Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Voter # 201 - The Polls According to Bernie

Gershen Apartments - The Culturegeist's polling spot in NJ
It was dark outside by the time I locked up my office at 6pm last evening and drove over to the Alvin E Gershen Apartment complex (pictured left) to cast my vote in the 2015 elections.

I live in New Jersey's 4th Congressional District, which is represented by Republican Congressman Chris Smith, a thoughtful, intelligent and respected moderate member of the House who enjoys wide Democratic support in Mercer County; including from yours truly.

There aren't a lot of Republicans that I admire or support these days but Chris Smith is one of them.
Gershen apartments is one of Mercer County's subsidized senior living communities set on a spacious wooded lot of a few acres just off Klockner Road and Lamont Avenue in Hamilton, NJ.

Last night was a pleasant warm evening and fallen leaves of different colors crunched under my feet as I walked along the sidewalk to the side door of the building where the voting booths were set up inside a small but comfortable library that overlooks a wooded area of the property.

A piece of paper with a stock image of an American flag on it with the words "Vote Here!" printed on it had been helpfully printed off of someone's computer and taped to the glass of the door, which was itself propped open with an American flag secured to a wooden staff anchored to a sturdy wooden base.

Two women sat behind the kind of simple folding table with a faux-wooden surface and folding metal legs that can be found in the closets and store rooms of thousands of different churches or schools in America and elsewhere.

I gave my name to the woman wearing an audacious pair of sunglasses seated in front of a small rectangular white sign with the words "A - K" on it.

"A - K Lady" carefully looked up my name in the pages of a thick book, handed me a slip of paper to sign, tore off a small receipt which she handed to me and said, "Just hand that to the man at the booth."

Just like that. No intrusive need to produce an ID as one might have to do in any number of "Red" states where Republicans dominate the state legislature and live in mortal terror of almost non-existent voter fraud.

Now the "Man at the Booth" is my guy Bernie. He's an 83-year old Jewish guy who sits in a wheelchair between the two voting booths a few feet from the table where the two ladies sit.

Ostensibly Bernie's job on election day is to take your receipt and direct you to one of the two booths with a gesture of his hand; for which Mercer County or Hamilton Township pays him $200.

Not bad for a day's work and certainly a welcome paycheck for a retired senior living on a fixed income but Bernie says the poll workers haven't gotten a raise in ten years - which I told him was par for the course for the 99% in this nation.
Bernie is one of those old-school guys who fancies himself a comedian and loves to chat. He's an animated fixture at the Gershen Apartments on election day who brings some life and character to the polls, but his true purpose is to find an opportunity to try out some of his jokes on you after you finish voting and step out of the booth - he loves a captive audience.

He likes me because he knows I show up every year and I come prepared.

Bernie has some hysterical stories of voters who show up unprepared; like the elderly woman who walked in yesterday and announced in a loud voice that Gershen Apartments wasn't her polling place but she planned to cast her vote there anyway - which you can't do.

Type of voting booth found at Gershen Apts
Or my favorite, the mother who came in with her extremely busy three-year old and took him into the voting booth with her where he saw the big red "Cast Your Vote" button and promptly pressed it before she'd made all her selections - locking in her unfinished vote.

She admonished her politically mischievous son, poked her head out of the curtain and asked Bernie if she could possibly start over again.

"Nope." said Bernie authoritatively. "See ya next year."

Bernie's funny but he doesn't mess around where the booth is concerned. (Let's hope she was a Republican)

Having carefully reviewed all my candidates the night before, I made quick work of my selections, pressed the red "Cast Your Vote" button and stepped out of the booth where Bernie was ready for me.

He was in a good mood.

"You're 201!" He announced with a satisfied smile as he sized me up shrewdly, informing me that I had the distinction of being the 201st voter that day.

Bernie says over 200 people showing up on an election day at the Gershen Apartments is a solid turnout for the senior center based on his years working at the poll location.

He told me last year during the mid-term elections only 75 people came out to vote at Gershen; it was raining, but it still reflects the fact that only about 36% of the U.S. population bothered to vote in 2014 - lowest turnout since WWII.

New Jersey is a reliably "Blue" state with conservative pockets in various parts of the state.

Mercer County where I live includes places like Princeton, West Windsor, Lawrenceville, Hamilton, Plainsboro, Hightstown, Ewing and Trenton; it's ethnically diverse, educated and socially progressive but it's also dotted with enclaves of folks with strong working class, pro-union roots too.

I haven't had time to read all the post-election analysis yet, but from what I have read and heard, I think Bernie's observation of the uptick on participation is something that tended to favor Democrats in this state.

Eric Houghtaling & JoAnn Downey
Democrats already had a 48-32 numerical advantage in the state legislature going into yesterday, but they increased it with the help of some surprising upsets in traditionally moderate but conservative-leaning Monmouth County where Republicans Mary Pat Angelini and Caroline Casagrande lost their seats in the 11th District to former deputy state attorney general JoAnn Downey and Neptune Township Mayor Eric Houghtaling (pictured left).  

Republicans had held those seats since 1991.

Many political observers have suggested that Governor Chris Christie's lagging popularity in New Jersey played a big part in the Democratic gains as voters dissatisfied with Christie's lack of leadership, failure to spark job growth, veto of a popular bipartisan gun control legislation and lingering ethical questions over his involvement with Bridgegate took it out on Republican legislators.

I think it's also important to point out that the coffers of the Republican party have been largely drained because of the enormous amounts of money they've spent on legal fees to defend Christie and members of his administration from the Bridgegate scandal.

It wasn't just the lack of money either, Christie is so unpopular in the state that he's become more of a political liability than an asset for the members of his own party; so he did very few public campaign appearances for Republican NJ legislators who could have used some help but didn't want to be associated with him. 

Plus, this year unions in New Jersey including the powerful New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) have been pouring money into the elections to help defeat Republican legislators and land some punches to Christie's presidential ambitions.

Christie's picking fights with unions and denigrating and scapegoating teachers came back to haunt him and the Republican party in a big way too; as did his reneging on pension funding.

Democrats also took a legislative seat from the Republicans in the 1st District too, bringing their numerical advantage in the state legislature up to 51 out of 80 seats.

These results are just a snapshot of how the 2015 General Elections went across the nation yesterday obviously, but the backlash against Republicans may offer some insight into what we might expect in 2016; particularly in traditionally Democratic strongholds in northeastern cities from Philadelphia right on up I-95 through Trenton, New Brunswick, Newark, New York, Connecticut and Boston.

Have the Republican government shutdowns, anemic legislative production, failure to act on gun control and open hostility towards women, immigrants and ethnic and racial minorities turned voters off nationally? 

With about 12 months to go we'll know soon enough whether they reap what they've sewn.

I'm definitely looking forward to hearing what Bernie has to say on the subject next year.

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