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Stateside With Rosalea: An Election Aside

Stateside with Rosalea

Living The American Dream

I know I can be churlish and critical and downright negative about these united States, but I will admit that today, 2 November 2004, the immigrant dream came true for me here. Those San Francisco streets I walked more than two years ago, going door to door, I walked again today to savour the success of my endeavours.

Well, not just to savour my success but also to act as an observer of the first election held in a major US city using ranked-choice (aka instant runoff) voting. Yes, possums, your very own Rosalea, going from precinct to precinct seeing how voting is conducted here in the United States. On a stunningly beautiful sunny day, with the Pacific Ocean at my back, I walked many a mile and learned many a new thing.

For example, how to spot a polling place. Look for the portaloo strategically placed outside the garage where the polling booths have been set up. Most of the polling places I went to were in people's garages, a few were in schools, one was in a columbarium, which is a mausoleum for people's ashes. The homeowners who offered their garages were all so proud and happy to be part of the process; many had specially decorated with balloons and other decorations.

Two polling places were in fire stations, and at one of them the engine was called out to a fire while I was there. Sad to say, there was no shiny brass pole for the firemen to slide down but you can't have everything! At that particular polling place, the optical scanning machine chirruped its error signal at almost every RCV ballot - largely because, I think, the method of making three choices wasn't explained to the voter when they were given their ballots, as it should have been, according to the pollworkers' manual.

That's the kind of thing I was observing, along with the placement of explanatory posters and other materials. If choice voting is to spread across this state and this country--and a lot of cities are keenly watching what happens here in SF this election--then it's important to know what works as far as voter and pollworker education is concerned.

There is no federal department in charge of elections -- states would balk at the very idea -- and the burden of making an election run smoothly falls totally on elections officials (who are oft-times elected rather than appointed) at a local level. The money for elections has to come out of stretched city and county budgets, and there is a limit to how much can be overseen out in the field. Pollworkers are often either very elderly or high school students.

Californian law allows for observers to go into the precincts so long as they don't interfere with the voters or the voting process. And observers--like anyone who is voting--can call in irregularities to the elections department and have the polling place looked at. Not all states allow observers.

Nor do all states have the complexity of ballot that California does. The many direct democracy propositions and measures meant that each voter in the district I observed was given four large ballots to mark up. Voters in San Francisco districts that were not electing supervisors would have gotten only three, but still there was plenty on each ballot to think about.

Some races called for voting for e.g. four people for the school board, while others e.g. the presidential race, called for voting for just one person. I have only admiration for the people I saw -- an admiration I'll gladly extend to all US citizens who voted -- for their dedication to a process that is complex and inconsistent. And they have to do it on a week day!!

One precinct I heard about had 75 voters waiting outside when it opened at 7 am this morning, and just about the entire day there was a line of people waiting for a booth to become free at every voting place I went to. By 5.30 pm, the lines were extending down the street again, as they had in the morning, because voters were coming to the polls on their way home from work.

With the three-hour time difference, projected results were already being broadcast for the East Coast from 4 pm onwards. Another oddity is that they don't stop electioneering here on election day--at one busy intersection in SF after work about 15 people from two or three different campaigns for a seat on the SF Board of Supervisors (Council) were jumping up and down waving campaign signs. And as I walked out of the BART station on my way home, students were standing outside handing out Democratic Party literature.

So. How will the ranked-choice election be perceived? I think that in general it will get a negative press, but it's a beginning. I saw a lot that was hopeful about it getting more widely accepted. On my walks today I went by a sign that pretty much expressed how I feel about this small step towards electoral reform in the United States: The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.

It might take forty years for electoral reform to really take hold here so that people can vote their true choice without being browbeaten into thinking that they have to choose the lesser of two evils. But that's a tree worth waiting for.


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