It must have been a great joke the first time around; unfortunately the first time around was Election Night of 1860: "Okay, everybody," the cops would shout, "We have to close so that the Irish [or the English, or the Chinese], can vote!" Then everybody would leave except the cops and the paid poll workers and the election observers and a few reporters, and then they’d turn some knobs on the machine and the count for each district would come up and then we all knew who’d won because somebody would call out something like, “Weinstein 231,” “Gonzalez, 127,” and the reporters ran out to report who’d won and everybody else went home. The problem was, you never actually saw the numbers because your view was blocked by a couple of burly cops and a few surly poll workers and besides, we’d all been up since 5:00 am and it did seem rude to ask to actually see those numbers and slow things down when everybody just wanted to go home.
Funny. It’s taken the New York Times a hundred fifty years or so to figure this out. The reason they figured it at all is that the counts in any number of New York City precincts were so lopsided in last month’s primary they strained even the credulity of the New York Times. We’re talking about a machine in Harlem that didn’t register a single vote for the black candidate. “I was watching like a hawk,” said one Obama poll watcher. I think the Times misquoted him: he was probably looking up at Pale Male and the quote should have read, “I was watching, like, a hawk.”
That joke (I mean the one about vote counts), was stale over thirty-five years ago, which is about the time I started working the elections in New York City. (I gave up after poll watching for the Greens in the mid-nineties: I figured any party that wanted to lose so badly didn’t need the taxpayers' help to do so).
This is the way the system runs, or ran, since I’m told the old machines are going to be replaced, though I’m sure they’ll find other ways to make our jobs entertaining. First of all, poll workers (the folks who sign folks in), are paid by the Board of Elections, and if you’ve moved or just signed up to work you’re usually assigned a district by the Board. The best, of course, is getting a job at an easy walking distance from your home, in which case it’s a patronage job assigned by your local ward heeler. This works very well for all involved because at least one Republican and one registered Democrat must work the tables, and if it weren’t for that there wouldn’t be any Republicans left in New York City. It works beautifully for the Greens and such, because it’s usually impossible for any upstart party to get enough poll watchers to turn up to keep the election honest: failure is assured.
It works nicely, also, because your local ward heeler’s not above dropping gentle hints about your job. I once was assigned to a machine inside an old-age home because I spoke Yiddish and the boss figured the elderly might need reminding when it was time to pull the lever, and maybe a little help as well – they didn’t. And then there was the time when Jesse Jackson ran, and for lunch the local clubhouse sent us all some oreos. You can’t make this stuff up.
Not to worry, though, Jerome Koenig, Obama’s eagle-legal point man claims there was nothing underhanded this time: “They [only] steal votes for elections...where people have a personal stake.” Personal stake? What personal stake? Did this man even look at the ballot? In New York State you vote, not only for the candidate but for the list of delegates, and usually there’s one or two among those delegates you may know very well – in fact you’ve talked to him the day before, when he handed out the job.
You know what, Mr. Koenig? This is New York. You lose points for being stupid. The tally stands.
[2/16/2008; revised 9/20/2012]
Ward heelers Anonymous