Stress any system enough and it will fall apart.
Galloping Gertie, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, before its collapse.
That didn't happen during my last two Early Voting shifts on Friday and Saturday, but there were visible cracks. At least twice on Friday someone installed paper rolls into the voting machine printers backwards, so that the gear on the end of the spindle did not engage. This meant that while the motor spun up, it could not turn the destination spindle that held the already-printed paper, the paper would jam in the printer, get printed on multiple times, and be useless as a record for those two or three voters. This didn't alter any of the electronic records; the paper serves only as a back-up.
I learned to recognize this situation by ear. The printer motor ran for a longer time, trying, trying, trying to spool the destination spindle. So it wasn't a big deal; I could find it fairly quickly and fix it. It was annoying as hell, though. Worse, I didn't know for sure who was making the mistake, because there were two or three people changing the paper rolls at different times, and I was too busy to track them. My main suspect swore up and down that, “I'd never do that,” and after I showed him once I didn't mention it to him again. It could only have been the result of not paying attention, or maybe of being visually impaired. The paper roll is actually printed with light gray text on the back, saying,
“IF YOU CAN SEE THIS, THE ROLL IS INSTALLED BACKWARDS.”
My reason for the lack of blaming was not simply my laid-back personality. I recently read an advance e-copy of Cory Doctorow's Walkaway (reviewed here), which spends a lot of time on the method of getting non-heirarchical groups to cooperate on large complicated projects like buildings.
“If you planted a piece of structural steel in a way that the building really couldn’t work with and ignored the rising chorus of warnings, someone else would be told that there was a piece of ‘misaligned’ material and tasked to it, with high urgency. It was the same error that the buildings generated if something slipped. The error didn’t assume that a human being had fucked up through malice or incompetence. The initial theory had been that an error without a responsible party would be more socially graceful. People doubled down on their mistakes, especially when embarrassed in front of peers. The name-and-shame alternate versions had shown hot-cheeked fierce denial was the biggest impediment to standing up a building.”
The “alternate versions” referred to are A/B tests of the error routines, which computer nerds on Steemit may be familiar with.
“So if you fucked up, soon someone would turn up with a mecha or a forklift or a screwdriver to unfuck the thing you were percussively maintaining into submission. You could pretend you were doing the same job as the new guy, part of the solution instead of the problem’s cause. This let you save face, so you wouldn’t insist you were doing it right and the building’s stupid instructions (and everything else in the universe) was wrong.”
As social primates we are incredibly sensitive to the possibility that we are being manipulated for selfish reasons, and there's really nothing that makes humans more angry than a cheater. We may even have specialized brain circuits for cheater detection. The problem is that our game-theory instincts for cheater-detection evolved in small groups, where our ancestors knew individual members of the family or tribe really well. Our relatively anonymous modern lives seem to crank up the sensitivity of those instincts, just like being too clean cranks up the sensitivity of our immune systems, leading to needless inflammation over non-dangerous foreign substances.
In other words, our modern society has made us allergic to cheaters.
There are many, many good reasons for someone to be off s/his game on a particular day. It could be physical exhaustion, or pain, or emotional burnout, or grief. We leap to the cheater conclusion, I think, partly because that's what David Foster Wallace called the default setting, which would have been overwhelmed in ancestor times by intimate daily knowledge of tribemates. The cost of misjudging a stranger was probably high in that world. And people of different tribes didn't run into one another hundreds of times a day, so the costs of the default – high levels of stress hormones – were not a problem.
We processed over 1300 voters during 11 hours on Friday and almost 1000 during seven hours on Saturday. Those times are longer than the polls were actually open because on both days there was a line almost out the door when we closed the polls. So I personally met several hundred strangers over the course of two days, for just a couple of minutes each. My social circuitry eventually got fatigued and stopped working. One white Republican soccer mom started to look just like every other white Republican soccer mom. It actually felt like I had seen these people before, like they were in line again (as if anyone would stand in line twice). Towards the end, I also started to momentarily forget portions of my mini-lecture on how we were tracking the voters' ballots.
Of course, there were also actual cheaters, or at least people tempted to cheat, who had to be dealt with. There were people who, seeing the curbside machine set up outside for some disabled voter, wanted to use that one rather than going inside to stand in line. Some of these were perfectly healthy people, and those people I was more blunt with, especially towards the end of the shift.
“Not if your legs work well enough to get you inside.”
During the kibitzing while we were cleaning up later, I found out that my supervisor preferred to use the line,
“It’s not a drive-thru.”
So it wasn't just me. This is not a bug; it's a feature.
In other, borderline cases, I left it up to the voter. If s/he was willing to wait until I went inside, let the machine charge for a bit (no outlet outside), printed the affadavit to sign, and rolled it back out, then I could certainly do that. Many impatiently chose to go inside and wait there, especially if there were other cars in front of them in the curbside queue. That was fine with me. They were going to wait some either way, in order to maintain the fairness of the overall situation. Of course, one could argue that being handicapped in the first place was a larger, more meta-level unfairness, and that any wait at all was adding insult to injury, and there is definitely some truth to that. But I also watched enough Seinfeld to know that people suck, and a cane and a limp are not hard to come by (see? it's automatic!).
The selfish benefit of my curbside service (in addition to the beeeea-utiful weather) was that I had a chance to eat while the Ancient Mariners were squinting at the touchscreen through the glare of the November sunshine. This was fortunate, because I don’t think anyone else got their mandated half-hour lunch, and even bathroom and water breaks were hard to come by, those two days. Eating was definitely helpful, as I discussed in the first post of this series.
Only twice, on the last day, did the stress and fatigue almost lead to confrontation.
I told one lady that the polls were closed, and she followed me inside through the unlocked EXIT door I was using to roll the curbside machine in and out. I asked her if she was looking for someone, and told her again that the polls were closed. She raised her eyebrows in that sassy, Oh, no you din’t way and asked, “You gonna stop me?” I said, “No,” and walked away, kind of fuming, and decided that she could stand in line as long as she wanted, but that I would not personally help her in any way. I’d walk out to the car and leave first. That’s how strong the cheater-detection instinct is.
The other time was again after the polls had closed, and two ladies were standing outside the locked gymnasium door. They started in about how they had left their purses in their cars and had to go back for them. I spent ten years being reflexively lied to by students who wanted special treatment about turning in late assignments or papers, and I have little patience for it (less at that particular moment). We also had, it turned out later, about six hours of work ahead of us to break down the site and pack up all the equipment for the warehouse downtown. So I just re-locked the door and told my supervisor that arguing with a voter was above my pay grade. I don’t know how he resolved the situation, and at that moment I did not care.
There was others who showed up hours later, when all the other voters had gone, and we had unlocked the doors again so we could move furniture and equipment. Some of them were pretty mad, and claimed the hours were wrong, but they left without more than a fuming sigh and an over-the-shoulder comment. "I drove 240 miles to get here." That kind of thing.
I left the building at about 6:30, after closing the polls at 1:00.
That one week, I worked about 56 hours, almost all of it on my feet. I have no idea how my older teammates dealt with that. I did yoga, loaded up on potassium, and took a lot of hot showers to deal with the muscle soreness.
Tomorrow is Election Day, and I expect it to be insane. I’ll be glad when this particular experiment is over.
Check out the earlier installments of this series:
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DFW's original Kenyon College commencement address, "This is Water"
after his death, published as a short book