Performing patriotic duty: voting, watching, counting

Public: In a ritual of responsibility, voters at one school help decide who will be our next leaders

At the polls

March 08, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

They arrived in luxury cars or beat-up sedans, wore blue jeans or dresses, toted children or spouses and streamed into the school cafeteria to pay homage to democracy, right there in front of the ice cream freezer.

"It's everybody's duty to vote," said Peggy Sue Conrad, as she left New Windsor Middle School in Carroll County and strolled into the sunshine. "You don't vote, then I don't want to hear you complaining."

The particulars of the venue varied -- a firetruck or a set of bleachers took the place of the freezer at other polling stations -- but residents of every city, town and rural district in Maryland performed the same ritual yesterday. They got up earlier than usual, or sacrificed part of their lunch break, or took a detour on the way home, to cast a ballot.

They made decisions that will influence who is entrusted with power, power to decide whether the United States goes to war or whether next year's schoolteachers will receive pay raises.

Voters at New Windsor Middle School said they cared most about who would be the next president. Or who would serve on their school board. They were nominating candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, picking judges and choosing delegates to national party conventions.

The voters seemed bound by an appreciation for the minutes spent marking a ballot with a felt-tip pen. Each checkmark put some candidate that much closer to a place on the ballot in November, and put another candidate farther away. But they painted the experience, too, as carrying out a civic duty, taking part in a process that is purely American.

"It gives you the peaceful satisfaction that you spoke your piece," said Wayne Trout, 32, who never voted until four years ago, when his wife persuaded him to do it. "The first time I voted, I said, `Hey, I did something.' My man might not win, but I did something."

Centuries-old system

The mechanics of the system -- paper and pen -- were modeled on what the nation's Founding Fathers envisioned, and an approximation of how the system has worked for centuries.

"Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives?" James Madison wrote in "The Federalist Papers." "Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States."

Part of that great, diverse body began roaming New Windsor Middle at 7 a.m., when polls opened. They entered a place protected from anything that might sully or disturb what is meant to be a quiet, contemplative process.

The election judges -- hired hands paid $125 for the day by the county election board -- greeted people with pleasantries. There were 10 polling booths, usually far fewer voters in the room at a time, and 14 election judges.

Most of them retired, most having grown up in town, the judges knew many of the voters who strolled in, and chatted about the next dinner theater at the VFW or spouse night at the Lions Club.

Voters brought finished ballots to a counting machine that was dutifully staffed by Rauland H. Roop. He's been an election judge for 52 years. He was around when the town voted in a wash house in a backyard. For 37 of the 52 years, the county sheriff deputized Roop every primary and Election Day to make sure there was no mischief at the polling place.

"Some countries today are not able to vote," noted Roop, 73, seated in a wheelchair the VFW lent him after foot surgery. So it seemed a sacred day, one deserving the utmost protection.

`Just in case'

At day's end, counting machines spit out three tapes -- they looked like alarmingly long grocery receipts -- that displayed tallies for the election district. The election judges planned to drive a copy to the county board of elections office, and also to send the board a copy by mail and tape the last copy to the door of the polling place.

"Just in case something would happen to us going in," explained chief election judge Tom Tracey.

Making sure all results get to the elections board is that important.

Alexis de Tocqueville, upon visiting the United States from France in the 1830s, wrote, "If there is one country in the world where one can hope to appreciate the true value of the dogma of the sovereignty of the people, study its application to the business of society, and judge both its dangers and its advantages, that country is America."

P. R. Brown, a 65-year-old New Windsor resident who packs eggs and drives a truck part time, had a simpler take yesterday.

"You want to help keep this country going," he said. "You want to try and get the best man in there."

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