The election judge was dangling from the chin-up bar when I came out from behind the booth.
He turned to see me and dropped guiltily back to the ground. Embarrassment crossed his young face, disguised by prematurely gray hair and beard. He smiled sheepish.
An election judge with long hippie hair and a stocking cap turned away as well, body language betraying he was the one who goaded the other judge into trying chin-ups.
Down the long row of folding tables set up in the grade school gym, three middle-aged black female judges kept chatting, not heeding the two white male judges playing with sports equipment.
The two white men told me how to feed my ballot into a large, tan machine that looked like a 1990s printer. It spat my ballot back out, saying I undervoted.
I said that was fine, that I wasn’t happy with any of the choices in a few races. The man with the the blonde, curly hippie hair and the stocking cap held down a button and the machine slurped my ballot back up.
The five election judges and I were the only people in the gymnasium.
“Been this slammed all day?” I asked the chin-up judge.
“This is your number,” he said by way of answer, tapping an orange glowing integer on the tan machine that slurped my ballot.
“35?” I asked.
He nodded. It was 5 p.m. and I was the 35th person to vote all day.
I can’t blame people. This isn’t a “Oh, how sad” story with an implicit “I’m better than you” aside because I took 20 minutes to head down the block. I had spent a slow day at work researching the candidates, developing some last-minute opinions. A lot of the races on my ballot were uncontested. A few others, I couldn’t bring myself to vote for any of the candidates. If there ever were an election I could have skipped, it was this one.
“I don’t know why they even do this,” the election judge with the beard said, shaking his head. “It’s got to cost a lot of money.”
I knew the judge.
I knew the judge from past elections, big ones where the line went out the door and down the street. Those elections, he hopped from place to place, called the main office to straighten out details, ran hither and yon to get the massive crowds to vote.
The three women chatting in the corner, I knew them too. The old hippie was new, but maybe I just missed his wrinkled face in the hustle and kerfuffle of massive elections where the line lasted hours.
They were here. They kept coming back. They doubted themselves and asked if democracy was worth the money, but year after year, election after election, they came back because it was the right thing to do.
Even if only 35 people voted.
And even if they were left alone in a gym with nothing to do but play around with the chin-up bar.