Tuesday’s primary election didn’t eat up all of my day, but it consumed most of it — especially if you include going to see RBG, the acclaimed documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at the Vineyard Haven library at the end of the day. I’d missed at least half a dozen opportunities to see it earlier in the year, and I’m really glad I grabbed this one. The room was packed, and like all library events it was free.
At the movie I did run into one person who didn’t realize there was a primary election on — this was around 8:45 p.m., 45 minutes after the polls closed, so it was too late to do anything about it. My candidates did well, apart from Josh Zakim, who got trounced by the incumbent secretary of state.
I was signed up to work the 7 a.m. to noon shift at the West Tisbury polls — by the way, why are polling places invariably referred to with the plural “polls”? No one ever says stuff like “I spent two hours holding a sign at the poll.” A poll is either a survey or the top of a horse’s head between its ears.
As a newbie poll worker, I’d only worked in town elections before, the 2017 selectmen’s race and a ballot question earlier this year when the turnout barely made it into three figures. This was my first biggie.
The early hour wasn’t a problem because I am a morning person, but it did mean I had to get up at 5 so Trav and I could take our usual hour-long walk. It was pretty dark when we left the apartment, but it lightened up quickly and I’m pretty sure Trav preferred the pre-sunrise temperature to the muggy midmornings when we usually head out.
At 7 a.m. we were all settled in place: two poll workers at the check-in table by the entrance, two at the check-out table (one of whom was me, tending a looseleaf notebook listing West Tisbury voters from Larson to the end of the alphabet), constable John Powers at the ballot “box” (which looks like an elegant lectern with a horizontal slit on top to feed your ballot into), and the town clerk’s table, staffed by town clerk Tara Whiting (who’s in charge of all things electoral) and assistant Dinnie Montrowl.
Tara made a run to Fella’s up the street and came back with coffee and breakfast sandwiches for all. The coffee was excellent and the breakfast sandwiches likewise. Watermelon chunks and bananas were also provided: the morning shift was very well fed.
Shortly after the polls officially opened at 7, the constable predicted that the turnout would be 402. After 13 hours of steady, sometimes brisk traffic through the room, the final tally was well over twice that: 939. West Tisbury currently has 2,543 registered voters, so by my calculation a shade under 37% of us voted. Island-wide the figure was 33%. Not bad for a primary, especially one held on the day after Labor Day.
It was pretty clearly local races driving the turnout. Lawn signs for candidates for clerk of courts (T. George Davis and Charlie Morano) and register of probate (Daphne Devries and Gail Barmakian) have been dominating the Vineyard roadscape for weeks, far outnumbering those for any of the state races.
While checking out, one voter pointed to her ballot and said she hadn’t heard of either Bob Massie or Jay Gonzalez, who were contending for the Democratic nomination for governor. The statewide races have been on my radar since the 2017 state Democratic convention, and over the summer they were a frequent topic of conversation among my politically engaged friends — this is what happens when you become a political wonk!
Voters give their names at the door, then the poll worker checks them off and notes their party affiliation, if any. Registered Democrats get the Democratic ballot, registered Republicans get the Republican ballot, and because Massachusetts is an open-primary state, unenrolled voters can take the ballot of either party. The poll worker then records D or R to indicate which ballot each unenrolled voter took.
Voters mark their ballots in the booths that line both walls in one corner, then give their names again at the check-out table, where we also marked D or R for the unenrolled voters. Contrary to the usual color-coding, Democratic ballots are red at the top and Republican ballots are blue, which means you have to pay attention. (I’m not sure what color the Libertarian ballot is. Only one candidate appeared anywhere on the Libertarian ballot, running for state auditor, and no one cast one on my shift.) After that, under the eyes and occasionally with the assistance of the constable, voters feed their ballots into the “box” and receive an “I Voted” sticker. Quite a few of these stickers wound up on the exit door.
At the end of the day, the numbers from the check-in and check-out tables must match each other and the number on the ballot box: how many people voted and how many of each party’s ballots were cast. The double-check system came in very handy at one point when one voter’s name couldn’t be found in the check-in book. The voter was surprised, but glitches happen: with the town clerk’s guidance he had just started to fill out the form that would allow him to vote when his name did appear in the check-out book. Turned out the check-in book was missing the page with his name on it. A photocopy was duly made.
Just before noon, my relief showed up, so I cast my own ballot and went home — where despite my good intentions I didn’t get much work done. At 5 p.m. I was back at the polls, outside this time, holding one sign for George Davis and another for Keith Chatinover, who was running as a write-in candidate for Dukes County Commission. This is hands-down my favorite election day story. It goes something like this:
Keith just graduated from the M.V. Public Charter School in June, but he’s already a seasoned activist. Among other things, he’s active on environmental issues with We Stand Together / Estamos Todos Juntos, and earlier this year he organized the buses so that 80+ students and a few adults could make the trip to D.C. for March for Our Lives. He’s delayed starting his freshman year at Middlebury College till January so he can help build the blue wave for the midterms.
So late in the afternoon of September 3 — Labor Day, the day before the state primary — he decided to run as a write-in candidate for Dukes County Commission. Old political hand Tristan Israel, longtime Tisbury selectman, advised Keith to get on the phone and start calling everyone he knew. Keith had a better idea: he declared his candidacy on Facebook. Before long his announcement had been shared a few dozen times and a bunch of us were emailing and otherwise contacting our friends, who went on to contact their friends.
Writing a candidate in is more complicated than just marking the oval for someone who’s already on the ballot. There’s space for write-ins, yes, but you have to write legibly, and you have to mark the oval next to the name you’ve just written in. Write-in candidates with more lead time often produce labels with their name and address that are just the right size to fit into the space on the ballot. Keith had no time for that, but he made slips of paper with all the necessary info that voters could take into the voting booth with them.
Keith needed 25 valid votes to get himself on the November ballot. He got 308 — including about 110 from my town: more than a third of the total came from the island’s fourth largest town. Keith kept rallying the troops — in person and on social media — before the polls closed, then posted an update and acceptance speech on Facebook the next morning. No way could this have been done on the fly by telephone. In case anyone was still wondering — Social Media Matters.