Deep in the belly of the beast: Election night in Berryville, the counting machine is stuck and the President just scored a 3-pointer from way down court

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The democratic process, as personified at least in Berryville on a dark Tuesday night, is both far more prosaic and far more interesting than one imagines sitting at home watching the dog and pony show on television. Bells and whistles. "Avatar" meets "1984."

There is no CGI in Berryville. Two women sit chatting idly in the jury box, sneakers up on the rail. A Sonic Big Gulp with the long red straw perches beside her foot.

Tonight it isn't a courthouse, it's election central. Election Commission Chairman Levi Phillips presides from the center table in front of the judge's bench, looking like some old school country western troubadour. He announces they're going to count the overseas ballots first and the emailed ones, because the machine won't take them.

That machine. To the unlearned, it looks like a cross between an old high school overhead projector and a Walmart photo developer ca. 1987. But it counts, despite occasional burps and puffs of steam. (There are no literal puffs of steam, but one senses them anyway.)

The air conditioner is running on Extra High because the room is full. Two mayors are here, a couple of Eurekan aldermen-to-be, a candidate for circuit clerk. People stand in back. A few parents with children despite the fact ten o'clock bears down quickly, seeing How Things Work Up Close And Personal. They are bored and interested at the same time.

People talk and gossip and cackle and try to get national results on laptops or iPhones. (Ironically, the metal building seems to make the connection suffer. We are here in the heart of the democratic process but must step outside to find out who's ahead in the electoral college. To a political junkie, pure murder!)

First hitch: the machine isn't tallying quite right. The ballots are two inches longer than normal, so they hit the back of the machine and jam it up. They're folded absentee ballots. The staff (representatives of both political parties and volunteers) are going to count them by machine, but only 10 at a time, so there will be no miscount. "That's just the way it is," Phillips says. "Until the count comes out right, we go no further."

Still no word on the Presidential race. Why don't they have a TV in here? Someone says the candidates are tied at 163 votes apiece. Only 107 to go. The Western states are just wrapping it up.

We wait and wonder. Stephen King with a baseball cap turns out to be the other election commissioner, helping sort ballots.

That bored and jaded sector of the population who doesn't vote, either out of inattention or apathy, are missing a bet. This is real participatory democracy. It actually matters. Those people are up there physically counting votes. The people sitting here at bedtime watching these prosaic efforts raptly apparently do not agree with the old saw that goes, "If voting did any good, they'd outlaw it."

It is pleasant to see and hear about foreign elections that go well, where democracy has taken hold and driven out despotism, but exciting also to be here where they have the a/c turned up because everyone is intent and heating up the place with their interest.

The word is in. Obama won. 303 electoral votes. People have been cutting out as the hour grows late, but the room is suddenly buzzing twice as loudly as before.

All over America, people are jumping up and down and screaming with delight or horror, and the CGI flags and eagles are whirling like crazy across the TV screen.

At the same time, all over America, people in small rooms like this one continue to count those folded, twisty ballots by hand that won't run through the machine right, and count again, and get the machine unstuck, and they will keep at it all night until it's done.

That's democracy.