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You can learn a lot on quiet day at polls

Norwalk Reflector Staff • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:55 PM

EDITOR'S NOTE: Staffer Nicholas White served as a poll worker in Tuesday's election.

Pat Johannsen, Nancy Schmidt, and Pat Bomar are the three musketeers of the polls.

They first started working the polls in their early 30s and now a quarter of a century later they are still working at the fire station on U.S. 20 and Hartland Center Road. Until 2004, they were joined by a fourth friend, Virginia Hahn.

Tuesday, Pat Johannsen, a bus driver, was the presiding judge. Also the wife of the fire chief, she is the de facto hostess. A bubbly woman with a ready smile, she takes to the role well. This special election, she contributed homemade sweet rolls for breakfast, barbequed beef for lunch, and torte an impressive concoction of brownies, pudding, and crushed toffee for dessert.

If you do decide to volunteer as a poll worker, hope you are assigned to Townsend township for the food. Most polling places go out for lunch in shifts, or they brown bag it. Townsend's fire department however, offers a kitchen, so Townsend is potluck.

In fact, some of the Townsend North poll workers across the room Gerry Beck, Jeanne Rospert, Pat Bradt, and Betty Smith claimed they come for the food. Beck, 73, lives across the street and his specialty is Swedish meatballs.

Tuesday, he didn't happen to make them and everyone was sorry not to see them. Last November, on the other hand, was an embarrassment of riches as Gerry (presiding judge to the north) and another poll worker both brought meatballs.

Nancy Schmidt has a tart sense of humor, and likes to pass the time in the slow periods by reading animal mysteries. You'd think she'd get enough of that at work. She lives on a farm. If you aren't careful, and you accidently let it slip that your cooking skills are mostly reserved for eggs, she'll send you home with an armload of fresh goose eggs.

Pat Bomar owns Profiles hair salon in Norwalk. She's in charge of bringing the fun reading the National Enquirer and People magazine. Maybe it's years of standing behind a salon chair, but she's ready to talk the kind of person you're easy friends with almost as soon as you meet her.

Other passtimes across the room included crocheting, quilting and an electronic Yahtzee game.

An election with just one issue an ambulance levy renewal on the ballot is a slow day. In the 13 hours the polls were open just 37 people voted in Townsend south. Passtimes were important. But how the people working the polls passed the time was revealing.

Most everyone pored over the newspaper which I like to see, of course. They were genuinely sorry to hear that Doug Berry's house burned down, and those that had been inside told all about the magnificent century home. They checked out an obituary to see if it was in fact the notorious person they thought it was.

They passed back and forth a magazine that seemed to be all about lose-weight-quick schemes. And mostly, they chatted. The echoey room was sometimes defeaning. They complained about their husbands and they told stories about their children and grandchildren.

But they also knew all 37 people that walked in the door and they were glad to see them. The rules to voting have become tortuously complicated, and they may not have been observed perfectly, but the idea of voter fraud in Townsend south is absurd. This was your friends and neighbors. No one could vote twice. No one was going to vote in anyone else's name, ID or no.

All three, Johannsen, Schmidt and Bomar agree that part of the reason to work the poll is the chance to see everyone in the community.

Among the voters there were few grim or bored faces. Mostly, they were as glad to see the three musketeers as vice versa. It was a chance to give each other a hard-time and ask how someone's husband or wife was doing.

A lot of it may have been frivolous, but one of the ladies said one of the voters had recently been badly injured and had almost died. She went over to his house every morning for six weeks and changed his bandages.

There are lots of reasons to work the polls. Among them Tuesday, I heard "patriotic duty," "the food," and "even the money."

Johannsen started doing it simply because someone called her when they split the Townsend district and said they needed poll workers. The others agreed they started pretty much the same way each independently and they've been together ever since. They each agree that one of the main benefits of working has been that they've gotten to know all their neighbors at least two of them are relatively new to the neighborhood, having moved there in the '70s.

However, this was Johannsen's last election. "I'm getting old," she said. Really, it's the computers. She isn't comfortable enough with them to take responsibility for them and do the job justice.

Unfortunately, if Johannsen quits, the other two are likely to quit, too. Bomar said the main reason she works the polls is the opportunity it provides to see and catch up with her friends.

The three musketeers are not at all unique. Tom Gerrity of the board of elections said that a 25-year tenure is "normal." And groups of friends working together are equally typical. While other, larger counties regularly have 80 to 90 percent turnovers each election, Huron County is the opposite. Each election, 80 to 90 percent are veterans.

It seems to be changing. For the first time in a while, younger people are starting to work the polls, but for them its more about civic duty and less about interacting with their community.

But Tuesday at the fire department in Collins, it was the spirit of a neighborhood block party that best served democracy.

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