Scenes From an Election: Ballot Boxes, Flags, Middle Fingers

An official ballot drop box sits in front of City Hall in Pasadena, California. (Courthouse News photo / Bill Girdner)

Squat and sturdy, the voting box sits under a tree next to the wide plaza in front of Pasadena’s City Hall. Every few minutes, a person walks or drives up to it and pushes a ballot into its narrow slot.

As they come and go, it is as though they are pushing in their wishes for the next four years, wishes for a better time to come.

A woman in a mustard-yellow jacket, with leopard-print shoes, accompanied by her small dog, presses her mother’s ballot through the slot.

“It feels like the most important election in our lifetime,” she says. “Our nation is in crisis.”

As to what the future holds, “I’m scared shitless.”

Julianna Serrano works as a community outreach worker at All Saints, the Episcopalian church that stands just behind City Hall, a kind of temporal check on the worldly affairs taking place in the tiled, open halls of the city’s headquarters.

“It’s our opportunity to turn things around as a nation,” she says. “You can only go up from Trump.”

Things are quiet for a while at the voting box. A curving-metal park bench is set invitingly a few feet behind it, in the shade. But I stand in the afternoon sun with reporter’s ID around my neck, notepad in hand.

Then a young woman drives up in a small blue SUV. Dressed also in blue, she walks over in ankle-height, black boots and pulls open the door to the voting box — it works much like a postal box — and pushes her ballot through the tight slot.

“I think it’s very important,” says Aeva Murtaugh, 23, a graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary a couple blocks away.“Because it’s obvious the two parties are very divided. Depending on the outcome of the election, our country will eventually go in very different ways.”

Of the many propositions on California’s ballot, one of the most controverted is Proposition 22 which would exempt ride-hail drivers from the Democratic Legislature’s imposition of employee status on gig workers. Murtaugh voted for it.

“I DoorDash,” she says. Between classes and studies, she drives to make extra money. She said her fellow DoorDashers were also in favor of the exemption. “I want to go work when I can.”

A few moments later, a young woman stops her car near the box. With the most common surname in Korea, Brenda Yi, also 23, is a college graduate looking for work in fashion. She is elliptical in her comments but their import is clear.

“I think it’s pretty obvious what it should be,” she said. “Everybody is suffering from the current situation.”

Like almost everyone who stopped there, she thought well of the now-dominant method of voting in California — receiving a ballot in the mail, filling it out at home, and dropping it in a voting box.

“I think it’s more accessible. A lot of politicians make it seem like something it’s not,” said Yi. “It’s more comfortable. I can do it from home and I have access to information online.”

Then a young man in a fairly new black pickup arrives. He sports a full, dark beard and wears a black baseball hat, brim backwards, and a black t-shirt. I peg him for a likely Trump voter. But he doesn’t want to comment.

“No, thanks, man,” he says in a friendly manner, holding up his hand palm outward.

Returning to the Courthouse News offices, four blocks away, our youngest employee tells me with a kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm that on her way home from work the day before, she saw a man standing on Fair Oaks, the main street running north-south through South Pasadena, waving an enormous, dark-blue flag.

“It said ‘Trump 2020.’ It was a huge flag, like this big,” she said, extending her hands as wide as they could go. “He was using both hands.”

But nobody honked. “Everybody was looking at him. I said, ‘Nope, I’m not going to flip him off.’”

Another Courthouse News employee has just returned from a weekend in Carlsbad, a largely white beach community adjacent to the Marines’ Camp Pendleton, where huge, light-blue Trump flags have flown from a few flagpoles for weeks.

She described a Saturday parade of beefy, shiny new pickups — the de rigueur mode of transport for much of the populace — rolling along the main avenue that runs next to a wide walkway overlooking the Pacific Ocean. From the parade of trucks Trump flags proudly flew.

To my surprise, she then recounted that a large number of those on the walkway extended a rigid middle finger toward the parade.

Moving to a redder part of the state, the town of Ramona sits astride Highway 78, about 40 miles inland from Carlsbad. For the last two elections, I have seen a long table loaded with Trump merchandise set up next to the main intersection of town. But now the table and the merch are gone.

Instead, two white women are holding up handwritten signs. One, a svelte woman with dark hair wearing a black baseball cap, rim forward, and dark glasses, is pushing her sign up and down over her head. The sign is made of a big piece of whiteboard on which is written in large black letters, “White Folks Against Trump.”

But another Courthouse News employee is a life-long Republican and voted enthusiastically for Trump four years ago. “He’s an idiot,” she now says. “But let me explain. I don’t think he is an overall idiot, he’s probably very intelligent. But he is arrogant and responds out of emotion and says dumb crap all the time and attacks people without provocation.”

Nevertheless, she will vote for the president. “I never thought I would vote Democratic, I never have. But I might, if they picked better people. But I mean, c’mon, Biden and Kamala Harris, they tie your hands.”

Back at the ballot box in front of City Hall, a sedan rolls up and Nicole Shade, 29, gets out the passenger side to walk over and send her ballot into the pile of hopes and wishes building up in its dark interior. She is studying speech pathology at California State University, Los Angeles, and was a journalism major as an undergraduate.

Trim and neatly dressed, she believes the Democratic candidate will prevail. “I think one of his first priorities will be the environment, because he and Obama worked a lot on that.”

She precisely ticks off her top issues for a new administration: “Income inequality, racial justice, women’s justice.”

Beset by fires and heat over the last months, this day in the San Gabriel Valley around Pasadena has turned into a mellow, crisp, fall afternoon. As the afternoon light slants lower, the blue and yellow box set by the curb in front of City Hall has for this day functioned as a kind of votive box, a receptacle where anger washes into hope for the years to come in America.

For Shade, though, her spyglass into the future is clouded. “It’s too much for one guy,” she said. “The past four years have been horrible for the America. It’s only going to get worse.”

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