Smile Politely

I voted early at Brookens — with a little help from my friends

Like most Champaign-Urbana residents of a certain age, COVID-19 scared me so much. I applied for a mail-in ballot, trolling locations destined to install ballot boxes for those of us who are too paranoid to rely on the mail. I purchased my requisite Biden t-shirt, a tradition of long standing that goes back so many decades.
I still have my original Bill Clinton tee. It’s ratty. It’s undergone so many washings that Bill’s face and his saxophone are now lumps of ink best interpreted as abstract art. My Gore shirt? Not pretty. My Carol Moseley Braun tee was retired after being lovingly worn to celebrate Illinois’ pride and joy: the first African-American Senator. Barack is still in decent shape.
All of these shirts remain in my dresser, so I frequently pull one out and wear it while running errands. I don’t think of any of them as a political statement; they’re my personal tale of political involvement over the decades.
Not one to check my wardrobe every time I leave the house — so infrequently due to COVID-19, remnants of gas I bought in March are still sloshing around my tank — I decided to forgo the absentee ballot and show up at Brookens after hearing that lines were short.
That was no idle gossip. I was third in line within the sparsely populated space I once frequented to watch my great-granddaughter’s basketball games, now configured to serve as the ultimate social distancing space.  
I was only in line a minute when I heard someone say, “Sorry, you have to leave.” The admonition emanated from the bank of tables sprawling across polling place’s nerve center where half a dozen folks sat behind plastic screens and checked voters in.
I wonder what could have prompted that rude request, I wondered, looking around to spot the offender.
“You in the Biden t-shirt! You can’t stay here. There are electioneering laws that prohibit political statements inside this building.”

Jeez, Louise. I suppose that’s me. I reluctantly headed for the exit muttering under my breath about going home to wait for my absentee ballot. That’s when I glimpsed the janitor’s closet across the hall. It took about one minute to turn my shirt inside out and get back in line looking smug and undaunted.

As a writer, no tale goes untold, so when I regaled members of my Saturday social distancing coffee circle with my clever shirt solution, I was met with approving nods and thumbs up. I didn’t think about the experience again until the following Saturday when one of my coffee pals asked, “Did you read the story about changing your shirt in the janitor’s closet that was published in the News-Gazette a couple of days ago?”

At first, I thought they were joking — until another member of the group insisted on forwarding the story, replete with banner, byline and pull quote, to my phone. There it was:

Early Voting Begins in Champaign County as Woman Removes Biden T-Shirt on Camera

URBANA — As early voting begins in Champaign County, it is important to know about laws creating campaign-free buffer zones outside of polling places and even stricter laws prohibiting political apparel inside polling places. In this particular incident, the relevant statute, upheld by the US Supreme Court, reads: “A political badge, political button, or other political insignia may not be worn at or about the polling place on primary or election day.”

A Savoy woman, apparently unaware of this restriction, was turned away from the Brookens polling location.  She sneaked into a maintenance room and, also unaware of the facility’s security system, removed the offending garb and put it back on – inside out.  The poll workers were amused, having observed the entire episode on closed circuit TV.  However, they also respected the woman’s tenacity and awarded her an I Voted sticker upon exiting.

I was flabbergasted. How did I not see the camera in the janitor’s closet? And since when do janitor’s closets need close circuit TV surveillance?

“You know, someone could plant a bomb in that closet and blow Brookens up. Didn’t you realize that?” said another member of the coffee posse who had also pulled up the story on her device to read it.

My mind raced. This body of mine is not meant for closed circuit TV or any other media, I thought, visions of bras racing through my mind in hopes that I was wearing a newer one that afternoon. Honestly, I was dumbstruck. Everyone sitting under the tree seemed to know about the story. Everyone but me.

As I was leaving the group, I waved goodbye and said, “I’m going to call that journalist as soon as I get home and thank her for not mentioning me by name.”  I got all the way to the car before comrades raced after me, stopped me in my tracks and confessed that they had all conspired to dummy up that story just to get a reaction.

Relieved? I suppose so. But, I couldn’t stop laughing, either. “Should have waited for the absentee ballot.”

Of course, that’s now a moot point — and no, my vote-by-mail ballot has yet to land in my mailbox. But let’s just say that I intend to be more careful about undergarments every time I leave the sanctity of my home. You never know when history will repeat itself.

Credit to Champaign resident John Sfondilias for being the mastermind behind the fake news report.

Top image from Urbana Park District’s tweet.

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