Being on the Political Sidelines

Posted August 5th, 2009 at 11:03 am.

by Laura Blankenship

I have always had an interest in politics, but it has always been somewhat at a distance. In elementary school, when it was time to choose pen pals, I didn’t want to write to just any person; I wanted to write to Amy Carter, the daughter of then-president Jimmy Carter, but Amy and I didn’t discuss politics. When a local (Republican, gasp!) candidate lost an election, I wrote him a heartfelt letter where I said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” but didn’t encourage my parents to vote for him. When inflation rose and there were lines at the gas station, and I was all of ten, I engaged in heated discussions at the dinner table but did nothing to campaign to save energy. When my grandfather, a long-standing Republican, declared that Ronald Reagan was the most evil man he knew, I giggled, and then we proceeded to have a conversation about his politics.

In college, during the 1988 election, I attended a rally for George H.W. Bush in the pouring rain as the features editor for my college newspaper. I wrote an article that commented more on my amazement at the fact that people would stand in the rain for a speech than on the substance of the speech. My impression was that there wasn’t much substance. Later, I covered protests about apartheid and about the tearing down of the Lorraine Hotel, the location where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. And while I felt passionate about these issues, I chose to stand on the sidelines and provide commentary, often tongue-in-cheek, about the events rather than get directly involved.

I have voted in every election since 1988, even the small local ones. Even during the Gore/Bush election of 2000, I chose to exercise this simple right rather than to get involved with the campaign itself. Instead of attending rallies or making phone calls or knocking on doors, I chose to express myself by talking with like-minded friends and neighbors or by yelling at the television. I feel more strongly, I think, about the process than I do about the politics. Although I’ve voted for the Democrats in every election, up until a couple of years ago, I was a registered Independent. I liked having that stamped on my voter registration card. To me, it said that I could think for myself, that I reserved the right to change my mind, that I couldn’t be swayed by pretty rhetoric or flashy ads. That all changed in 2004.

In late spring of 2004, my neighbor asked me to work inside the polls as the minority inspector on Election Day 2004. Given the contentiousness of the 2000 election and the nature of the campaign up to this point, I knew that this was going to be a historic but busy day, and I could feel a little tug of resistance in my gut as I agreed to work. It seemed too close to direct involvement. The minority inspector’s job on Election Day is to help open the polls, to sign in voters, and to help the rest of the Election Board ensure that fairness prevails. Although the board should be balanced in terms of party affiliation, the positions themselves are supposed to be non-partisan. We are not there to advocate for a particular party; we are there to make sure that people can vote without being harassed or coerced or otherwise interfered with. It’s our job to make sure candidates or their agents don’t come into the polling place to campaign or leave literature. In other words, we try to keep the polling place non-partisan and fair. So I found myself pleasantly surprised that my involvement wasn’t what I had imagined. I didn’t have to take sides. I simply had to make sure the process was followed.

After just a few elections, our judge of elections, the man who oversees the whole operation, quit, moving to a retirement home outside of our precinct. My neighbor came to me again and asked if I’d be willing to fill in until we could elect a new one. I somewhat reluctantly agreed.

The polling place modernized. We got new record books that replaced the old ones that had looked like something out of a medieval library. The entries were even bar-coded for easy recording back at the Election Office. We also got new computerized voting machines. I had been somewhat uncomfortable with our ancient books and machines even though I’d been using them for years myself. It just seemed so inefficient and easy for mistakes to be made. But I felt confident about the new equipment. Since I worked in the technology field, I knew I could handle anything that came up with the machines. After my first election serving as judge, an off-election that included mostly school board and city accountant elections, I got applauded by the workers and poll watchers. And every election after that, my work as judge garnered praise. I felt that I was making a significant contribution to process.

My newfound success as a judge of elections put me in the mind to get more involved in the political process. So in the run-up to the 2008 election, I signed up to volunteer. I thought I shouldn’t sit on the sidelines or serve as referee anymore; I should play in the game. My first volunteer job was making phone calls on behalf of the Obama campaign. We were looking for volunteers over the coming weeks. I used to be a telemarketer for a greeting card company, making calls to gift shops to sell them our products. I was really good at that job and actually enjoyed it immensely, so I was excited about doing this for a cause I believed in. Sure enough, I quickly slipped back into the habits I developed as a salesperson. I was able to engage people in conversations, and I convinced quite a few people to volunteer. At the end of it, I was tired but energized.

Encouraged by my triumph in making phone calls, I decided to volunteer to canvass our township as part of a countywide push to reach everyone in the county in one weekend. I showed up at the appointed time at the local campaign office. I was handed a folder that contained a map, some talking points, and a list of names. We participated in a brief training session, were handed a pile of literature, and sent on our way. I piled everything in the car, swung by my house to pick up my daughter (who was going to help me), and then walked from there to the area I had been assigned. When I made phone calls, quite a few people didn’t answer or pretended to be someone else when they did. Most people who answered talked to me for a while. I felt comfortable talking to them about Obama and our volunteer activities. Talking to people face-to-face was a completely different matter.

It was a gorgeous early fall day and many people were out, likely at kids’ soccer games or at other fun outdoor activities. When I did reach someone, I found it more difficult to share ideas, even with people who agreed with me. The truly undecided made me stammer a little, and I felt a bit out of my league. When talking to one guy, who seemed perfectly intelligent and told me he liked both candidates and was looking to the debates to help him decide, I agreed with him that both candidates were good leaders and that I understood how he felt. I didn’t go on to convince him why Obama was better in my mind. I couldn’t bring myself to participate in that confrontation. Instead I said that I thought Obama had a better economic strategy and was more likely to bring respect back to America. I fell into talking points. I probably sounded a little bit like Sarah Palin during her Katie Couric interview. It’s one thing to sit around with friends and talk about the issues. It’s quite another to be in a position to try to convince someone to vote for your candidate.

After my rather mediocre experience canvassing, I quit volunteering. My life got busier, but truth be told, I didn’t want to force people to think one way or another. It comes down to believing that everyone has a right to an opinion, that Independent could be easily stamped on everyone’s voter registration card, and that this might be okay. While I felt strongly about who should win the recent election, I don’t like having to toe the party line to such an extent that I can’t agree with someone that her candidate is an equally successful leader and that intelligent people can disagree on the issues. Politics has become so much about choosing sides, about supporting the person you think can win instead of the person who you feel most represents your perspective and whom you can believe in. It’s about sound bites and talking points, and I don’t want to be a part of that. I can think for myself, thank you. So I’m going back to the sidelines, choosing to ensure that the process goes smoothly and that everyone gets the right to vote fairly, regardless of whom they support.

Laura Blankenship is a former instructional technologist at Bryn Mawr College. She now works as a private consultant and is teaching “Gender and Technology” with Anne Dalke in the spring 2009 semester. She continues to serve as judge of elections in the 4th Ward, 4th Precinct in Haverford Township.

Filed under: Issue 3 by Julie Zaebst

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