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The Democracy of Patience: Inside a Polling Station in Queens

“Romney is very hostile.”

Last night, approximately four hundred stoic voters stood in a line that slowly snaked towards the entrance of P.S. 222 on 37th Avenue and 86th Street in Jackson Heights. The air was frigid, but the sky was clear. “I’ve never, never in my life seen a voting line like this. I don’t understand it!” said Denise, a longtime resident of Jackson Heights, as she took her place at the end of the queue and surrendered herself to the long wait.

Swami Narayan, a U.S. citizen of Indian origin who has been voting in Jackson Heights for the last ten years, stood by the school’s entrance observing the scene. ‘This has been the worst voting experience!” he complained to a friend. “There was no privacy. The person collecting the white cards could see the choices I’d circled on my form. Last year, each person was alone in the voting booth. That was much better. And look at all these old people standing in the cold! They should have a separate, faster line for them!”

Indeed, no one was exempt from the chill and the long wait, including people with crutches and walkers, and parents with infants and tired toddlers—all were expected to wait democratically for their turn. A teenager struggled to support the weight of her disabled mother, who was unable to stand or walk without assistance. Others in the queue urged them to go inside and ask to be allowed in to vote. I watched as a security guard stopped the pair, then hesitantly permitted both mother and daughter to enter.

I strolled to the middle of the line, at the end of the street block, where patience was beginning to wear thin. Ray, who is disabled and unemployed, was convinced the long lines would deter many from voting. “This is probably intentional,” he surmised. “Bloomberg is a millionaire many times over. He’s part of that one percent. They don’t want people voting, so why not mess with it? And the election commission is a very political group. They are hardly independent.” The long wait in the cold certainly wasn’t going to deter Ray. “I was going to protest vote for the Green Party because I’m not happy with either party. I think they’re both run by corporations.” I asked Ray whether he might change his mind by the time his turn to vote came around in an hour or so. He doubled up with laughter. “No, I don’t think so! I pretty much planned this out from the start!”

Despite looking proud and pleased to have finally cast their ballots as they stepped out of the school building, Maritsa Dias and her granddaughter Siena seemed reluctant to leave the ever-growing throng of voters. “I came two times to vote but the line was terrible. I went home for an hour, when I came back the line was three times longer. My back is aching after two hours in line!” said Maritsa Dias. “But it is necessary to vote. For the situation to improve, people must open their mouth and speak. I voted for Obama because he thinks about women!”

Dressed in a silk sari and a cardigan, Shushana stood on the sidewalk waving a flap of paper at her husband who’d already been inside to vote. “They can’t find my name,” she complained. “My husband and I have been voting together at this location every time. They have his name but not mine. They sent me to P.S. 69 but they don’t have my name either. Now, I am just going home,” she said.

I walked down 37th Avenue to the polling station at P.S. 69, where there were no queues. Not a soul was outside. It was eerily quiet after the rambunctious lines at P.S. 222, and inside the brightly-lit building, there was only a handful of voters. How bizarre that people were being made to wait for hours in the post-hurricane cold just a couple of blocks away, while election workers seemed to outnumber voters at this polling station!

Ahmad and Sultana from Bangladesh said that they’d been voting at P.S. 69 for the last twelve years. But today their names did not appear on the list. “It was little hodgepodge this time,” said Ahmad. The couple was asked to go to table 47, but there was no table marked with that number. They approached table 48 where a woman suggested they sign an affidavit and place their ballot in an envelope. “We voted for the Democrats, but we really didn’t want to give our vote this time. You want to know why?” he preempted my question. “Because of the homosexuality. The Democrats support it and it is not nature’s way, you see. But we don’t want to see another war. That’s our main concern at this point. And Romney is very hostile.”

A woman in a tweed riding jacket approached an election worker. “Is it too late to register to vote?” she asked. “I just became a U.S. citizen in December! I am from Tibet.” On learning she couldn’t vote without registering in advance, she said, “Oh, how disappointing!” and turned to walk out of the building.

“Who would you have voted for?” I asked the woman, whose name was Lhansang. “Of course, I would vote for Obama!” she beamed. “Like everyone else in Jackson Heights!”