It began with a casual conversation with the poll coordinator who ran the polls at the neighborhood public school where I have worked as an Election Inspector for the last few years. “Mary, she said, do you know that the Board of Elections is requiring all poll workers to take a six-hour class this year and pass a test before being certified to work the election?”
This was the first salvo in the battle of the new voting machines. When I first voted in 1978, my mom brought me to a behemoth of a gray machine of unknown vintage. Many were the years that such machines fended off the depredations of New York’s world famous corruption engendered historically in Taminent Hall and its Taminent Tiger, first the emblem of Boss Tweed’s Volunteer Fire Company and later depicted by political cartoonist and crusader Thomas Nast as a predatory monster devouring the money and laws of New York City.
For as long as I can remember these gray machines were the stalwart guardians of our honesty. Like Cesar’s wife of old, it was not enough that they be virtuous, but appear to be virtuous as well. Many schemes to drag our city into the modern age were defeated by the sure knowledge that the fix was in somewhere.
Unlike shiny computers whose programmers could do God knows what with the code, these machines could be physically locked down with keys and seals that laid bare signs of tampering to any mortal eye. For this reason, and because New Yorkers still drive along “Sixth Avenue” three generations after the street was renamed “Avenue of the Americas,” the aging, arthritic grand dames remained.
But then a law called, “Help America Vote” or HAVA was passed. New York City was among the last to get with the program, perhaps unreasonably fearful of any politicians who need to help one vote. We have a long history of leaders helping us vote, early and often.
And then too, the genesis of this was a president whose primary claim to fame was the first contested presidential election since the Nixon, Kennedy run-off where Chicago Boss Daily famously brought out the cemetery vote. A man whose election was notable for confusion, uncertainty and ill-feeling was hardly the one to help anyone vote. Perhaps such help might be akin to the help the banking system received just before its near collapse.
The first inkling that change was coming was when some voters were suddenly required to present ID before voting. Traditionally this was a taboo since it might frighten skittish voters hailing from countries where police knock down doors during the small hours of morning to adjust the attitudes of the disgruntled.
Likewise, it was once feared that the destitute might not have government Ids, not wanting to spring for expensive driver’s licenses without cars to drive nor obtain passports for trips they could not afford. To avoid the accidental introduction of class bias, the scrawled signature on the voter registration list was deemed sufficient. That and cadres of eagle-eyed election workers who grew up on the same blocks as would-be cheats and could knowledgeably challenge the rogue giving a vacant house as his address.
The 2005 mayoral election that introduced the novelty of requiring government-issued Ids for some voters was also the swan song of the gray ladies. On the 10th of September, I will be introduced to their replacements, the spiffy new optical machines that proclaim our entrance into the 21st Century in true New York style, ten years late, kicking and screaming.
God help us all.