Folks were gathering in the lobby of the Putnam County Election Commission long before the polls opened on March 3. That’s not usually the case on Election Day. The office is the site of early voting, but voters who wait until Election Day must vote at their individual precincts.
Unless there’s an emergency. Which, of course, there was. Until the sun came and for several hours afterwards, no one was certain of the extent of the damage caused by the tornado that had touched down in the middle of the night. But election officials were sure of one thing. It was Super Tuesday in Tennessee and 13 other states. No matter what, we would vote in Putnam County.
I’d been assigned the job of officer at the Double Springs precinct, located at Upperman Middle School. Word was that that area of the county was inaccessible. So I headed to the election office with the six voting machines and other supplies that had been loaded into my car the day before. Information began to pour in about other precincts that couldn’t be used. Some were blocked by debris or emergency vehicles. Some had no electricity or phone service. One precinct, the Cookeville Community Center, was being used as an emergency shelter. We received permission from the state to move eight precincts to the election office and scrambled to set up machines and find workers. Then we began trying to get the word out to the affected voters.
Because I’d worked the front lines during early voting, that was the job assigned to me on Election Day. It’s not hard. Ask for a photo ID, find the voter in the computer database, instruct them to fill out an application for ballot, and cheerfully send them to the next stop.
But Tuesday was different. Smiles were subdued. Cheerfulness was forced. My usual greeting of “How you doing today?” seemed to ring hollow, but I said it anyway. Instead of the usual response—“fine”–I heard the heartbreaking truth.
“My puppy is lost.”
“My house is gone.”
“My neighbors are dead.”
What was there to say but “I’m sorry”? And what was there to do but slip into the restroom and cry when I couldn’t hold it together any longer? As the hours passed and we learned more and more about the enormous destruction and loss of life, I began to wonder if the line of voters would abate. After all, these were—for the most part—people whose neighborhoods had been directly affected by the tornado. How could they bear to do something as mundane as vote?
I think one answer is that there’s comfort in normalcy. Though not a day-to-day activity, voting is something patriotic folks do on a regular basis. And what’s more patriotic than voting, especially when your whole world has been turned upside down? Voting is also very, very social. I love sitting at my registrar’s station and watching folks greet and shake hands and visit with each other. They were doing that on the day of the tornado, too, with lots of tears and hugs thrown in.
In the ten hours the election office was open, almost 900 people voted. That’s an impressive number, especially considering the circumstances. When it was over, those of us who’d worked were exhausted and numb with shock and grief, like everyone else. But outside the front door, the wind was calm and the sky was clear and the half-moon and millions of stars were shining down. The peepers in the pond near the parking lot were singing with gusto their sweet, sweet song of spring.
March 3 was a horrendous day that no one in Putnam County will ever forget. But it was a day filled with blessings just the same.
(March 15, 2020)