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Tuesday, March 9, 2021

In Market: Voting – It’s a tough way to build a democracy

We went to vote last week and man, it was a process.

We’ve got new voting machines in Tarrant County and the advantage is we can now go vote basically wherever. That’s good.

The downside – and I’m no Luddite even though I haven’t yet got a TikTok account – but man, what a pain. The old machines felt a bit like an old TRS-80 from Tandy Corp., but that was O.K. Putting my hands on a TRS-80 is a bit like getting behind the wheel of my first car (a 1961 Plymouth Belvedere with push-button transmission, if you want to know).

The new machines require a paper ballot, which is great. The only thing is, in all our technological magic we’ve invented over the past 40 years, feeding paper into a machine is still caveman-like in its technology. The first time I used the machines, I screwed up and had to get help from the lovely volunteers who themselves had to call for another volunteer. There was lots of rolling of eyes at the new machines.

This time, several people were having trouble and a few had to get a new paper ballot which meant they had to chop off a pinkie to guarantee they weren’t committing voter fraud.

That’s life in 2020. If it’s not the Russian hackers, it’s the paper-feeding mechanism. Also, at my polling place, part of the problem was caused by voters. Something else that has grown in popularity recently: back-in parking. Even though the parking lot where I went to vote was full, there were two trucks determined to back-in park and take up two spaces each.

Little old ladies in Subarus had to park two lots over and get their walkers out of the trunk so these trucks could have their space. And it wasn’t like these were new, pristine vehicles. Nope, one of them, in fact, was about half-primer. You do you.

Then there was avoiding the campaign workers asking for last-second support. “Are you voting in the X primary?” “No,” I replied and they let me go. The next person asked, “Are you voting in the XX primary?” “No,” I lied. But I got through the gauntlet of fliers and desperate campaigners.

Maybe there should be a video game of trying to navigate the voting parking lot, the campaign workers and the delicate-as-ice-sculpture voting machines.

But voting really is a contact sport. Ask anyone involved in the race between Rep. Kay Granger and her challenger, Chris Putnam. Granger won, but it was like Ali-Frazier all over again. Both were bloodied and bruised. And our mailboxes were full of viperous vitriol.

All that rough-and-tumble politics reminded me of my time in Washington, D.C. When I was working in the U.S. Senate Post Office, one of my friends was a guy, Neal, who did a lot of political campaigning. In fact, he seemed to go into a zombie state – barely talking and certainly not becoming engaged in any activity – until a campaign began and he would be like a bull on steroids. Then, you couldn’t shut him up and all he wanted to do was work on the campaign and talk about the campaign. He wasn’t alone. I knew other people like this, too. Campaigns, I’m sure, depend on people like that. True believers who will stop at nothing.

Neal didn’t have a car, so he often enlisted me in whatever campaigning he was doing. It wasn’t all glorious fundraising events with women in lovely dresses and fun cocktails and such, though there was some of that. A lot of it was just taking boxes of campaign mailers to the Post Office. That was the life. Cocktails and grunt work. And a lot more of the grunt work.

At that time, 1978-79, Political Action Committees or PACs were starting to be formed. Neal started one, though it was really a committee of one. At the same time, campaigns appeared to be getting more vicious and personal (if we only knew!), so his PAC was dedicated to fairly run campaigns or some such. One of his ads was to be a photograph of Thomas Jefferson signing the Declaration of Independence. Since Wee Gee wasn’t around in 1776, Neal was going to have to recreate the event.

Knowing my thespian background (my Casey at the Bat reading was Oscar worthy!), Neal enlisted me (or at least my hand) to play Thomas Jefferson. We got a quill pen and frilly shirt and jacket and found a copy of the Declaration and I, though left-handed, used my right hand to sign – or pretend to sign the Declaration.

It was fun and I felt a little part of history – both in 1776 and 1978 – at the time.

If that was all there was to it, it would have been a great story, as the accompanying photographs show.

But we also had to get the photo and the ad to several newspapers around the country. Neal’s PAC didn’t have money for FedEx, so he decided to go to National Airport and ask someone flying to San Francisco to drop off the ad to some friend of Neal’s there. The ad was printed on paper and then sealed in a tube. Even in these pre-9/11 days, that seemed like a stretch to me, but let me tell you, a campaign worker who has decided to do something is going to do it, no matter how ridiculous, embarrassing or outright stupid.

So, we stood out front of a gate at the airport asking passengers if they would fly this tube with them to San Francisco. They all said no to Neal and some of them said, “Hell, no.” No surprise, as Neal had that wild, intense, campaign worker look in his eye. It’s similar to a serial killer look, so it’s no surprise it didn’t work.

So, Neal turned to me, then looking 18 going on 15, to see if my innocent look could convince them. I had no better luck, probably because I was getting more nervous and sweatier each time I tried.

Finally, one guy told me “Hell, no,” and then went to report us to an airline employee. She came over, heard our story – and Neal’s harangue for better government and more civil campaigning and how important it was, etc. It was a great speech about what makes America America. It had everything but a fife-and-drum soundtrack, like when Oliver would give a speech on Green Acres. Surprisingly, she agreed to drop off the ad on the other end of the line. It was probably a violation of some airline rule, but believe me, campaigns run on the kindness of strangers. And she may have done it just to get Neal to shut the hell up. Campaigns run on that, too. Lots of excess verbiage.

So, the ad flew off to California, got printed in a few papers and my hand was, briefly, famous. Did our campaign for more elections with more civility happen? No. We should have bet on them getting worse and worse.

That’s how voting works, folks. It’s a tough, fist-to-face battle in the campaign world. But at least I raised a hand to make it better.

Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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