. When I became a full-fledged Israeli citizen a couple of years after my arrival in 1977, the first thing I did was become a dues-paying member of Likud. The pride that I felt about belonging to this country, with the right to vote for its leaders, was accompanied by a genuine desire to join the political fray. If I were going to take on the difficult task of separation from the comfort of my family to embark upon what my parents referred to as my "penchant for downward mobility," I most certainly wasn't going to do so halfheartedly. What this meant for someone like me was putting my mouth where my money was, so to speak. By entering the debate, then, I was making a statement. Initially, this statement was expressed more on paper than it was in practice. Other things, like adjusting to my newfound "downward mobility" - and subsequent marriage and motherhood - made Zionism take a temporary back seat to life in the Jewish state. Then, during the late '80s and early '90s, I became as active a party member as a housewife with four little kids could be. That was when the phrase "spare time" was more of a theoretical concept than a tangible commodity. Attending an occasional political gathering, or hosting a parlor meeting, kept me from losing the few "marbles" I had left - those that hadn't rolled away in the playground or gotten misplaced in the diaper pail. In other words, dealing with worldly concerns by conversing with adults on how the country was going down the toilet gave me temporary respite from handling the more mundane - certainly more personally pressing - issue of toilet-training a number of the country's future soldiers. IT IS thus that in 1992, I came to volunteer as a Likud representative for the Central Elections Committee. Having an excuse to take a break from my household while performing a civic mitzva was the perfect "killing-two-birds-with-one-stone" recipe as far as I was concerned. The hors d'oeuvre to this sumptuous meal of freedom was an evening training session - at a hotel, no less, where coffee and cake was served - in preparation for my role as "yoshevet rosh kalfi" (polling booth chairman). This job involved sitting behind a desk at a polling station for a 12-16-hour shift of examining ID cards and crossing out the name of each voter as he or she dropped his or her ballot into the box. With me were two other volunteers, each of us representing a different party, a poll watcher, and a civil servant paid to be the delegate of the CEC. Food was delivered to us separately, each from his or her own party. This was the only time in my life I ever rued not being a socialist, since the Labor Party provided its volunteers with a lunch that far surpassed the airplane-food fare the rest of us had to swallow. As boring a chore as it sounds, it really wasn't so bad. In fact, it was quite fascinating to watch and listen to people in the process of voting. External and internecine strife aside, on Election Day there seems to be an uncharacteristic degree of good cheer in the air. Furthermore, tedium would turn out to be the least of my problems that day. AT 10 P.M., when the booths closed, it was our job to count the votes - mine to make sure everything added up. As instructed during the training session, we locked the door, then placed a bunch of metal spikes on the table - one spike per party, and an additional one for blanks and other "disqualifieds." After that, we opened each of the hundreds of envelopes - one at a time - and held up each individual ballot for all present to see. These we impaled on the appropriate party's spike, marking each on a sheet of paper. The last step was to perform a final count of the contents of each spike and write it down on a special form; compare the overall number of ballots with the overall number of voters whose names we had crossed out; and then put everything in an official CEC carton. This whole process had to be completed by around midnight, when a van would arrive to take me (and one other person) to Binyanei Ha'uma (Jerusalem's Conference Center), where representatives of all the polling stations in the city gathered to hand over their cartons. Primitive, perhaps, but pretty straightforward nevertheless. Unless disaster strikes, that is. Which it did that night, when the numbers didn't add up. Five minutes before the CEC van arrived, after two hours of painstaking second-grade arithmetic, I still had an uneven ratio of voters to ballots. Translation: My entire polling station would be disqualified, making null and void every single vote in the entire neighborhood. This would have been an appropriate moment to jump out of the window, but instead I had no choice but to jump into the van that had come to collect me. The story has a happy ending, of course, otherwise I would be too ashamed to tell it. Another four exhausting hours of counting and recounting later, on that butt-strewn floor at the conference center, I caught the error of my calculations - and my ways - and managed to submit the results of my polling station by deadline. I've obviously tried to banish the memory, since all I can recall today is something about belatedly discovering a group of names I'd skipped, whose inclusion mercifully brought balance to my numbers. Since then, every time I go to vote, I say a little prayer to God for the people examining my ID card.

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