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The wheres and what-withs of voting

Stateside With Rosalea

The wheres and what-withs of voting

In this third background piece on the California elections, the topic is polling places and equipment. On Monday, October 7, California's Secretary of State is coming to Alameda County to declare absentee voting open. In California, the Secretary of State is the Chief Elections Officer, having responsibility for administering the provisions of the Election Code. The chief electoral officer at county level is the local election officer or registrar of voters.

Unlike New Zealand, where a county is a rural area, distinct from an urban one, in California a county is the next administrative level down from the state, and may contain several cities - 16 in Alameda's case, some with as small a population as 7,000. (Not all its cities are having elections at this time - Oakland's mayoral race, for example, was included on the March primary ballot.) It is the county election official who organises polling places and trains poll workers.

When he or she can get them. Incredibly, the provision of polling places relies on the availability of people to volunteer their time and - often - a place, like their garage. Since elections take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and the polling places stay open from 7 am until 8 pm, poll workers are looking at giving up a day's pay, and working from 6 am till 9:30 pm for about $80. They also get paid while they are being trained, and trained they all will have to be this year in Alameda County.

The reason Bill Jones, the Secretary of State, is coming here to declare California's absentee voting open is that the county has ditched its chad-creating card punch machines in favour of touchscreen voting machines. The very same type that was used in Florida's primary a month or so ago. AC trialed the machines at some locations last election and is confident that any problems have been ironed out. Fingers crossed.

The City and County of San Francisco is sticking to its optically scanned paper ballots, but will not be implementing until November 2003 the instant run-off voting option for local races that voters approved in March. Partly that's because a couple of months were wasted on a very public - and very San Francisco - battle between the city's elections commission and the elections officer it sacked. The commission said she'd overspent the March budget; she said the commission was racist; newspapers said Tammy Haygood was fighting so hard to keep her job because she didn't want to lose one of the perks that City employees get - health insurance that covers sex-change operations, which Haygood's partner was in the process of having.

Whatever. The fact is that if you can get past the scandal-mongering and the negative ad campaigns and the screes of pages of pros and cons for all the candidates and measures on your ballot paper; if you can get to a polling place on your way to work, and if the poll workers have a list with your name on it, and the line's not too long and you've still got time to do it after the poll worker has figured out what's wrong with the machine - oh! and all this depends on the poll worker having opened up on time in the first place - then you get to exercise your democratic right to vote. All you can then do is cross your fingers that it will actually be counted.

If there is one image that best exemplifies democracy as it has become in the United States it is the image a few weeks ago of the thousands upon thousands of dead salmon in and along the banks of the Klamath River in northern California. Full of energy and enthusiasm, headed for the spawning ground where, every year, they get to remake their society, the salmon were deprived of the means to get there. Way upstream, the water had been diverted to make sustainable what is naturally unsustainable on the neighbouring land - farms.

It is like swimming upstream to be a voter in the United States, yet millions of people put in the effort to appraise the candidates and issues, and hundreds of thousands put in all the work to provide their fellow citizens with the place and means to cast their vote and have it counted. Meanwhile, upstream, the farmers divert the waters to their own ends by gerrymandering district boundaries and paying more attention to lobbyists and consultants than they do to their constituents. Even grassroots campaigning is just a way to launder huge campaign contributions, as a story in the current Columbia Journalism Review reveals:

But, hey! It's play-offs time for baseball so who's interested in politics anyway?

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