Whenever I teach, my students take me to school.
This winter I am honored to serve as a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, where I host seminars on government and politics.
Last week IOP student Adam Reynolds brought me his tale of democracy, Chicago style. Reynolds, a reflective and engaging first-year student, is closely watching the Feb. 24 municipal elections.
“All my friends know that I’m big on democracy and strongly believe in the government,” he says. The 19-year-old is from Massachusetts, and registered to vote there. He put aside the books for a real-life experience of democracy in action, serving as an election judge in the Nov. 4 mid-term elections.
He attended a four-hour training session, then arose in the cold predawn, arriving at 5 am at a firehouse at 21 W. 59th St. in the Washington Park neighborhood.
Over the next 14 hours, he witnessed and participated in a botched series of errors, snafus and detours, he says.
Reynolds has a keen eye for detail. The details depressed him.
Two other judges arrived 15 minutes late. Two more never showed up at all. The poll opened at 6 am, but the electronic polling book was slow to boot up. They fumbled and stumbled through a 90-page manual, had to decipher dozens of mysterious forms, and contend with confusion over provisional ballots, and overwhelmed judges, he recalls.
Voters had to wait, and wait. Some were forced to take provisional ballots. Unhappily.
“You’re being told you are not registered to vote here, we are going to issue you this weird pink form and you have no idea what the pink form is,” he says.
It was “a constant stream of just, it never going right, polling stations never open at the right time, judges not knowing exactly what they’re doing.”
Reynolds estimates that of the 118 people who came through, “5 to 10 people, at least, had issues.”
“I am just angry about the way the voters are being treated in this part of the city . … I would like to believe that democracy functions,” he said. “I came back disillusioned.”
Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections, acknowledges that there were shortages in judges that day, and that the ballots and electronic polling books can be a challenge. On top of that, the Nov. 4 ballot was packed, a “meandering two-sided, 21-inch behemoth,” he said. Tomorrow’s ballot offers relief, as it contains only four offices and a handful of referenda.
And the board has taken steps to upgrade its technology and other changes that will make it “easier for voters, easier for our judges,” Allen assures.
Reynolds wonders whether turned-off voters will stay away this time. “You never know who’s not coming to vote because they don’t think their vote is going to count.”
Still, he adds, “I don’t think the solution is to run away because it was a bad experience.” He has learned that “the vote counts, even if you feel like it’s hard to do.” So Reynolds volunteered to work the polls again tomorrow, assisting on a research project sponsored by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights that will assess the voter experience.
Lesson learned. Get out and vote tomorrow. Vote even if it hurts, and elect good candidates who can help ease the pain.