Thursday, October 30, 2008

Guest blogger Dr. Carla Seal-Wanner on voting absentee in NYC

Guest blogger Dr. Carla Seal-Wanner has a report on her experience voting absentee in New York City. Sounds like she had a wonderful experience! And, based on my personal experience, performing any bureaucratic activity in New York City is not usually pleasant, so kudos to the state employees at 200 Varick St. (Photo was taken by someone voting in 2008 primaries in NYC, unfortunately at 45 Wall St., not at 200 Varick St. Posted at New York Times Polling Place Photo Project.)

Trivia about 200 Varick St. I was unsuccessfully looking for a photo of this building to spice up this post, but I did find out that the building also houses B & J Magazine, Designers and Illustrators Christmas Card Co., a Chipotle Grill (when I lived in NYC a million years ago, there would never have been a chain restaurant at this location!), Debs Catering, Omnicom Advertising, H&H Woodworking, and is the mailing address for S.O.B's, a world music club across the street where I went for a couple of dates in the early 90's! Also, this item appeared in a police blotter from 2003: Varick St. fire:
A man working on aviation instruments in a laboratory at 200 Varick St. just south of Houston St. spilled a small amount of a highly flammable chemical onto a hotplate on Sun., Nov. 30, causing temporary evacuation of the building. The man sustained minor facial burns when about two ounces of the spilled liquid, benzyl peroxide, flared up.

Today I had the exhilarating experience of voting absentee in New York City. Yes, exhilarating! I applied for an absentee ballot when I decided to take the month off and work for the candidate of my choice in a battleground state through Election Day. Alas, it did not arrive in the mail so I drove back from New Hampshire to pick up an application and cast my vote. I could not have anticipated the uplifting experience I had ahead of me.

As I walked into the old marble lobby of 200 Varick Street and attempted to sign in at the front desk, an older African American gentleman with the impossible task of directing the steady stream of people called to me, pointing to the elevators, “No need to sign in today…Tenth Floor, Board of Elections?” I replied; “How’d you guess?” “It’s all the rage these days, My Dear!” he exuberantly responded. As I laughed and sardine-squeezed into the elevator he said, “Now get your ID ready, because I’m sure they’ re going to make you prove you are old enough to vote!” “Well, thank you for making my day,” I flirted back, knowing his gift of cordial flattery would be bestowed on many other delighted woman who had been voting for at least thirty-four years. As the heavy doors closed, sending this multicultural gaggle of New Yorkers to do our democratic duty, I muttered that I was surprised to see a crowd early in the morning. They concurred with a tone tacitly admitting that our plans for getting in and out fast were doomed.

These worries were confirmed as I turned in my absentee ballot application to wait for it to be processed and took one of the last empty seats in a room full of -- I’m guessing … 8 rows across by 12 chairs deep … approximately 100 voters ? Yikes! One hour and a half later, I had read the NYT’s thoroughly, along with Michael Chabon’s perspicacious Obama & The Conquest of Denver and Joseph Lelyveld’s shrewdly disturbing John & Sarah in St. Paul in The New York Review of Books (fair and balanced reading?) while actively eavesdropping on the fascinating reasons folks revealed to each other about why they were voting absentee.

Sitting around me in the laminated chair-desks we all suffered numb buttocks from in our student pasts were lawyers who were going to be poll watchers across the country; students and other citizens of all ages who, like me, were going to battleground states to work for a certain candidate; workers whose time shifts prohibit them from voting; executives who will be out of town for a meeting; elderly voters anxious about navigating the long lines anticipated with an unprecedented turnout; a Columbian man that recently became an American citizen who has to leave town to care for an ill relative but is determine to cast his vote for the very first time; and many others who offered up exceptional reasons for voting early. By the time my name was called to collect the precious approved ballot and cast my vote, we had shared salient life stories related to the hopes and dreams we have for this election. Extraordinarily, in a room full of busy New Yorkers no one complained rudely about the long wait!

The fellowship I discovered in this room packed full of citizens from all walks of life was not the only unexpected delight of this civic endeavor. The Board of Election Officials, notoriously (perhaps unfairly?) gruff by reputation, fulfilled their critically important administrative responsibilities with a reassuring competence and grace. Without patronizing they dutifully instructed us to be careful to follow directions exactly when filling in our ballots and properly seal the envelope afterwards. Listening so intently I may have momentarily transitioned into slow motion, determined not to make a stupid error that could cancel my vote. Complicit in our raw awareness that getting this election correct is paramount, both the teacher and student exhibited a generous dose of patience, respect and warmth. This alliance producing confidence that there will be no hanging, butterfly or any other sort of rejected chads at 200 Varick Street, NY. “Not this time, not this year…there is too much at stake,” to paraphrase one of the presidential candidates.

As I handed in my sealed ballot, the cheerful (I’m not exaggerating) official who took it from my hand, smiled and thanked me. “No, thank you, for the good work!” I returned, pleasantly disarmed. Walking back toward the elevator, dodging the next rainbow-colored crowd arriving to repeat my democratic exercise, the pride I felt was reflected back at them in my tear-filled eyes. Man, my inner choked-up voice was saying, this election really is like none other in my lifetime.

I exited the building under its downtown shadow, reached for my cell phone and called my college sophomore daughter to make plans for our drive back to Belknap County, New Hampshire to help Get Out The Vote.

Dr. Carla Seal-Wanner, children’s educational media expert, formerly Director of Columbia University’s Graduate Program in Instructional Technology and Media, current Education Director of

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