So far, the month of November has been a long, hard object lesson in the failings of America’s political system. From Twodot to Palm Beach, Election 2000 has played itself out in front of us with the bitter, pitiful timbre of a Greek drama, each of its players stumbling around in public, wrestling with the same tragic flaws. In Montana, Republicans took such narrow statistical wins that none of them, in the end, could claim victory in anything but a rhetorical sense. In Florida, the fate of the free world has come down to a few hundred voters who say they accidentally voted for a fascist instead of a Democrat. And the United States has become the laughingstock of the planet, because now everyone knows that our electoral system is nothing more than a rickety Rube Goldberg machine of archaic rules and jerry-rigged procedures.
For sure, politically speaking, November has been the cruellest month. So it should come a source of some comfort that at least a few people are keeping democracy safe in Missoula. Now that the election is a week and a half old—even if its results may not be—the folks at the Missoula County Elections Office have begun the real work of governance: record-keeping.
“You would be amazed what you see come election time,” says Elections Office worker Kim Cox. “You should come see it sometime.”
In the weeks after the ballots have been cast, Cox explains, Missoula’s elections officials set about the long, arduous and legally mandated task of documenting everything connected to the election, in the unlikely event—ahem—that the results would ever be contested. Every record even remotely associated with the election, from signed enrollment registers to absentee ballots that came in late, are preserved in case of an electoral emergency.
“We store the unvoted ballots, we store the ballots that weren’t used for absentees or at the counting center, we store applications for absentee ballots,” Cox says, ticking off the list of their political non-perishables. Everything then gets salted away in a warehouse on Ernest Avenue for safekeeping. It’s interesting to note, though, that this year they actually postponed putting their records into storage until early this week, for fear that there would be a statewide recount—either because of all of the razor-thin results that Montana saw this time around, or because of the nationwide second-guessing that has plagued our presidential race.
Still, there’s more to an elections official’s job description than just some filing and light typing. Once all of the official souvenirs of Election 2000 have been catalogued and stored, then comes the messy business of purging. Perhaps the most cumbersome part of their job, Cox explains, is the process of updating the voter rolls, which involves everything from sending confirmation cards out to those who didn’t vote this year, to removing the names of those who have not voted since 1996. It is, in so many words, a daunting task.
“Every job in our office, you get to do until you think you’re going to die,” she says. “And then you go on to something else.”
Just further proof that—as we’ve all learned in the past two weeks—the work of democracy never quite seems to get finished.