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In the 1960 John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon presidential election, I volunteered to help count votes, by hand. At age 17 I was too young to vote but I wanted to help any way I could, so I signed up.

A large group of us met in the cafeteria at McKenzie Elementary School where the “adults in the room,” that is the regular poll workers, were in charge. Soon they began bringing in box after box of paper ballots, dumping them out on the long tables.

Each of us counters were handed tally sheets listing the names of the candidates for each office, and lead pencils. No ballpoint pens.

President wasn’t the only race that year of course, there were other names on the ballots, but Kennedy and Nixon were the political stars, the ones whose names stuck in your mind.

The poll worker assigned to our area of the cafeteria gave us a few basic instructions:

  • Only count the ballots where EVERY race has a vote marked. Lay aside in a little pile all the others. “We will come around and collect those at intervals,” the nice lady said. And of course they did, every few minutes.
  • If a ballot has any stray marks on it, don’t count it. “Lay it aside too, in that same little pile,” she added.

I had no idea if these instructions were the normal, legitimate way to handle paper ballots.

It really didn’t cross my mind that night, that perhaps later on some helpful poll worker “completed” those ballots where votes were absent. Or if those stray marks weren’t just erased, that perhaps certain votes may also have been erased and amended.

I do know from history that John F. Kennedy was elected by a small, small margin — only 0.17 percent.

I have participated in many elections since that day but I’ve never forgotten that one, and the important lesson I learned:

It’s not just who votes, it’s who COUNTS the votes, that matter.