COLUMBIA — Before the sun rises, Judy Campbell and Anne Beauchamp huddle over an Electronic Systems Software M100. The gray, oversized lockbox affixed with what looks like a slim-line fax machine will tabulate and store the votes of Columbia residents until this poll at Cornerstone Baptist Church closes at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The women check and double-check the machine, turning color-coded keys to secure and activate the whirring electrics with the sober care of a nuclear submarine captain. Each step must be validated on a checklist, conferred over and agreed upon by Campbell, Beauchamp and the other election judges.
The preparations are precise for Election Day in Columbia.
Security bags one, two and three must be coordinated with their appropriate materials. The ballots they contain have had their seals checked and their number counted. All must be reckoned in the checklist.
Campbell and Beauchamp find there's even a section to designate who secures the ballots in case of a tornado or other severe weather. They look at each other dubiously.
"I'm not kidding," says co-judge and election troubleshooter James Tucker Smith.
"Checklists are groovy," he says. "We have a mantra, unofficial: This will not be the county on CNN tonight."
To the best of her memory, Beauchamp has worked elections for the past eight years. "Every year it gets a little smoother," she says.
But when PC 2 and Printer 3 fail their start-up checks, Smith calls it in.
"We're eighth in line," he says.
At least seven other polling stations among the 100 or so across Boone County are having their own technical issues. This is all ordinary, Smith explains — the usual kinks and bugs in prepping a countywide civic event.
But for all the detailed care taken to ensure the election complies with the law and the promise of long hours, the judges are sure they are contributing to a process more patriotic and vital than checklists, serial numbers and verification codes.
"It's very important to express our opinions on things," Beauchamp says. "I think the neatest thing are the (voters) who bring their kids in to vote."
Just across Providence Road at the Christian Chapel polling station, Cynthia Hosack has worked elections for at least 20 years, long before the M100 counted its first Columbia vote in 2006.
She proudly recalls helping elderly and disabled persons vote. To some she even read the ballet aloud, word for word, line by line.
"They want to vote, and they always feel so good after they do," Hosack says.
One voter looks back as she hurries out the door to work and thanks Hosack. "I wish everyone would come out and vote," the voter says. "We need to be Americans."
Election judge Gail Garey concurs. Born a Canadian citizen, she had been living in the U.S. long enough when she came of age to vote in Canada that she was disqualified to vote in her home country. Garey was in her 50s when she cast her first vote as a naturalized American citizen in 1997.
"I couldn't be critical of things going on without exercising my right to vote," Garey said, who is serving as an election judge for the second time. "I felt very good and proud to wear the 'I Voted' sticker."