Election Day used to be a lot more fun, and I’m not just talking about the choices we had at the top of the ballot.
To be in a newsroom on election night in the days before the internet was an exhausting, exhilarating experience. You couldn’t just look at your phone and get instantaneous results on local, statewide and national races.
You had to watch the news, or you could watch Community 7 Television, which would pair up with the Billings Gazette on election night to broadcast live from the newsroom. Results from around the state would come dribbling in by phone, and local results were brought in by runners—actual runners using their feet.
They would dash over to the courthouse, go up to the elections office on the third floor and come racing back with printouts of the latest vote totals. We reporters would then compile the results and write up stories, updating them again and again as more results trickled in.
Because the Gazette used to be more or less election headquarters in those days, all sorts of candidates would drop in to make an appearance on the Channel 7 broadcast, or just hang out and wait for results with everyone else.
Pizza would be delivered at some point, and on a couple of election nights several cases of beer miraculously showed up.
One year, as I recall, sportswriter Fritz Neighbor came up to me shaking his head, with a look of disgust on his face.
“Look at you guys,” he said. “Every couple years there’s an election and you get beer and pizza and a big party. The sports guys? It’s like election night every Friday and Saturday nine months a year for us, and we don’t get a goddamned thing.”
And in those days only a very few people voted by absentee ballot, so the elections office didn’t even start counting votes until the polls closed, sometimes long after the polls closed. Now, with virtually everybody voting by mail, tens of thousands of ballots just in Yellowstone County are tabulated very quickly, and substantial numbers of vote totals are released soon after the polls close at 8 p.m.
They are then posted on the web for all the world to see, as accessible to someone in Nepal with a good internet connection as to reporters at the Gazette.
It’s all very efficient and convenient and dull as hell.
What I miss even more than those nights in the newsroom, though, is the experience of voting in person, on the same day as millions of other people in other states. For many years, when I lived near Pioneer Park, I voted at McKinley Elementary School. After the precincts were changed, I voted at Senior High School.
The polling stations back then were generally staffed by people from the neighborhood, many of whom we knew. Voter ID? Hell, the people handing out ballots recognized most of us at a glance.
I realize the new system of voting by mail is more convenient and makes it much easier on the aged and on people with disabilities, but that was part of the social compact in earlier days—people helped bring their neighbors to the polls if they couldn’t make it on their own.
In a country almost devoid of public rituals that are not tied to sporting events, Election Day was a great civic occasion that made you feel you were part of something important, that made you feel we really did have a government of the people and by the people.
When I voted at Senior High and McKinley, both polling stations were within walking distance of my house. During the years when I worked nights and my youngest daughter was not yet in school, I took her with me when I went to vote.
That was her introduction to the democratic system, tucked into a backpack baby tote and peering over my shoulder as I filled in the ovals of my choice. We were both lucky to have had the opportunity, I know, but I can’t help thinking that our country would be a better place if everyone received that sort of introduction.
Who knows, maybe by now America would already have been great again.