I was supposed to be doing this somewhere warmer, like Las Vegas.
Every election cycle, there are organizations that send out lawyers to act as poll monitors in battleground states, observing the voting process and making sure there are no shenanigans. This time, I let the AAJ’s email blitz talk to me into it. They coordinated with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which coordinated with other groups in ways that are opaque to me, which ended up with my contact information being handed off to the Obama campaign. After confirming through e-mail how to get in touch with me and that I still wanted to do this, I got a call asking whether I wanted to go to Colorado or Nevada. Either would be fine, I said, but I’m closer to Nevada. They called back again: Reno or Las Vegas? That was a no-brainer.
I went through a brief training on Nevada election law and what to do and not to do (short version: you’re there to help people vote, if anything gets weird, report it to the hotline) and was told in a couple of days I’d get an assignment and be told where to show up on Election Day. In a couple of days, I got a phone call from Election Protection, but it wasn’t about Nevada. It was a tired-sounding woman from the Ohio campaign. She had my name in their database, she said, and she knew it was a really long shot and didn’t expect me to say yes, but was there any chance I might be able to come help out in Ohio? They really needed bodies.
Several phone calls later and after panic and last-minute regrouping from my husband and mother-in-law, who spent most of the last few weeks of the election like this and were convinced Romney was going to steal the election, and I was on a plane to Cleveland.
The training in Ohio was about the same in substance, but a lot more intense: there’d been actual dirty tricks going on, the margin of error was smaller, the ground game more intense. The Secretary of State had been changing rules at the last minute and trying to defy court orders. The training packet was twice as thick as what I’d been given for Las Vegas. We were warned about specific instances of harassment and fraud that had gone on; it was our job, we were reminded over and over, to make sure that everybody got the opportunity to vote if they were registered to do so. Yes, people who said they wanted to vote for Romney. Everybody. Some of this was of course self-serving – we were told that for every Republican voter kept away by voter-suppression efforts, there were three Democratic voters blocked – but there was also a strong sense that however we may have felt about people voting for The Other Side, their right to exercise that choice was more important than whether we agreed with their choice.
On my way back to Akron, where I was to be stationed, I drove through a heavily black neighborhood in Cleveland. The large church I passed on my way to I-77 had a sign out front, the kind where you can change the letters around to inform people of the schedule every week. This one read:
1:00-4:00 DRIVE TO POLLS
The polling site was a middle school in a quiet neighborhood, not far off the highway. I had been told to arrive no later than 6:00 a.m., as polls opened at 6:30. When I pulled up about ten minutes early, the sky was just starting to lighten. I had my bag of shelf-stable things to eat, a bottle of water and a box of Starbucks coffee for the poll workers. (It was traditional for the senior poll observer to bring donuts, we’d been told, as a goodwill gesture, to the point that poll workers were surprised if we didn’t; I assumed that whoever was the precinct captain would handle that, and besides, I had no idea where the nearest decent donut shop was. But it’s never that hard to find a Starbucks.)
My assignment was to be an outside poll observer. In Ohio, to be an inside poll observer – to be actually present in the voting area with the poll workers – one must be a registered Ohio voter, which I am not. My job was to keep an eye on the lines, to make sure no electioneering was going on within a certain distance of the polls, and to assist any voters who were having trouble getting in and getting to vote. I had crammed on Ohio’s voter ID requirements and forms of acceptable ID and my phone had the voter-protection and information hotlines set on Favorites.
It was at or below freezing most of the time, and I periodically had to run inside to warm up or huddle in my car until I could feel my toes again, and lunch was a handful of snacks or canned tuna when I thought the stream of voters had slacked off a bit, and it’s going to be a few days before my lungs stop being mad at me: but it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.
First, the voters. They showed up before the polls opened and never stopped coming. We had a huge influx of people before the sun came up that didn’t slow down until almost 9 am – probably people trying to vote on their way in to work. Many of them were in wheelchairs or on walkers or canes. Many people brought babies or little children. They drove up in work trucks and vans and old cars with plastic taped over missing windows. They waited in lines that, I was told, stretched up to two hours at one point. (I called the inside observer, who made some phone calls; but there’s only so much you can do when an elderly poll worker has to take a bit of time to check names for the right precinct. As one of the roving precinct captains told me, “I hope I move as fast as they do when I’m eighty.”) They held doors for each other, chatted, let one gentleman on a cane go to the front of the line because he couldn’t stand for very long and wouldn’t have been able to vote if he’d had to wait. They called the voter hotline to find their precinct and drove home to get a utility bill because their ID was expired, and they absolutely wanted to vote.
Every so often a car or a van would pull up to the curb instead of parking. Nine times out of ten, this would be an elderly gentleman dropping off his wife right at the door while he went to park the car. (Did I mention that, with the wind chill, it rarely got above freezing most of the day? And that the parking lot was so cracked and full of misaligned asphalt that it was a trip-and-fall lawsuit waiting to happen?)
Second was being able to help people vote. I didn’t wear any election gear; I didn’t campaign. I greeted people coming in. If they had questions about whether they were in the right precinct, I directed them to the poll workers’ assistance table and offered to call the hotline for them. I explained to confused voters what ID they could use to vote: do you have a cell-phone bill at home, or a utility bill, or a student ID? One woman wasn’t sure and had to leave for work while she was still on hold with the state voter hotline; I called my group, got her precinct and address and texted it to her. (Thank you, she texted back.) I asked voters who didn’t have “I [Ohio] Voting” stickers on their coats if they were able to cast their ballot; if they said yes, I thanked them for voting, and if not, I tried to find out what the problem was. Sometimes it was just a lack of time, and I could tell them they only needed to be in the line by 7:30 and encourage them to come back. Almost all of them were very friendly. A couple asked me what I was doing there, but they smiled when they realized I was there to help them vote, not to hit them with one more election message.
One man walked out of the polling place, threw back his head and howled “THANK GOD, IT’S OVER!”
Fourteen hours after I arrived, it was indeed over, at least our little piece of it. The poll workers had printed the results from each of the four machines and taped them up on the doors to the school, facing out, where anyone could review them. (Mike, the inside observer, dutifully reported the presidential and senatorial results to the war room; roughly 2-1 in favor of the Democratic candidates, not surprising in a heavily blue-collar and African-American precinct.) We were supposed to wait around until every last paper had been put away, but as Mike said, did we think these nice old ladies were going to go back and sabotage the memory cards? No, we did not. We thanked them for their service and left, in my case to go find dinner that was warmer than room temperature and didn’t come out of a Zip-Seal package. There was a victory party planned somewhere in Cleveland, but a cold beer was absolutely the last thing I needed.
I’ve seen arguments that something is lost when we turn voting into a mail-in affair, and convenient though vote-by-mail is – I do it by default, since I never know if I’ll be home on Election Day – I am now even more convinced that it is true, that setting aside an official day for people to go to a polling place and cast their vote is a kind of civic religion, that there is value in creating a space where people can step into a voting booth, in private, and add their voice to the democratic process of deciding and our leaders and our laws.
I’m humbled and honored that the people of Ohio let me help them exercise their right to make those choices.