For some people general election time is a drag. They get tired of the endless ads, the campaign signs littering every highway and byway, and those who incessantly tell them it is their duty to go out and vote.
For me, that time that comes every four years, is much like the show business song, "That's Entertainment."
Many people spend their time nightly watching sitcoms, and so-called reality shows, but they don't want to tune into the most real of reality the small screen has to offer, the election coverage. Even more close to home and more pertinent to their lives they don't go to their local courthouse to watch the process of democracy taking place on election eve.
In the last four years I have spent three nights at Carbon's courthouse covering the two general elections and the off year poll for both the Sun Advocate and the Associated Press. Let me tell you, while it is not one of those rip roaring celebration parties you see coming from the New York Ritz or even the Salt Lake Hilton, it is interesting all the same. In fact it is akin to going to a small sports bar on a big game night, only without the drinking.
The crowd isn't usually large, but the entertainment power is great. First there is the big screen where the county posts all it's results. Off to the side is a television or two playing national and state broadcasts of what is going on. Both these things hold my attention; but what makes it really fun is that many of the local candidates show up to watch the returns come in. In a rural place like Carbon County it isn't like the political parties can set up a big gala in a ballroom anywhere; there is neither the money nor really the inclination to do that. So instead of having their own gatherings they just come to the place where the ballots show up. Most of the time you can see opposing candidates talking with each other and it is almost always friendly. When new results are posted (as the precincts are counted) they are put up on the screen and you can see the sweat on people's faces, particularly he candidates, as they are viewed. Unlike a sports bar there is little cheering or jeering, but there are a lot of signs and moans.
My wife has often said I am easily entertained, and well, she may be right. But there is nothing like watching the grass roots of democracy take place. I observed the judges from the various precincts as they brought the ballots into the front counter in the clerks office. They don't all come at once right after the polls close, but trickle in at first and then more than a few start showing up with their sealed metal boxes. Then the crew behind the counter goes to work, checking those boxes and their precious democratic contents. Once that is done the election workers beging their labors at tables set up behind the counter. They start to check and count the ballots to make sure everything matches with the report filed by the field judges and to see the ballots are good and not spoiled. It's the hanging chad thing.
Then the ballots are put through a machine that counts the results and posts it to a computer.
Meanwhile in the commission chambers everyone anxiously waits for each precinct to be posted. There is a lot of talk about the national results that are coming in from the east and then the midwest as the night goes on, as people gather around the small screens in the room.. Each time a local precinct clears counting and the results are posted, the big screen kind of blinks and the crowd moves to that area of the room to see what has changed.
While many candidate feel they know how they are going to do, with the changes in legislative districts four years ago, those running for the state house can never be sure. This night the tension was really in Mike Dmitrich's court, because as the results trickled in it was obvious he had done well in Carbon County. Then the results east of the Wasatch Plateau were posted and it showed him winning there too. But there were 12 precincts with a lot of votes from Utah County still to be counted by 11 p.m. and that is where his opponent's strength was expected to come from. However, once the votes were counted in the eastern part of the state it appeared Phil Peay couldn't catch him, that that proved to be true as Utah county came in slowly but surely.
There were no cliffhangers locally, although there were some interesting returns for a county that has been traditionally democratic. George W. Bush won the counties vote quite handily over John Kerry, and Paul Van Dam lost to Bob Bennett by a good margin. Probably the most confusing vote was on the East Carbon-Sunnyside consolidation issue. The screen just showed those for and against, but not how each town had voted, which ultimately was to be the most important thing, since both had to approve it independently. Once the votes from each town were separated out it became obvious it was not going to be approved.
Now this might not sound like a rendition of the West Wing, the CSI shows or even Survivor, but for me watching the people and their reactions to various races was very interesting.
While our political system may seem unreal for many people who feel disenfranchised either by the illusion their vote counts for nothing or that they can't make a difference, this once every other year event affects them more than a lot of what they spend time doing everyday. The people elected help to make policy about everything from dog license fees to how much state tax one may pay in the years to come.
In general election years, people center too much on the presidential race. They seem to forget that while the president makes huge decisions about the economy and going to war, he also needs a consensus of congressmen and senators to do the things he wants to do. As for our daily lives, most of us are much more affected by what the county commission did in a meeting last week or what the legislature did in their last session than we are by the national politics. So votes do count.
And going to this center of the democratic process on election night is one thing everyone ought to experience at least once in their lifetime.