I spent last Friday afternoon feeling the weight of democracy in my hands. The voice of the people was handed to me in half-inch-thick stacks of 50 petitions demanding the recall of our governor. Approximately 50,000 hours of data entry are needed for the more than a million signatures turned in to Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board last month. During my shift, I worked my way through four stacks—2.6 pounds of pure democracy.
I came to the job with a dry sense of civic responsibility, expecting as much fun as data entry usually offers. Three hours later, I left vibrant with affection for my fellow citizens and gratitude for the process of self-government.
Late on a gray February afternoon, about 60 of us brought our laptops to a large, plain basement room in a large, plain suburban office building, where we sat at folding tables and plugged our computers into extension cords taped to the floor. The instructions were projected in PowerPoint on the wall.
Working with photocopies made before the petitions were turned in, we were entering names into a database in preparation for answering challenges that will soon be filed by Walker’s organization. My understanding is that signatures can be challenged for something as minor as a ‘9’ that looks more like a ‘7’ in the zip code, but those whose signatures are challenged can, if contacted, correct them.
On my shift, we were to enter only the circulators’ names (one per petition.) The signers' names were being entered by others into a different database. Once we were set up and instructed, our work was entirely between ourselves, our keyboards, and our stacks of petitions. This was work, not a social event.
As I unclipped my first stack, I expected to encounter many sloppily written, even illegible names. But instead, every page contained carefully written names and addresses, as if every signer felt the same need to speak in a clear, strong voice. Only a few were sloppy, and I did not see one that was completely illegible.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. At roadside booths during November and December, I had collected signatures myself. Everyone took time to listen to our instructions: "Print your name clearly in the first column; sign your normal signature in this column. Then print your mailing address here, and your voting municipality here—make sure you check one of these boxes to indicate whether it’s a town, village, or city. I can look it up for you if you don’t know. Finally, make sure you get the date right; today is..."
Even in the cold winter wind, people would remove their gloves to get a good grip on the pen and position the clipboard firmly in front of them to make sure they got the right information in each space. No one scribbled and ran. When they were not being used, we kept the pens in our pockets to keep them warm; people didn’t want to sign with slow-flowing faint ink.
Personalities emerged from the petitions as I keyed in the names. One circulator’s signature was written in careful Palmer Method penmanship, but Melvin’s hand shook and applied uneven pressure as he inscribed his information. I looked at the signatures he had collected: Esther, Lucille, Phyllis, Francis, Alvin. Most were written in similarly shaky but disciplined old-school penmanship. Several lived at the same address. Melvin must have circulated the recall petition among his friends in an old folks’ home.
Names like Britney, Brandon, Jason, and Ashleigh filled other petitions. On one, I recognized addresses in a student-housing neighborhood near the University of Wisconsin campus in Eau Claire, where my son attends school.
Petitions came from Milwaukee and Madison, of course. On these, I recognized addresses from tony upscale neighborhoods and from the poorest areas. Most petitions came from cities I did not know as well—northwoods Minoqua; east-central industrial Appleton; southeastern bedroom suburb Brookfield; and the Mississippi River town of Onalaska. Dozens came from little villages and townships I'd never heard of.
I wondered whether a reviewer would notice that on one of the petitions I had circulated, most of the signatures had the same last name and were dated November 24. How many other Thanksgiving gatherings had been occasions for petition-signing? Dozens? Hundreds? Maybe thousands. Petitioning had begun just the week before.
Shortly after we began circulating petitions, Madison's right-wing propaganda factory, the MacIver Institute, began promoting talk about “Mickey Mouse” signatures, while other Walker supporters were actively encouraging people to sign as Adolf Hitler. (Yes, that’s against the law.) These stories were then, as usual, amplified by Governor Walker’s people and his friends at Fox.
But I did not see one obviously fake name on any of the 200 petitions I worked with. I thought of the Tea Partiers in Arizona and Texas who have signed up to review petitions online, eager to find ridiculous attempts at fraud. Slogging through un-amusing page after page of real names and addresses will be their appropriate reward.
I didn't find a fake name, but someone else did. A would-be saboteur had printed “Re-elect Gov. Walker” in the space for the printed name. Apparently wanting to take credit for his cleverness, the saboteur then provided a real address and his signature. Since the signature—not the printed name—is what counts, that Walker supporter had added a valid signature to the petition.
When I was done, I turned my 200 petitions back in and saw them stacked with the other 10,000 or so that had been entered during the shift. At the end of the night, they would be put back with the other 142,350 petitions. News reports have put their total weight at between one and three tons.
Because of the road conditions, my husband was coming to pick me up in our four-wheel-drive vehicle. As I waited for him in the twilight, I thought about the signatures and watched the snow fall. Not one of the nearly-weightless snowflakes would, by itself, make any difference. But as they piled up, they were transforming the dirty-gray February landscape and making Wisconsin fresh and clean again.
You don't have to take my word for it. Just look at this blizzard of democracy .