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I Became A Notary To Make A Difference


(Originally published in the October 2017 issue of The National Notary magazine.)

I’m sitting in the James A. Byrne federal courtroom, in Philadelphia, listening to arguments from Green Party candidate Jill Stein's lawyers about why the presidential vote recount in Pennsylvania must proceed. The case, which I'm covering for the Huffington Post, rests heavily on technical arguments related to the voting machine used by Pennsylvania.

What stands out to me, however, is something far more mundane: In order to initiate a statewide recount, 27,474 voters in 9,158 districts must each bring a petition to their county election boards, and each one must be notarized.

My parents are lawyers, so I grew up around Notaries, but they were only an abstract idea. When I hear about the role they play in Pennsylvania’s recount process, they feel concrete, like another public official who offers seemingly small yet crucial services: the poll worker, which I’ve been for the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections in New York City. Helping voters makes me feel like I’m fulfilling my civic duty, and while I know I’m not qualified to fix Pennsylvania’s voting machines — or any other state’s, for that matter — I can contribute by becoming a Notary. I decide to take the test in Manhattan, a thirty-minute subway ride from my apartment in Brooklyn.

Preparing For The Test

New York is one of 18 states that require some education or training, so I check out a Notary exam study guide from the library. I have to wait over a month for one of the three copies, and then I browse the glossary. I already know some of the words: defendant, affidavit, oath. A few I've never seen before, and I enter their definitions into a flashcard app I have on my phone.

Next, I take a practice test and am surprised by how many questions ask about the fees that Notaries can charge, which seems like something I can easily look up after the fact. Still, I put it in my phone: “Fee for duplicate card: $10.” Then, as I get on the subway for the next few weeks, I try to remember not to text, tweet, or scroll through Facebook. Instead, I review the difference between acknowledgment, attestation, and consideration.

Angsting Over Test Questions

On a Wednesday morning, I walk into the testing center, a room bursting with fluorescent light in Manhattan’s Financial District, and sit down at a desk on the far right side. Behind me is a woman in her mid-twenties, dressed in a grey pencil skirt and matching blazer, cross-legged, tapping a black heel on the ground. Next to me is a man in his forties, in a polo one size too large, with faded tattoos up and down his forearms. Of the fifty or so prospective Notaries, a few are in their early twenties, a couple years younger than me, and the oldest is probably in his late fifties. While we wait, most study from the notebooks on their laps.

Since I have twenty minutes to kill, I decide to take another practice test on my phone. The familiar questions pop up — what’s the fee to administer an oath, who can offer a certified copy — but this test, unlike my study guide, also asks about the minimum sentences for felonies. I panic. When I went through the study guide, it seemed like every Notary-related infraction was a misdemeanor, so I went on auto-pilot: If I see “penalty,” I choose “misdemeanor.” As I’m frantically searching for the sentencing guidelines for class “D” and “E” felonies, they tell us to put everything but a pencil and our IDs under the desk. I take a deep breath. I need to correctly answer only 70 percent of the 40 questions.

I’m certain about my answers on the first page of questions but get nervous halfway through.  I obsess over a few other questions, but after counting my sure things, I figure I’m safe and hand off the scantron.

Ten days later, I get my passing grade. All I have to do now is fill out my information, include a $60 check, and sign the attached oath, which, of course, must be notarized. I go to a nearby lawyers’ office, where the secretary hands my form and driver’s license to a lawyer. I’m excited to see exactly what he does — how long he studies the ID, whether he reads the form in question (my mom said he should never) — but he walks back to his desk, too far away. He returns with my form, and I want to ask him whether the city will mail me my own stamp but am too embarrassed, so I walk to the nearest mailbox and drop in the envelope. Then a new feeling hits — excitement at the prospect of using my new status as a Notary to do my civic duty. I just haven’t figured out how to do that yet.

Spenser Mestel graduated from the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program in 2016 and has been freelancing ever since.



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