The Character(s) of a Nation

By Kara Kubarych

“Is this the AA meeting?” a disheveled middle-aged man inquired as he stumbled into precinct number 416000, to which I was assigned.

“No sir. I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place. This is a polling station today,” I responded professionally.

He turned around and hobbled out of the community center, but reappeared seconds later. “Gotcha!” he grinned before signing his name and proceeding to vote. Very funny, I mumbled under my breath.

Election Day 2008. My first.

It was just after 7 a.m. and a light rain was falling when we opened the poll. Umbrellas danced outside the door as voters waited in line anxiously. Our first voter had a style of her own. Having left her umbrella at home, she wore a shower cap to keep her curls dry and carried her mutant miniature dog with her into the voting booth.

After the initial early-morning rush, I got to talking with my poll-working cohorts, who had been running precincts since before I was born. I didn’t find much in common with the three elderly gentlemen, who stared at me disapprovingly when I checked the latest exit polls on my Blackberry. Talking politics was strictly off limits. But I persisted in chatting with the one who looked like Santa Claus.

“So, have you been working the polls for a long time?” I inquired.

“Oh yes. In fact, my family’s been voting since 1619.”

Odd source of pride, I thought before responding. “Wow! They must have been the first people here.”

“Indeed they were.” He boasted, “they were pilgrims in Jamestown-original illegal aliens.”

Our conversation quickly devolved from promising to dismissive when he asked me the origin of my last name. “It’s Ukrainian,” I said.

“Ukrainian,” he repeated. “That reminds me of the worst trip of my life. I visited the country in the middle of a coup and could only get one meal a day. It was terrible,” he grumbled. As he rattled on about the political chaos of my root country, I realized how fortunate we are to live in a democracy where people of all political persuasions are free to express their views.

In the midst of our bizarre conversation, an angry older woman burst into the precinct, outraged by the No on Prop 8 protesters in the parking lot. She was shouting, her face puffy and red, her eyes glaring. Her anger turned toward me when I calmly informed her that the protesters were legally entitled to campaign, as long as they were at least 100 feet away from the polling place, which they were. It was, in fact, her behavior that was prohibited.

I later got word that in an Encinitas precinct, a melee broke out between impassioned No on 8 and Yes on 8 advocates police had to break up.

Around mid-day, a scantily clad woman marched into the precinct with her macho boyfriend. I handed her a ballot, which she completed in seconds. “That’s all I know!” she squealed as she passed it back to me. Giddy, she grabbed an “I Voted” sticker, slapped it on the butt of her skintight jeans, and strode out of the poll, quarreling with her boyfriend about where to go clubbing.

The day wore on. A man recognized me from last week’s yoga class, another voter used to play tennis with my dad, and the OCD Precinct Inspector regaled us with stories of his square dancing club. My favorite story was Billy’s - born in 1919 and still raring to vote. I assisted him.

The end of Nov. 4, 2008, was exhausting, but amazing. I voted for the first time and joined my voice to the sound of democracy in action. Throughout the 16 hours I spent checking in voters, handing out ballots, verifying street addresses and counting envelopes, I was caught in the immediacy of antsy voters, broken machines and bleeding pens. I observed the rich amalgam of empowered Americans in the company of three older gentlemen, happily insulated from the radically changing world outside of the polling station, literally shut off from the results of the most monumental election in American history.

While the trio remained in the cocoon of their isolation as night fell and the polls closed, I started to receive a flood of political e-mails and text messages from friends and first time voters like me. I came to see that we didn’t need the approval of the three elderly poll workers or the angry granny who tried to throw out the protesters. We had just as much power as they did, and collectively, we voted to move this country in a new direction.

Kara Kubarych is a senior at La Jolla Country Day School where she is co-editor-in-chief of The Palette.