Long day at the polls

The story of Chico’s Precinct 301 is a story about how five local citizens kept the democratic machine running Tuesday in one of thousands of California neighborhoods. It is the story of working a precinct in an era of suspicion, and the story of mundane work in a wacky California election that seemed to be about glamour and show business.

At 6:30 a.m. in the Butte County Library conference room, five people gathered for a small stipend and larger sense of civic duty to begin a 15-hour day. And even while network anchors announced Tuesday night that a Hollywood bodybuilder had ousted a sitting governor, the Precinct 301 workers would be absorbed in an after-hours inspection of almost 500 ballots.

Working a precinct has always meant a long, tiring day, but this time it was one or two hours longer. The Butte County Elections Office ordered what it called the “special ballot handling procedure"—a ballot-by-ballot inspection—to ensure that a recount, if necessary, would move quickly.

By the time a Chico News & Review reporter arrived at Precinct 301 at 7:30 p.m., the five people running their neighborhood’s voting had each developed a survival trick.

Precinct clerk Brenda McNeill said hundreds of times that day, “Thanks for coming out,” and politely chuckled dozens of times at the joke voters made about “hanging chads.” She said it is “fun being part of the electoral process.”

Sandy Fisher, the precinct inspector whom some called the “boss-chick,” had taken a no-nonsense approach to running things smoothly. Her mom, precinct judge Edith Fisher, was in slow and cautious motion by 8 p.m. Precinct clerk Nelda Jessee was pleasant and focused, asking this reporter if I’d voted.

During voting lulls, precinct clerk Ed McLaughlin was entertaining. He recognized one voter as his former dance teacher, the guy who taught him the fox-trot around the time his girlfriend dumped him for a doctor.

The five closed the polls at 8 p.m. and counted ballots cast traditionally, provisionally and by absentee. At 8:40 p.m., they found their counts matched the number of ballots they had received. Fists in the air, they let out a whoop of happiness.

But then they began their inspection, looking in particular for voters who erroneously voted for more than one of the 135 gubernatorial candidates. Voters were instructed to vote for only one candidate, but with so many nice-sounding names on the ballot, some found it impossible to resist filling the rectangular bubbles.

Sandy Fisher found the first such ballot, a person she said had voted for "just about everybody." That ballot will be discarded, but I wondered if that voter had the right idea. Maybe we should have elected a committee to run the state.