Poll monitor observes day in the life of a small town

Issue January/February 2017 By Ken Bresler

When GPS instructs you to stay on your current route for the next 91 miles, you know you're traveling far from home. I drove for more than three hours from a western suburb of Boston into the battleground state of New Hampshire on the night before the November election, past four "Moose Crossing" signs and one "Brake for Moose" sign, to stay with my host in Coos County. (That's two syllables, by the way, "Co-os.") And soon after the sun peeked past the mountain and glinted off the frosty farm fields below it, I was on my way to monitor the polls, as a lawyer recently trained in voter protection, in Northumberland, New Hampshire. Northumberland is also called Groveton. (I could explain why the two names are nearly synonymous, but it gets complicated.) The three uniformed police officers who voted that day wore "Northumberland" patches, but the 80-year-old voter who graduated high school in June 2016, to set an example for her children and grandchildren, received her diploma from Groveton High School.

When GPS instructs you to stay on your current route for the next 91 miles, you know you're traveling far from home. I drove for more than three hours from a western suburb of Boston into the battleground state of New Hampshire on the night before the November election, past four "Moose Crossing" signs and one "Brake for Moose" sign, to stay with my host in Coos County. (That's two syllables, by the way, "Co-os.") And soon after the sun peeked past the mountain and glinted off the frosty farm fields below it, I was on my way to monitor the polls, as a lawyer recently trained in voter protection, in Northumberland, New Hampshire. Northumberland is also called Groveton. (I could explain why the two names are nearly synonymous, but it gets complicated.) The three uniformed police officers who voted that day wore "Northumberland" patches, but the 80-year-old voter who graduated high school in June 2016, to set an example for her children and grandchildren, received her diploma from Groveton High School.
Presiding over the vote was the mayor, Stevie. Well, he's not really the mayor (Northumberland doesn't have one) and he wasn't really presiding. Stevie has his challenges in life. He walks around and visits with people in town during the day. He always seems to secure a ride to and from his home in the next town, about 10 miles away. When he turned 60 recently, the town threw him a parade. Stevie sat with election officials at the table where voters checked out after filling in their ballots.
Actually presiding over the voting was the town moderator (an elected part-time position), Keith Young. Keith would prefer not to be the moderator, but the voters don't listen. He has been elected three times by write-in votes, and unlike General William Tecumseh Sherman, who said that if elected president he would not serve, Keith serves.
Holding an election in a small town can have its hitches, Keith explained. Voters mind being asked for their identification by people who have known them for years, decades ("Hi, Gorgeous," a voter greeted an election official), but officials are required to ask. And voters sometimes slow down lines by asking election officials, who wear more than one hat, about town matters, especially when the town office is closed for Election Day. Sending voters on their way to the ballot box were Min, the town clerk and tax collector; and Elaine, the deputy town clerk, assessing clerk and secretary to the planning and zoning board. Voters with and without questions about local affairs stopped to chat.
Before Stevie, the mayor, left at midday, he was joined by Jeffrey, a young man with his own challenges. Keith swore in Jeffrey as an election official. Other officials applauded. One took a photo. Jeffrey became the operator of the electric pencil sharpener near Min and Elaine, an important job on Election Day.
Voters marked their paper ballots with pencils that the town provided, although some brought pens to the polls to make sure that their votes couldn't be erased. The ballots had bubbles to fill in, even though there were no optical scanners, but Xs and checkmarks and circles around the bubbles counted too. Yes, people still vote with checkmarks. I saw the ballots when they were counted that night.
Voters handed their ballots to Keith, who placed them in a wooden ballot box, roughly the size of a mini-refrigerator. Many voters wanted to insert the ballots themselves, but Keith was required to check the thickness to make sure that only one ballot was going in at a time.
Before they voted, Keith's in-laws handed his 1-year-old daughter to him. She wore pink socks with white hearts. He held her with one hand and accepted ballots with his other.
At the entrance, election officials, including Barb and Nancy, checked identifications and handed out ballots. Nancy is the mother of Min, who was across the room at the check-out table.
"Bye, Poops," a departing voter called out, using Nancy's nickname.
"Love you," Nancy called back.
Barb, who looks too young to be a grandmother, let alone a great-grandmother, held her great-granddaughter, 3 months old, while her granddaughter voted. Her grandson later came in to register and vote for the first time. (New Hampshire has Election-Day registration.) She's a retired kindergarten teacher. Among the dozens, if not hundreds, of her former students at the polls that day was Keith, the moderator.
When the polls opened at 8:00 a.m., the town had 1,222 voters. An even 100 people registered to vote that day. By the time that polls closed at 7:00 p.m., 1,024 people had voted, in person and absentee, a 77 percent turnout. Once or twice, voters occupied all 10 of the voting booths, shielded by red, white and blue curtains. Keith barely had time during lulls to check emails from the insurance agency that he owns.
When a high school student came to register, Keith joked that for identification, he could use the Groveton Eagles basketball warmup jacket with his name on the back. The student voted with his mother, grandfather and great-grandmother, who, at almost 97, was born in 1920, the year that American women first won the national right to vote. Then they posed for a photograph of four generations of voters. The student came back to count paper ballots that night for hours, one of three members of the high school's honor society to do so.
Two women arrived at the polling place, dressed in white, to honor the 20th century suffragists who marched in white. Their ages could have made them mother and daughter. The younger one registered to vote and said that when the other woman had told her about the suffragists, she thought it would be cool to dress in white and vote for whom she hoped would be the first woman president. They were not mother and daughter, but mental health counselor and client. The client had asked her counselor to drive her to vote.
In mid-afternoon, a voter arrived, dressed in her work uniform with her employer's name on it. An election official asked, "They let you out early?"
"Shhh," said the voter.
Another voter said, "Just got out of the woods." An election official asked what she had been doing. "Haulin' and splittin'," she said.
Countless voters wore hunting-camouflage jackets, hats and other clothing. Many of their hats identified them as proud Vietnam veterans. Four voters breathed from oxygen tanks that they carried or wheeled.
After dark, Min delivered ballots to two voters who were too sick to enter the polling place, as New Hampshire law allows election officials to do. On the way to the parking lot, she told a man: Your mother texted me to make sure you vote. She handed the ballots to the voters and said, "I'd give you a hug, but you're sick." She spoke to a passing man: Your mother-in-law wants to know if you've voted. (His mother-in-law is Elaine, who sat next to Min at the check-out table.) She collected the completed ballots, lingered as long as she could as one voter talked with fear in her voice about her health, told the voter to reach her any time and returned to the polling place.
The polling place used to be the social hall of the Moose Lodge. Now it belongs to the town. The rest of the building is the police station. Step outside the polling place and you can see the mountains, including Percy Peaks, and a train station that closed after the paper mill did in 2008. The mill building is gone and outside the polling place, heavy equipment was preparing the site for NCR, a Vermont company that drew 300 job applications.
My cell phone's calling function didn't work inside, although texting sometimes worked if I leaned the cell phone against the window pane. The website that I was supposed to use to report any voting problems, length of lines and other information - I couldn't get it to work. I got one email from the campaign before that function quit.
Which campaign sent me to Northumberland? You can guess, but it doesn't matter. The lesson I pass on is not to forget the human side of lawyering. You were a person before you were a lawyer. When real life unexpectedly flows into your legal life, pay attention.
Stevie is the mayor of Northumberland, and I was an honorary citizen for a day. The children in the day care center across the parking lot from the polling place delivered thank-you notes to the election officials for all their hard work. A boy handed one to me too. Barb brought her great-granddaughter across the room for me to meet because I was a newcomer being welcomed into the community.
When I left Northumberland after 14 hours, the few election officials still in the polling place were finishing counting the ballots by hand. They told me to come back in four years, drive home safely and watch out for the moose.
Ken Bresler is, among other things, the principal of ClearWriting.com; a legal writing coach; the author of Constitutional Law for Criminal Justice Professionals and Students (Charles C. Thomas Publishers 2014); and the compiler of Mark Twain vs. Lawyers, Lawmakers, and Lawbreakers: Humorous Observations (William S. Hein & Co. 2014).When GPS instructs you to stay on your current route for the next 91 miles, you know you're traveling far from home. I drove for more than three hours from a western suburb of Boston into the battleground state of New Hampshire on the night before the November election, past four "Moose Crossing" signs and one "Brake for Moose" sign, to stay with my host in Coos County. (That's two syllables, by the way, "Co-os.") And soon after the sun peeked past the mountain and glinted off the frosty farm fields below it, I was on my way to monitor the polls, as a lawyer recently trained in voter protection, in Northumberland, New Hampshire. Northumberland is also called Groveton. (I could explain why the two names are nearly synonymous, but it gets complicated.) The three uniformed police officers who voted that day wore "Northumberland" patches, but the 80-year-old voter who graduated high school in June 2016, to set an example for her children and grandchildren, received her diploma from Groveton High School.

Presiding over the vote was the mayor, Stevie. Well, he's not really the mayor (Northumberland doesn't have one) and he wasn't really presiding. Stevie has his challenges in life. He walks around and visits with people in town during the day. He always seems to secure a ride to and from his home in the next town, about 10 miles away. When he turned 60 recently, the town threw him a parade. Stevie sat with election officials at the table where voters checked out after filling in their ballots.

Actually presiding over the voting was the town moderator (an elected part-time position), Keith Young. Keith would prefer not to be the moderator, but the voters don't listen. He has been elected three times by write-in votes, and unlike General William Tecumseh Sherman, who said that if elected president he would not serve, Keith serves.

Holding an election in a small town can have its hitches, Keith explained. Voters mind being asked for their identification by people who have known them for years, decades ("Hi, Gorgeous," a voter greeted an election official), but officials are required to ask. And voters sometimes slow down lines by asking election officials, who wear more than one hat, about town matters, especially when the town office is closed for Election Day. Sending voters on their way to the ballot box were Min, the town clerk and tax collector; and Elaine, the deputy town clerk, assessing clerk and secretary to the planning and zoning board. Voters with and without questions about local affairs stopped to chat.

Before Stevie, the mayor, left at midday, he was joined by Jeffrey, a young man with his own challenges. Keith swore in Jeffrey as an election official. Other officials applauded. One took a photo. Jeffrey became the operator of the electric pencil sharpener near Min and Elaine, an important job on Election Day.

Voters marked their paper ballots with pencils that the town provided, although some brought pens to the polls to make sure that their votes couldn't be erased. The ballots had bubbles to fill in, even though there were no optical scanners, but Xs and checkmarks and circles around the bubbles counted too. Yes, people still vote with checkmarks. I saw the ballots when they were counted that night.

Voters handed their ballots to Keith, who placed them in a wooden ballot box, roughly the size of a mini-refrigerator. Many voters wanted to insert the ballots themselves, but Keith was required to check the thickness to make sure that only one ballot was going in at a time.

Before they voted, Keith's in-laws handed his 1-year-old daughter to him. She wore pink socks with white hearts. He held her with one hand and accepted ballots with his other.

At the entrance, election officials, including Barb and Nancy, checked identifications and handed out ballots. Nancy is the mother of Min, who was across the room at the check-out table.

"Bye, Poops," a departing voter called out, using Nancy's nickname.

"Love you," Nancy called back.

Barb, who looks too young to be a grandmother, let alone a great-grandmother, held her great-granddaughter, 3 months old, while her granddaughter voted. Her grandson later came in to register and vote for the first time. (New Hampshire has Election-Day registration.) She's a retired kindergarten teacher. Among the dozens, if not hundreds, of her former students at the polls that day was Keith, the moderator.

When the polls opened at 8:00 a.m., the town had 1,222 voters. An even 100 people registered to vote that day. By the time that polls closed at 7:00 p.m., 1,024 people had voted, in person and absentee, a 77 percent turnout. Once or twice, voters occupied all 10 of the voting booths, shielded by red, white and blue curtains. Keith barely had time during lulls to check emails from the insurance agency that he owns.

When a high school student came to register, Keith joked that for identification, he could use the Groveton Eagles basketball warmup jacket with his name on the back. The student voted with his mother, grandfather and great-grandmother, who, at almost 97, was born in 1920, the year that American women first won the national right to vote. Then they posed for a photograph of four generations of voters. The student came back to count paper ballots that night for hours, one of three members of the high school's honor society to do so.

Two women arrived at the polling place, dressed in white, to honor the 20th century suffragists who marched in white. Their ages could have made them mother and daughter. The younger one registered to vote and said that when the other woman had told her about the suffragists, she thought it would be cool to dress in white and vote for whom she hoped would be the first woman president. They were not mother and daughter, but mental health counselor and client. The client had asked her counselor to drive her to vote.

In mid-afternoon, a voter arrived, dressed in her work uniform with her employer's name on it. An election official asked, "They let you out early?"

"Shhh," said the voter.

Another voter said, "Just got out of the woods." An election official asked what she had been doing. "Haulin' and splittin'," she said.

Countless voters wore hunting-camouflage jackets, hats and other clothing. Many of their hats identified them as proud Vietnam veterans. Four voters breathed from oxygen tanks that they carried or wheeled.

After dark, Min delivered ballots to two voters who were too sick to enter the polling place, as New Hampshire law allows election officials to do. On the way to the parking lot, she told a man: Your mother texted me to make sure you vote. She handed the ballots to the voters and said, "I'd give you a hug, but you're sick." She spoke to a passing man: Your mother-in-law wants to know if you've voted. (His mother-in-law is Elaine, who sat next to Min at the check-out table.) She collected the completed ballots, lingered as long as she could as one voter talked with fear in her voice about her health, told the voter to reach her any time and returned to the polling place.

The polling place used to be the social hall of the Moose Lodge. Now it belongs to the town. The rest of the building is the police station. Step outside the polling place and you can see the mountains, including Percy Peaks, and a train station that closed after the paper mill did in 2008. The mill building is gone and outside the polling place, heavy equipment was preparing the site for NCR, a Vermont company that drew 300 job applications.

My cell phone's calling function didn't work inside, although texting sometimes worked if I leaned the cell phone against the window pane. The website that I was supposed to use to report any voting problems, length of lines and other information - I couldn't get it to work. I got one email from the campaign before that function quit.

Which campaign sent me to Northumberland? You can guess, but it doesn't matter. The lesson I pass on is not to forget the human side of lawyering. You were a person before you were a lawyer. When real life unexpectedly flows into your legal life, pay attention.

Stevie is the mayor of Northumberland, and I was an honorary citizen for a day. The children in the day care center across the parking lot from the polling place delivered thank-you notes to the election officials for all their hard work. A boy handed one to me too. Barb brought her great-granddaughter across the room for me to meet because I was a newcomer being welcomed into the community.

When I left Northumberland after 14 hours, the few election officials still in the polling place were finishing counting the ballots by hand. They told me to come back in four years, drive home safely and watch out for the moose.

Ken Bresler is, among other things, the principal of ClearWriting.com; a legal writing coach; the author of Constitutional Law for Criminal Justice Professionals and Students (Charles C. Thomas Publishers 2014); and the compiler of Mark Twain vs. Lawyers, Lawmakers, and Lawbreakers: Humorous Observations (William S. Hein & Co. 2014).

 

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