The Day My Faith in American Democracy Was Tried by Fire

The moment I opened my jury summons and saw the date, I knew I would remember the day forever.  This was the first time since becoming a U.S. citizen that my country was asking me to vote and perform jury duty on the same day, two things only citizens can do.  The date on my summons, June 5, was also the day of the 2018 primaries.

I was so elated when the big day dawned that even rush hour traffic on the 110 freeway could not spoil my mood as I drove to the Los Angeles Superior Court.  By contrast, what happened at the polling station that evening continues to trouble me.

When I stated my name and address, the poll worker checked the voting register and announced that I was not allowed to vote twice.  I hadn't voted yet, I replied, explaining that I'd left for downtown before the polls opened and had just returned after jury duty.  (I didn't feel the need to tell her I'd strolled in Grand Park after being dismissed, to take advantage of the free juror parking at Walt Disney Concert Hall.)

The poll worker would have none of it.  She repeated that I could not vote twice, tapping the line in the register where my address had been crossed out in red.  Next to my name, I saw a signature that did not remotely resemble my own.

I took out my driver's license to prove how I sign.  The poll worker immediately turned her head away.  Gazing off into the distance with a clenched jaw, she said one of the most disturbing things I've heard since moving to L.A. in 1999.

"We're not allowed to check anyone's ID or proof of address."

In the seconds that followed, my legs threatened to buckle, and I gripped the registration table for support.  The implications of her words were staggering.  If poll workers are not allowed to check voters' IDs, it meant that while I was doing my other civic duty across town, someone had fraudulently voted in my stead — and that meant that democracy in America was not as invincible as I'd thought all along.

Later that night, as I lay awake in bed, I mentally wrote a stirring speech on electoral integrity.  But when I stood before the poll worker, reeling from the rude jab she'd administered, I could only come up with a rhetorical question.

"So anyone could vote in my place, and no one would know the difference?"

As she glared at me silently, I whipped out my phone and photographed the fake signature.  At this point, an older poll worker jumped into the fray.  She said I could not vote twice, and I repeated that I had not voted once.

We went back and forth in this vein for several minutes.  In the end, seeing that the people behind me were growing restless, and perhaps realizing I wouldn't budge until I'd done my civic duty, the first poll worker handed me a provisional ballot.  However, neither she nor her colleague told me to submit it in its envelope, so I dropped it in the ballot box as usual.

When I related the incident to my supervisor next morning, he informed me that provisional ballots must be submitted separately, or the vote is invalid.  He advised me to contact the California secretary of state, and that office in turn suggested that I call the L.A. County Registrar's voter fraud line.  I left a message with my number but never heard back.

What happened on June 5, 2018 was an anomaly.  This country has over 100,000 polling stations, and most of them closed without incident that night.  In all my years of voting, I'd never had a problem myself, and the thought of voter fraud had not crossed my mind before.  But suddenly, thanks to someone's unscrupulousness, aided and abetted by an absurd law, I was no longer wide-eyed about democracy in America.

It is possible that the whoever signed next to my name voted legally as well.  Yet the rule of "not voting twice" could not be applied to that person because poll workers are not allowed to check voters' IDs, making identification impossible.  Or perhaps the fraudster was ineligible to vote at all, based on age or citizenship or some other disqualifying factor.  But again, because the person could not be identified, it was possible to get away with both impersonation and voter fraud.

Even if the person who pretended to be me voted exactly as I did, what happened makes a mockery of democracy.  One of the elementary rules of democracy is that eligible citizens get to vote once, and ineligible persons do not get to vote at all.  Every sports fan knows that when players flout the rules, the game loses.  So regardless of who won the 2018 primaries, democracy was the loser.

The issue of voter fraud resurfaced in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, and the debate has naturally included voter ID.  If we need an ID to buy a bottle of wine, say proponents, shouldn't we need one to cast our ballot?  Wherever one stands on the question of voter ID, anyone with a sense of fair play will agree that voter integrity must never be compromised, because honest voting is the foundation upon which democracy rests.

What I experienced at the polling station on June 5, 2018 left a bitter taste that lingered for days.  I have since become more vocal about political matters, even switching to a church that shares my values.  My love for this country still burns bright, but I don't know when my faith in American democracy will be fully restored.  As long as voter fraud remains a possibility, I suppose the jury is out.

Sharon Arpana Edwards is an author, editor, and writing coach in Los Angeles. Her books include Pioneer Boulevard, a collection of stories set in L.A.'s Indian community, and The Blessing of Melchizedek, an award-winning 100-day devotional.  Sharon holds M.A.s in English (Pune, India) and creative writing (Keele, U.K.) and has worked as a proofreader at Warner Bros.  Fond of motivational speaking, scenic walks, and prayer, Sharon strives to live up to her middle name, Arpana, a Sanskrit word meaning she who is surrendered to God.