For the past three presidential elections, one of our film's subjects, Steve Miller, has written to friends and family about his experiences doing voter protection work on the ground. You can read those emails here.
NOVEMBER 2, 2016
HERE WE GO AGAIN - NORTH CAROLINA! FROM HOPE TO FEAR IN EIGHT YEARS
I am beginning this note on a flight back to New York after a few weeks in Italy, en route to North Carolina. For the third time in 8 years, I feel compelled to return from Europe to work as a Voting Rights Advocate. My feelings this time around were expressed best in the New Yorker’s daily cartoon yesterday:
Oy F@#king Vey! That pretty much sums it up for me.
As many of you might remember, during the last two presidential elections, my friends Laverne Berry, Robin Berger and I traveled to North Carolina (2008) and Virginia (2012) to serve as voter advocates. My motivation now, as then, is to do what I can, in my own small way, to ensure that everyone who has the right to vote and shows up at the polls gets to vote and to have their vote counted. Those trips were powerful experiences for us that revealed, in unexpected ways, the subtle, insidious damage that the restrictions on voting rights, crafted by state legislatures around the country, inflict on our democracy in general, and, in particular, on the individuals whose attempts to exercise their right to vote are thwarted.
In some ways, what we saw in the last two elections was life-changing for me. What had been a theoretical interest in voting rights became an awareness that I could contribute, in a direct and personal way, to fighting this problem. I have witnessed, up close, how devious the efforts to disenfranchise people can be. And I have seen what it means to a voter who, after taking time off from work, waiting on a line for hours and then being turned away without voting or only allowed to vote provisionally, learns that there is someone there who understands the law and can intervene on her behalf and reverse that decision.
During the last two elections, I was so surprised and disturbed by what I saw happening that I felt compelled to send out daily emails from the front line to many of you describing it all (For those of you who didn’t see those earlier emails or who would like to see them again, I’d be happy to resend them, if you are interested). This year, instead of waiting to write until I was down there, I thought I would let you know a little bit about what we are going to do now and why, so that my notes from the field can focus on what we are seeing and experiencing.
As we drove home from Virginia in 2012, Laverne, Robin and I discussed whether we would we do this again in four years. We weren’t sure. We imagined that the intense emotions and the strong sense of hope that had driven us to do this work in 2008 and 2012 would be lacking. Of course, we couldn’t have foreseen where we are today and the state of this campaign. And now we find it impossible to sit on the sidelines without doing something. This time, Robin will not be able to join us because she is working with the New York City Election Commission to ensure that things go smoothly there on Election Day. But this year, our friend Claire Wright is going to be with us. Claire is a South African lawyer who was very active as a student activist in the fight against apartheid. She moved to the States with her family several years ago and became an American citizen just last month. This is the first U.S. election in which she is eligible to vote. And she has already voted by absentee ballot, as have Laverne and I, so she can be in North Carolina with us on Election Day.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Shelby County decision
Apart from the disturbing state of this election, what makes this work feel even more urgent now is the fact that this will be the first presidential election in 50 years to take place without the protection of critical provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).
The VRA has been called the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. According to Ari Berman, who recently published Give Us the Ballot, the most authoritative book on the history of that law, it is known as ’the most important piece of civil rights legislation in the twentieth century and one of the most transformational laws ever passed by the United States Congress. It suspended literacy tests, authorized lawsuits challenging the poll tax, replaced recalcitrant registrars with federal examiners, dispatched federal observers to monitor elections, forced states with the worst histories of voting discrimination to clear electoral changes with the federal government to prevent future discrimination and laid the foundation for generations of minority elected officials.“
“The results were almost unimaginable in 1965. In the subsequent decades, the number of black registered voters in the South increased from 31% to 73%; the number of black elected officials increased from fewer than 500 to 10,500 nationwide; the number of black members of Congress increased from 5 to 44. The four congressional reauthorizations of the VRA lowered the voting age to 18, eliminated literacy tests and expanded protections for language-minority groups like Hispanics in Texas, Asian-Americans in New York and Native Americans in Arizona. The VRA became the prime vehicle for expanding voting rights for all Americans."
That historic, essential law was gutted by the Supreme Court in the infamous Shelby County case in 2013, just 8 months after Obama’s re-election. I wrote my final email to all of you after the election of 2012, in February, 2013, the day before the Court was going to hear arguments in that case. Back then, I wrote: “Our experience in Virginia surprised and upset us with the evidence it provided that the evil of voter suppression survives today. It was also shocking to realize how almost-imperceptible it can be, while still being effective. Voter suppression is still “unremitting and ingenious” and “flagrant and subtle.”” I wrote those words in 2013 when the VRA was still in full force. And I ended with: “If the Supreme Court and the Congress really care about the values of democracy that they so often espouse with their hands over their hearts and their references to American history, they will support the continuing vitality of the Voting Rights Act and pass new laws to make voting for everyone quicker, easier and less prone to manipulation. There is no excuse for the current situation."
Instead, a few months later, the Shelby decision came down. Only five years earlier, in 2006, the law had been extended for another 25 years by an overwhelmingly bi-partisan vote in Congress (in the House of Representatives the vote to maintain and extend the protections was 390 to 33 and then the Senate passed the House bill 98-0. You can’t get more bi-partisan than that). Clearly, after months of Congressional testimony and research, there was a consensus that the evils of voter suppression were still prevalent. It was signed into law by President Bush a week later.
Despite that, in June, 2013, Chief Justice Roberts and four other justices, wrote that “our country has changed in the past 50 years.” And he pointed to “ examples of progress” such as the fact that there were black mayors in Selma, Alabama and Philadelphia, Mississippi as justification for their decision to eviscerate the law. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg responded in her dissent: “In the Court’s view, the very success of… the VRA demands its dormancy…. Throwing (it) out when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminat(ion) is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not getting wet.” There is no better way to say that. Since the Court eliminated the strongest protections provided by the umbrella of the VRA, the stories of voter suppression have not only continued unabated, but have become a more forceful and unrelenting downpour. Within weeks of the Shelby decision, North Carolina and Texas passed new voter restrictions that would have been prevented under the VRA before. According to Berman, by 2014, in the first (non-presidential) election after Shelby, voters in 14 states faced new restrictions at the polls and, nationally, voter turnout plummeted to the lowest level since 1942! Not only was turnout down, but voting problems were up. Voting rights groups saw a 40% increase in calls for help to their hotlines compared to 2010.
Rather than go into more detail, I urge you to watch this short film on voting rights and the Shelby decision. It says, more vividly than I can, why this issue is so critical:
If this intrigues you and you would like to learn more about the history of the struggle for voting rights in the US, you should read Ari Berman’s book that I mentioned above. It’s a riveting, dramatic and informative re-telling of the fight for the passage of the VRA and its impact.
Why North Carolina?
A few months ago, when we first decided that we were going to do this work again, we did a lot of research on which swing states had the biggest issues in this area and then sorted through those to find states where our work would not only benefit the top of the ticket, but would also have an impact down ballot on control of the Senate or the House as well as the local legislatures, where redistricting would be affected. We examined Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina. The more we read, the clearer it became that North Carolina had become the epicenter of the battle for voting rights. In addition, this election would decide the fate of Pat McCrory, the highly controversial governor who signed the infamous bathroom law this past year which has caused so much economic loss to the state. And North Carolina has one of the nine competitive battleground races for the US Senate, between the incumbent Richard Burr, Republican, and Deborah Ross, the Democratic challenger. North Carolina soon became the most compelling place to be this year.
Voting Rights in North Carolina - In 2013, the year of the Shelby decision, Republicans controlled the governorship and the legislature in North Carolina for the first time since the beginning of the 20th century when McKinley was President. And they took advantage of that control to propose what was quickly referred to as The Screw the Voter Act of 2013 and the Longer Lines to Vote Bill. This measure required new strict voter IDs, cut early voting significantly, eliminated same day registration and much more. The law had been drafted and debated early in the year, but it was only on the day after the Shelby decision was announced that the chairman of the state senate’s rules committee declared that they were going forward with it. That was what they had been waiting for: permission to begin disenfranchising again with impunity! As Ari Berman said it, “North Carolina became the immediate case study of what a weakened VRA world would look like, a striking refutation of Justice Robert’s belief that voting discrimination was largely a thing of the past."
A recent article in The American Prospect summarized the current situation well: “Of all the states that rushed to restrict voting after Shelby, North Carolina moved the most aggressively. It enacted multiple voter-suppression measures. The day the law was signed, the ACLU and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed suit on the grounds that the statute discriminated against minority voters in violation of the 14th and 15th amendments. In one of the early cases in this matter, a judge had felt compelled to ask the lawyers defending these laws: “Why doesn’t North Carolina want people to vote?” After an uneven course through the lower courts, earlier this year, a federal appeals court found that the voter-ID provisions were unconstitutional. That unanimous decision included the finding that the new requirements “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” This decision was appealed to the Supreme Court and was upheld by a 4-4 vote only three months ago. In other words, the only thing that prevented North Carolina from implementing its voting restrictions this month was the high court’s current 4-4 split due to the death of Justice Scalia. Here’s a good analysis of the significance of this case: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/a-voting-rights-victory-in-north-carolina
But the effort to subvert voting rights in North Carolina didn’t end with that decision. The Republicans in North Carolina have refused to take no for an answer. Here are some links that describe the ugly and outrageous actions that officials in North Carolina have taken in the past few months to circumvent the clear court decisions in order to knock more people, primarily minorities, off the rolls:
- NC Republicans try to disenfranchise a 100 year old African-American woman https://www.thenation.com/article/north-carolina-republicans-tried-to-disenfranchise-a-100-year-old-african-american-woman/
- An interesting NPR overview of the immediate reactions in NC to the decision overturning the new restrictions there. Worth listening to: http://www.npr.org/2016/09/07/493001761/despite-court-ruling-voting-rights-fight-continues-in-north-carolina
- Despite court ruling reinstating early voting, 18 GOP-controlled Boards of Elections in NC killed early voting http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/10/27/1587236/-Super-Suppressors-18-GOP-controlled-boards-of-elections-in-North-Carolina-have-killed-early-voting?detail=email
- Two senior Republican Party officials in NC advised local elections boards in emails to choose polling places and voting hours that inconvenience minorities and other Democratic-leaning constituencies. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/26/us/elections/voter-id-laws.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news
In 2008, when we were last there, Obama won North Carolina by .32 % (There’s a decimal point in front of the 32. That’s less than half a percent!). In 2012, Mitt Romney won the state by a margin of 2.2%. As we learned in an online video training session this week, Romney’s victory translated to about 35 votes per precinct in North Carolina. In Virginia, in 2012, Laverne, alone, was responsible for helping at least 160 seniors who were being frustrated by obstacles to their attempt to vote at her precinct. The challenge ahead of us is clear. The state is evenly split and there are a lot of people trying to make sure that, despite the law, voters who are likely to support Democratic candidates have problems voting.
Where we’ll be
So, we are flying down to North Carolina tomorrow to attend a training on the state’s election laws that evening. On Friday, we’re heading to Cumberland County, where the campaign has asked us to serve as voter protection advocates during early voting on Friday and Saturday. On Election Day, Laverne, Claire and I have been assigned to three different precincts around Fayetteville. I will send more reports from there to let you know what we experience. Our greatest hope is that it is uneventful and that all goes smoothly. It would be thrilling if we don’t see the kinds of dirty tricks and illegal behavior we encountered in the past two elections.
A final note on emotions
In a recent conversation with Laverne and Robin, as we reminisced about our experiences in the last two elections and discussed our feelings this year, it became clear that our sense of what we are doing, and why, have changed radically over the past eight years. In 2008, the first time I ever felt driven to get involved in this way, I, like so many others, was inspired by a sense of hope. By 2012, that sense of hope had deteriorated after several years of obstruction and deadlock in Washington, but I was compelled to get out there again by a desire to help preserve what progress had been made and in the hope that Obama would have the chance to achieve more with another four years. This year, the primary emotions are fear and a sadness that over the course of these 8 years we have been on a trajectory from soaring hope to debilitating fear. And that progression has been reflected in the change in the political rhetoric from what was dominant in 2008 to what we’ve been hearing this year.
In addition to our fear of the efforts being made so blatantly to disenfranchise people, there is the fear of the impact this election can have on the world we will be living in for generations to come. And fear of the damage that could be done to the nature and fabric of our country by a victory of the forces that would use the fear and loathing of immigrants, Muslims, the handicapped and others to drive us apart.
In closing, I also have to admit to a new fear of my own this year which is coloring my thoughts as I head off to North Carolina. It is a fear that I didn’t feel as strongly in 2008 and 2012: a fear of violence. Listening to the calls for vigilantism at the polls this year has been unprecedented in my lifetime. And the suggestion that people hang around after voting to challenge people trying to vote frightens me. I recently met a couple from North Carolina who thanked me for the work we’re doing to help ensure things go smoothly. But the next words out of their mouths were: Be careful. They cautioned me to be prepared for violence and suggested that, given the gun laws in North Carolina, the heightened emotions this year and the calls to violence we’ve been hearing we bring pepper spray with us as a precaution! I had never even considered something like that before. But I have to admit that I followed up by discussing it with Laverne and Claire and doing some research on line about the laws on carrying pepper spray in North Carolina and where you can buy it. And that couple weren’t the only ones who were concerned for us. Unlike the prior years when we’ve done this, we are constantly getting expressions of concern from friends and family and being warned to be careful. One of Laverne’s friends from Boston has offered to fly down with her to be present on Election Day in case something happens. This is how fear spreads like a cancer and plants distrust in a society. It is our recognition of our own fears that have been triggered this year and our fear of that becoming the dominant mood in the world for the foreseeable future that drives us to do what we will be doing for the coming week.
I am pleased that I have reached this point in my note without naming either of the candidates. That was by design. I, and so many others, have said everything that needs to be said about them by now. I know that I am not alone in feeling drained and exhausted by the campaign this year and by the echo chamber of social media. I can’t wait for this to be over. In any event, the candidates are only part of the reason that we are going to North Carolina in a few weeks. And while it is clear that we have been partly driven to action this year by the behavior of “he who shall not be mentioned” our decision has been shaped, equally, by our perception that the precious, crucial right to vote is under a greater threat this year than it has been in 50 years. Our goal is not only to prevent injustices from being done where we can. It is also to bear witness, if we encounter efforts to suppress voters, so that we can provide evidence for some future Supreme Court argument to refute the mistaken assumption by some justices that we have changed so much in 50 years that voter suppression no longer exists.
I recently had the good fortune to attend a performance of Anna Deveare Smith’s one-woman show Notes From the Field. It was a moving and impressive performance in which Smith takes on the voices of many people she has interviewed over the past few years about issues of racism, education and the pathway of school to prison for so many minority youth in the US. Near the end of the show, as she speaks the words of a woman who is the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, she says this about the exhausting, relentless work she does fighting hate and discrimination: “As heavy as it is, it is a privilege.” That line resonated for me. It reflects how I’m feeling as I finish packing and get ready to head to the airport full of concerns and fears this year. It reminded of something I wrote from North Carolina eight years ago. I noted that Obama had inspired “old geezers like us, who thought they’d seen it all already, to break out of their normal routines and travel these long distances, at their own expense, so that they could work and drive for 18 to 20 hours a day, sleep in a shared room with two beds and a cot at a Days Inn on a strip mall in rural North Carolina (the only “hotel” for miles around) and then get up at 4:30 AM so they could be at their assigned polling stations when they open at 6:30.” And then I asked: “Why are we doing this? Because we WANT to stand in the rain (well, we could do without the rain) for 13 hours explaining to lines of poor, disenfranchised, mostly uneducated people, many of whom have never voted before in their lives, how they can make sure they know how to vote and that they get to vote.” Although the underlying emotions may be different this year, our motivation remains the same.
I’ll be writing more from North Carolina as things unfold.
Wish us well and send out some good vibes. I’m afraid we are going to need them. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
NOVEMBER 7, 2016
"SOME CRAZY SHIT GOING DOWN" AT GROUND ZERO
Greetings from Fayetteville, North Carolina. As I write this, Hillary, Bill, Chelsea, Lady Gaga and Jon Bon Jovi are on their way to Raleigh from Philadelphia, where she was with Bruce Springsteen too, to make North Carolina her last appearance before Election Day begins at midnight. North Carolina definitely feels like the right place to be right now.
It’s been a full and exhausting few days since my earlier email and this is my first chance to sit down and write. Once again, today’s New Yorker daily cartoon expresses my feelings perfectly after 5 days of doing this voter protection work down here:
Laverne, Claire and I have now been joined by another good friend of mine, Trista Mitchell, a writer (and non-lawyer). Her powerful and moving play, Queens for A Year, about women in the military, had a successful run at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut in September. After the play closed and she had begun to catch up on the election coverage, she felt the same urge that drove us: to do something to affect the outcome. She had been considering coming to North Carolina, among other states, and, when she got my last email, she felt inspired and made up her mind. She wrote back to me to say that she was getting a flight early Friday morning to meet us and take part in voter protection too. It turned out that, for the early voting period, the campaign had one last unmonitored precinct in Cumberland County, which is where we are. Trista was sent to that precinct on Saturday, the last day of early voting in North Carolina.
Bull’s Eye! We’re at Ground Zero of Voter Suppression
All our research paid off. As we were arriving in Raleigh on Thursday afternoon, the Guardian newspaper in the UK published an article online declaring North Carolina "ground zero of concerns over access to the ballot among black voters.” By now, those of you reading this in the US may have already seen the reports in the media about the case that has been unfolding over the past few days involving local Republicans' attempts to purge about 4,500 registered voters (mostly African-Americans registered as Democrats) from the rolls in three counties. After losing the law suits that I mentioned in my earlier note, they just couldn’t accept the fact that their attempts to stop minorities from voting were being frustrated. They are a determined bunch. Over the last three years, since the Supreme Court’s Shelby County case that I described in my last note (in which Chief Justice Roberts declared that the country had moved on from the times of voter suppression), they have attempted, among many other things,
- to gerrymander new districts solely to dilute the votes of minority voters
- to impose strict voter id laws that were crafted with “surgical precision” to prevent minorities from being able to register
- to limit early voting which disproportionately affected minority voters
- to close down polling stations in districts that primarily serve minorities
And each time, the courts declared their actions unconstitutional and racist. As each of their methods were taken away from them, they went off and came up with some new way to make sure minorities would be frustrated from voting in this state. After their latest loss in August, which reinstated early voting and got rid of the voter id requirement, they began a quiet campaign to purge voters from the registries by doing a mass mailing fishing expedition to minority voters. Under North Carolina law, If any letters came back as undelivered (for example, as in the case of the 100 year old woman who was removed from the lists because she gets all her mail at a PO Box, so the letter sent to her street address was returned) they could have those people removed from the voting lists. The NAACP here found out about this and had to bring yet another law suit to reinstate these voters. Last week, a federal judge wrote a scathing decision in which she said that she was “horrified” by the “ insane” process by which voters could be removed from the polls without their knowledge. She also wrote: “This sounds like something that was put together in 1901” when the state used Jim Crow laws to prevent black voters from casting a ballot. Last Friday, the judge issued an order that required all the purged voters to be reinstated by Tuesday and allowed to vote. Since then, everyone involved in preparing for the election tomorrow has been scrambling to figure out how to do that in such a short time. As I write this, at 11PM on Monday, we still can’t get a clear direction from our contacts within the voter protection team for the Clinton campaign or from the NAACP, with whom we’ve been speaking, about how these reinstated voters are going to be dealt with at the polls in the morning. The bulk of these voters, over 3,000, reside in Cumberland County where we are working. So we will get the brunt of the problems that arise. To put that 3,000 voters in perspective, we’ve learned that in 2008, when Obama won North Carolina by .32%, that margin represented only 2 votes per election district in North Carolina! So, now the Justice Dept is sending federal election monitors down here too!
Learning about the relentless campaigns to disenfranchise so many people here these past few months and then seeing their impact close up has been disheartening and depressing. I’ve found myself trying, and failing, to understand the kind of people who get up each morning motivated by the goal of devising new, subtle ways to prevent others from voting. Today, I was offered another way of looking at this. We attended an event organized by the North Carolina NAACP, which has been the leader in successfully fighting these efforts and we had the privilege of hearing the impressive, riveting head of the group, the well-known Reverend William Barber. He explained to his audience that what they should take away from all this ugliness is how powerful they are and how scared of them the people who do these things are. Why would they spend so much time, money and effort over the years to neutralize their votes if they weren’t afraid of them and the power of their votes. They should not be discouraged but, instead, take it as evidence of their collective strength.
When we arrived in Raleigh on Thursday evening, we went straight to the training session for voter protection volunteers at the headquarters of the Democratic Party there. Prior to leaving New York, we had received a 62 page manual outlining the election law of North Carolina which we had studied before we left. This course was meant to reinforce what we had learned and to answer our questions. The room was filled to overflowing with about 50 people, mostly lawyers from North Carolina. We learned that over 1400 local lawyers had volunteered to serve as poll observers and another 350 people had come from out-of-state, like we did. This was just for North Carolina. And we all have many friends who were doing similar work elsewhere. In response to my last note, I learned that so many of my friends were already in Ohio and Virginia and Pennsylvania. While this is encouraging, it is also a sad statement on the state of our democracy at this moment.
At this session, we heard about the problems that had already been seen at some polling stations:
- some precincts put up signs saying voter id was required, when that had been overturned by a court months ago
- stories of harassment and intimidation of voters
- touch screen voting machines that were too sensitive and often indicated a vote had been cast for the opposite party
- unnecessarily long lines
- At one precinct, someone had passed out sample ballots with all the democrats blocked out
One of the instructions that most impressed us was the requirement that we not be partisan. We were told that we were there to help all people to vote, regardless of party affiliation. As was true in 2008 and 2012, we are here to protect the integrity of voting rights, a principle that the Democratic Party fights for. In the prior years, we had helped several Republicans who got caught in the traps set by their own party leaders. And those voters had no one else to turn to for assistance but us.
So far, the only representatives from the Republican Party that we’ve seen were isolated, threatening men who seem intent on only one thing: intimidation. At the precinct we were assigned to on Friday, where most of the voters were minorities, we all noticed a man lurking (the only way to describe what he was doing) near the entrance. He was chewing gum and chain smoking with a ferocity that was hard to miss. He seemed so tense and wound up and ready to explode at any moment. We were worried that he might be carrying a gun. He kept pacing around and taking notes in a small pad and texting and calling someone with reports. At one point, I overheard him saying to someone on the phone: "There’s some crazy shit going down here.” It happened to be a beautiful day and everything was going smoothly there. There were no lines. The precinct judge was trying hard to make sure everyone got to vote without a problem and we had been pleased by the lack of issues. It couldn’t have been calmer. Many people arrived with their children and there was a positive feeling in the air. I shared what I’d heard the man saying with my friends and we tried to imagine what he was referring to. And then I realized what it was: black people were voting freely and without obstruction. To him, that was “real crazy shit.”
We have so many stories to share, but it’s almost 1AM now and we have to get up at 4 to be at our polling stations by 6AM, so I have to get some sleep. All the others are already in bed. We will be at the polls from 6AM until they close at 7:30PM and possibly longer if there are people still on line then. It’s going to be a long day. And we are expecting it be more challenging than anything we’ve seen so far. We were pleased to learn that this year the number of people who voted early here exceeded the numbers from 2012 by about 500,000! The total means that about 44% of all registered voters came out over the past two weeks. From the data of previous elections, that should bode well for the Democratic candidates. But it also means that the remaining voters will all show up in one day. And that group will include many of the voters who were surreptitiously purged over the past three months without knowing it. They will come out to vote thinking that they are still registered only to find out that there may be problems. And, as I mentioned earlier, we are in the county that accounts for about 3,000 of the purged voters.
I will write a note with more of our stories and about how it goes tomorrow after the election is over and we know the results. But, for those of you who haven’t seen my post on Facebook about Obama’s rally in Fayetteville on Friday, I have copied it here:
We were lucky enough to be invited to attend Pres. Obama's rally here on Friday. It was an inspiring experience. We were down on the floor in the midst of the crowd close to the podium, from the moment a Trump protester jumped up in the bleachers. It was a chilling moment, as I saw the Trump guy jump up shouting, interrupting Obama, and the whole crowd turned towards him. But it turned into a thrilling moment as Obama responded so calmly and implored everyone to settle down and respect this man's right to free expression and give him respect as a senior and someone who appeared to have served in the military. What a privilege to have been there to experience it live and close up. And what a contrast to Trump inciting his crowds to violence at similar moments. It reminded us of what's at stake in this election. And it reinforced our determination to do our work here and make sure everyone who is eligible to vote gets to do so despite the repeated, concerted efforts in the state to prevent people from exercising that essential right.
Good luck to all of us tomorrow.
November 16, 2016
pictures from ground zero
A week ago today, on Election Day, I had planned to write a very different note about the experiences we had in North Carolina. But that day already seems like a dream from a distant world, or a different era, and there are so many other important things to focus on now. It is incomprehensible how much has changed so quickly.
When I have calmed down and had a chance to process what we saw that day and what has happened since, I will write more to describe some of the determined and inspiring efforts people made to vote despite obstruction and all the depressing evidence we saw of the efforts to suppress the vote.
Although there is so much to say (about politics, history and resistance, about fear and hate and hope), I feel compelled to keep this email shorter than my earlier ones (I can hear a collective sigh of relief at that news) and more personal. To escape all the negativity at this moment, I want to share one positive impression from last week with you:
Through the course of my fifteen hour day standing outside my precinct, interacting with voters and polling staff, trying to be vigilant, available and fully engaged, I was struck over and over again by the number of parents who had made a point of bringing their children with them to vote. That reminded me of going to vote with my mother when I was a child (my father would vote very early, before he went to work, or late, on his way back at night, and always reported to us on his experience when he got home). I still have vivid memories of that day’s rituals. I loved everything about it, starting with watching my mother sign in at the large ledger. Back in those days, you pulled a curtain around the booth to protect your privacy. And my mother would let me or my brother pull the bar to close the curtain around us and then pull the levers to register her votes. At the time, it was a sort of adventure for me and it also allowed me to learn whom my mother voted for and, in a way, what she believed in. I knew it was something special and important. And looking back on it now, I realize that it was my parents’ way of both introducing me to the value of the right to vote and making the process normal and demystified so that, when I was old enough, I would feel it was a natural and necessary thing to do myself: a privilege and a duty.
In the midst of this dispiriting election and my total immersion in “ground zero” of voter suppression this year, seeing these families lifted my spirit. And, as they came out of the firehouse where they had voted, I felt compelled to let them know how great it was that they had brought their children with them. And then I asked if I could take a photo of them. Everyone I approached welcomed the idea, with surprise and delight, and it was a trigger for some real connections and shared stories. I got to tell the kids about my memories of voting when I was their age and they would tell me, proudly, how they had filled in the circles on the ballot for their parents and voted. I then got their email addresses and shared the pictures with them as a memento of that day. Many of the parents have written back to thank me for having recorded them with their kids that way. In the evening, as we watched the returns come in and felt the shock and despair that I know so many of you felt, those pictures offered me the only glimmer of hope from the day. And I also realized that, given the outcome, the photos I had sent to each of them could one day reinforce these kids' memories of voting with their parents in this momentous election. I feel confident that, because their parents shared the voting experience with them when they were young, most of these kids will become voters in the future, as I did with my parents’ example.
I took pictures of so many wonderful families that I would like to share with you, but they are too large to include in one email. I have attached a few of them in low res below and will send a few other favorites later with a separate email. I hope you can take some time to click on them, enlarge them and study the images a bit. Only afterwards, when I examined them closely did I see essential details I’d missed at the moment I took them and that hinted at larger stories that we didn’t have time to share. For example, in the first one below, I noticed that the mother was wearing her hat and apron from her job at Wendy’s. She must have somehow managed to find a moment to rush from work, without pausing to take off her uniform, and then made the effort to pick up her son so he could come vote with her before dropping him off again and returning to her fast food job. That image says more to me about the power of the vote and what it means to people than thousands of words. And it makes even more insidious the efforts of others to figure out ways to prevent citizens like her from being able to cast their vote. It brings to mind the statement I quoted from Rev. Barber of the NAACP in my last note: her right to vote must be a very powerful and threatening thing to the people who connive to block her from exercising it or they wouldn’t work so hard to do that. And by making her own effort to vote, and bring her son along to see her do it, she makes clear that she knows that and will be as relentless as they are. That gives me hope.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the photos.
November 5, 2012
On the last weekend of this seemingly endless election campaign that feels like it began before I was born, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney have all chosen to be in Virginia and, I am pleased to say, I'm here, too.
Four years ago this week, I wrote an almost identical sentence from North Carolina. I had just returned to the States from Italy to volunteer in North Carolina with my friends Laverne Berry and Robin Berger, two other lawyers from New York, as Voter Advocates at the polls for the Obama campaign in the historic election of 2008. At that time, I was so moved by my experience and what I witnessed that I felt compelled to write daily emails to many of you at the end of long, exhausting, but exhilarating, days, to share the excitement of that time from the front lines and many of you have asked me to do it again this time. In 2008, when we arrived there, we knew that, for 40 years, North Carolina had cast its electoral college votes exclusively for Republican candidates, with one exception. After a lengthy decision-making process, we chose to go to North Carolina then because Obama's candidacy had put the state in play, to everyone's surprise. And because there were risks of problems there on election day that could deny eligible voters their chance to vote and change the outcome. In the end, North Carolina voted Democratic for the first time in decades, but Obama's margin was only 13,000 votes out of over 4 million that were cast in the State! And that helped to give Obama his impressive victory back then. Our contribution to the effort that got us to that point left us feeling proud.
This year, we had to decide if we were once again going to take the time and make the effort, at our own expense, to volunteer for the Obama campaign. Four years later, so much has changed. We have the experiences and record of Obama's first term behind us and, while there is no doubt that it has been a time of great achievements, there have also, inevitably, been disappointments. Our expectations of him are more realistic this time. And the energy and excitement of working to break deeply entrenched historical barriers and expectations isn't at the same fever pitch as it was four years ago. But, in the end, given the tightness of this race, the risks of problems with the election process, the stark differences in the visions of the two candidates and parties for the US and the world and what we see as the high stakes of this election, we concluded that we hadto do our bit again. Rather than go into more detail on the decision, here is a link to the endorsement of Obama written by the editors of The New Yorker Magazine last week which sums up our feelings, if you're interested, better than I can, at the end ofa long day, sitting here at 3 AM in a hotel room in VirginiaBeach: www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/10/29/the-choice-8
Like them, we believe that "the re-election of Barack Obama is a matter of great urgency."
For some insight on why we ended up in Virginia, take a look at this report from Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle: www.sfgate.com/news/article/Big-names-big-rallies-frantic-finish-to-12-race-4007772.php The towns of Hampton and Newport News mentioned in this piece are just up the road from where we are in Virginia Beach. As the article notes, apart from the Presidential race, more outside money ($50 million) has been spent on the Senate race here than in any other Senate race in the country. The stakes are high.
So, last week, I flew back to New York planning to head down to Virginia soon after arriving. Instead, I got there just in time to encounter the storm called Sandy and our trip to Virginia had to be delayed while we weathered the onslaught of the storm and then dealt with the aftermath. It was a frightening and terrible experience. I, and most of my family and friends, were lucky and "only" suffered from extended power outages, fallen trees and other inconveniences and disturbances to our normal routines. But some friends suffered real losses. My experience of the storm and the response to it, reinforced our determination to come down to Virginia, one of the handful of swing states, as soon as we were able. Instead of leaving on Thursday, we finally headed out on Saturday.
The delay turned out to be fortuitous because it allowed us to get tickets to one of the last rallies of the election, in Bristow, Virginia on Saturday night. We stopped in DC, where my friend Leslie Charles had agreed to put us up on a moment's notice(thanks, Leslie) and then headed down to the rally, about an hour outside of Washington. It took place at the Jiffy Lube Arena which was filled to capacity and spilled out to the surrounding grounds with 25,000 people. The musician Dave Matthews performed first, followed by President Bill Clinton and then Barack Obama himself, who had already spoken to three other rallies in other swing states in different parts of the country earlier in the day. How do they do it? It was an unforgettable experience, but it's too late to write much about it now, after another full day of travel and then canvassing door to door in Virginia Beach, where we will serve as Legal Voter Advocates on Tuesday. I will try to write more tomorrow about our decision to work in Virginia and our experiences and observations so far, but for now, I wanted to share two of the photos I took last night at the rally. I was able to get up close to the stage where the presidents spoke and they were both in top form and energized the crowd. It was a great way to start our effort this year.
I hope to get time to write more on Monday.
As the Obama team's slogan says: We're all fired up!
November 6, 2012
A follow up to yesterday's note after another long day. Tomorrow we have to be at our polling stations at 5:30 AM to set up and meet the election officials. The polls will open in Virginia at 6 AM and stay open until 7 PM. We have to stay there through the whole day and then drop off records and documents after the last person has voted. Anyone who is on the line at 7 PM has to be allowed to vote and the last thing we will do is ensure that that rule is honored and people aren't sent homewithout voting. It's supposed to be a cold, and possibly rainy, day so we're bringing umbrellas and ponchos with us and lots of warm clothes.
As lawyers from outside Virginia, we can only serve as Outside Voter Advocates. Only lawyers from Virginia can serve inside the poll. They are trying to get as many polls covered by inside and outside lawyers because different crucial things will be happening in those two places. To prepare for tomorrow, we have had to study a 90 page manual on Virginia's election laws which we received about a week ago. We have also taken a one hour online video course on the laws here and what to expect tomorrow. Then, over the weekend, there was an hour conference call for all of us to have a chance to ask questions. We could also have taken a live course at some point, but they all took place in Virginia while we were stuck in New York. So, it's been a lot of preparation. We spent today at one of the campaign offices in Virginia Beach helping to prepare the packages of materials for all the lawyers tomorrow. We've all got logs to report incidents, large signs letting people know we are there and why, sheets explaining the important details of the local laws so people can easily read about their rights if problems arise in the polls and other materials like that.
It has been so impressive to be on the ground here and to see how organized everything is. It helps me understand better than ever why I've been getting hundreds of fundraising emails and letters and calls. The cost of the office space, the supplies, the phones, the food, the staffing, the cars, the materials, etc. etc. just in this one city in one state must be enormous. In Virginia alone, there are 2,400 polling places. We've heard that about 1,700 lawyers have come to Virginia from out of state just for the Obama campaign. That's to supplement the Virginia lawyers already here.
This must sound crazy, especially to my friends outside of the US who are reading this. Almost sounds like an effort to protect voting rights in some developing country with little experience of democracy. No? Well, for all the non-Americans reading this, one of the reasons this is happening is the recent spread of new Voter ID laws that have passed in many states over the past few years. For the most part, these laws have been created to put obstacles in front of people who want to vote. They can become so complicated that it takes lawyers weeks of study to understand what is required and permitted. You can imagine the confusion that can cause for the people staffing the polls and the people wanting to vote. As we were canvassing homes yesterday, we were often asked if the IDs people were planning to bring with them would allow them to vote. People aren't sure. This has been done mostly by legislatures in Republican-controlled states, with the professed goal of preventing voter fraud (people trying to vote who aren't entitled to). There have been many studies that have shown that voter fraud is, in fact, not a big problem anywhere in the US these days. The best way I can explain what these laws are about and how they work is to share a video made by the comedian Sarah Silverman. She can be a pretty raunchy performer and she is known for her strong language. So if that will bother you, don't watch this. But if that's not a problem for you, enjoy it. I think she makes the point very clear: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypRW5qoraTw
WHY DID WE COME TO VIRGINIA?
We thought about returning to North Carolina again this year but the polls indicate that it is going to revert back to its traditional place as a Red State, voting for Romney. According to the New York Times, Virginia continues to be one of the newest, important battleground states. and is at the center of Obama's fight for re-election. It's a deeply conservative state that until 2008 had not voted for a Democratic candidate since 1964. Before the last election, Virginia was considered a reliable Red state that would not have received the amount of attention that it is getting now. But population shifts have begun to change its demographics, especially in the north around Washington, DC. In 2008, Obama won the state by 7 percentage points. This year it's considered a toss up and it is impossible to predict what will happen here.
- Virginia is one of the states that has a new Voter ID law this year and, it has already caused confusion at the polls during some early voting. It's not as challenging as some states, but has created new barriers for people to vote.
- In addition, we've just learned on a conference call that, as of today, Virginia is the swing state with the closest tie in the polling between the two candidates for President. This is the tightest toss-up state of all of them. Every single vote counted could determine who gets Virginia's 13 electoral votes. Since they are critical to both sides as they strive for their 270 votes, both sides will have a strong presence at the polls.
- Then, there is the Tea Party-affiliated group called True the Vote. This is a group based in Texas that was created to send people to polls where there are new Voter ID laws with the sole purpose of challenging people's IDs andcredentials. It has been a very targeted effort to disenfranchise people likely to vote for Obama. In a way, they are the enforcers of the agenda that Sarah Silverman described in her video. They have repeatedly announced that Virginia is one of their primary targets this year. Here's a brief piece from the local news here on this: http://www.wjla.com/articles/2012/10/true-the-vote-virginia-among-swing-state-election-targets-81071.html Of course, we all hope this doesn't materialize as a problem, but if it does, our role is to be there at the moment that potential voters are being turned away or challenged to make sure they have some one on hand familiar with the law and able to advocate on their behalf. Each time that a True the Vote effort is not challenged at the moment it takes place we will have lost one voter from this election permanently.
The 90-page manual on Virginia law that we had to study opened by thanking us for helping to ensure that every eligible Virginian gets to vote and that each vote gets counted. It made me wonder what the True the Vote manual opens with: "Thank you for helping us ensure that not every Virginian gets to vote?" Actually, if I try not to be cynical about them, I imagine that some of them believe they are ensuring that only eligible voters get to vote and no one else. That is one of the dilemmas of this whole process. We all fervently believe we are fighting for crucial principles that we cherish and everything has become purely adversarial.
I have to admit that I found writing all of that pretty upsetting. I know I am not unusual in finding the intensity of these battles and efforts so disturbing. It crushes one's spirit. The fact that so many resources and so much energy and time is spent on just having an election (not to mention the obscene amounts of money spent on these campaigns that could do so much to solve the problems these elections are meant to address) rather than on governing or finding solutions to acknowledged common problems is astounding. The fact that I felt compelled to come here from Italy to do something to ensure that voters are protected is upsetting to me. But, here I am. And, given all these issues, I am glad we are here to contribute to the effort to keep the elections fair. Of course, we all hope that there will be no incidents tomorrow, but if problems do arise, I'll be glad to be there to ensure that people being challenged have an informed advocate available.
One final noteworthy element of the training we have been through was the advice to remain calm always and to resist provocations to engage in confrontation. This was not just good advice, but part of our media training. We were warned that we should always assume someone in the area is recording us on a phone or camera. Any misstep or angry outburst will be going viral online within an hour and embarrass not only ourselves, but the Obama campaign. And there may be people there tomorrow purposefully trying to do that. So our mantra for tomorrow is "Solve problems. Stay calm." That's if for now. Time for a few hours of sleep. Tomorrow when you are watching the returns, keep an eye on what's happening in Virginia. We'll be out here doing our best to make sure that, whatever the outcome, it was reached fairly.
February 26, 2013
(written just before the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act)
The last time you heard from me, I was writing at 2 AM in a hotel room in Virginia Beach, as Laverne, Robin and I prepared to head out in a few hours to spend Election Day as Voter Advocates for the Obama Campaign in Virginia Beach. Many of you have written to me since then asking "So, what happened?" Well, we all know that Obama won the election, including the State of Virginia. I've planned to share the stories of what we experienced on election day ever since then. It was an unforgettable day, full of drama and surprises and it demonstrated to us how subtle and effective real voter suppression can be. Not only were we startled by some of the tactics we witnessed, but we ended the day confident that, although we weren't able to prevent all the abuse that was happening around us, we had been instrumental in saving dozens, if not hundreds, of votes that otherwise would not have been cast or counted.
Although it is now more than three months since the election, I hope you will take the time to read about what we saw in Virginia. I believe these stories are as relevant now, if not more so, as they were back in November.
One of the reasons that I have carved out the time to write this now is that this tomorrow, February 27th, the Supreme Court will be hearing an important voting rights case called Shelby County v. Holder. In that case, the Court will be asked by a county in Alabama to overturn one of the critical components of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. As I have been reading articles and analysis of the case, it has helped put our experiences in November in bold relief and made me feel agreater urgency to share our experience with others. I hope you won't mind a little background on the Voting Rights Act. I think it will give a context to what we saw in Virginia.
VOTING RIGHTS ACT OF 1965
In the midst of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Voting Rights Act outlawed discriminatory voting practices (like literacy tests and poll taxes) that had traditionally been responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans in the US.
Last week, in an editorial about the upcoming Shelby County case, the New York Times ran an editorial in which they said:
"The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a triumph of the civil rights movement. In 1966 when the Supreme Court first upheld the law, they said it was a “response to an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of the country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution. It was a targeted law that chose areas to be covered by its protections based on a formula that considered whether they had used devices to discourage voting, like literacy tests, in the past." Jeffrey Toobin, writing in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, called the Act "the most effective law of itskind in the history of the United States." It's a good article: www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/01/14/casting-votes
Since its enactment in 1965, the law has been repeatedly renewed and was extended for another 25 years in 2006. It currently applies to nine states – Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia and to scores of counties and municipalities in other states where illegal voter suppression has occurred. It is that recent renewal of the law that is being challenged next week.
According to the brief filed by Shelby County they believe that "the law is no longer needed because it has already accomplished its mission." This argument has been echoed by the Chief Justice, John Roberts, and other members of the Roberts Court in the past few years. Toobin points out that Roberts has shown a marked animosity to the Voting Rights Act. In a decision about the Act in 2009, Roberts complained that 1965 was a long time ago and he stated that "since then the South has changed."
For the first time in almost fifty years, this law seems to be under a real threat of being diluted. A few days ago, Linda Greenhouse, the New York Times’ Supreme Court correspondent, wrote a thorough analysis of whatis at stake in this case and why it is being challenged now. She starts her piece by asking a question that reflects the importance of this law: “How can it be that one of the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement, a provision upheld on four previous occasions by the Supreme Court and re-enacted in 2006 byoverwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress (98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House), a law thatPresident George W. Bush urged the justices to uphold again four years ago in one of his final acts in office, alaw that demonstrably defeated myriad efforts both flagrant and subtle to suppress or dilute the African-American vote, is now hanging by a thread?” (If you have the time and interest, you should read her whole piece here: opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/20/the-more-things-change/ )
Most scholars and commentators I have read agree with Greenhouse that the heart of this law is now "hanging by a thread" because of the current Court's make up. Toobin, in his article, discussed how, “…after the 2010 midterm elections, nineteen states passed laws that put up barriers to voting, including new photo-I.D. and proof of citizenship requirements.... In the months before Election Day last year, courts across the nation played an admirable role in dismantling the most excessive of the new voting laws. The Department of Justice. the federal courts and state courts used the Voting Rights Act to block initiatives in Florida, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. Had the courts failed to take such action, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, as many as five million votes might have been lost, which was, as it happens, almost exactly Obama’s popular-vote margin over Romney. It is nothing short of perverse – or, perhaps, predictable, - that the Supreme Court has chosen this moment to consider undoing any mechanism that helped to defeat voter suppression."
Our experience in Virginia surprised and upset us with the evidence it provided that "the insidious and pervasive evil" of voter suppression survives today. It was also shocking to realize how almost-imperceptible it can be, while still being effective. We personally experienced the truth of some of the descriptions I put in bold above: voter suppression is still "unremitting and ingenious" and "flagrant and subtle." Unfortunately, we learned first hand that the mission of the Civil Rights Act has not yet been accomplished.
VIRGINIA BEACH - NOVEMBER 6, 2013
In 2012, Virginia had close to 2,400 polling places. Laverne, Robin and I were assigned to three of those within a mile or so of each other in Virginia Beach. In 2008, McCain won Virginia Beach by a very slim margin. In2012, Romney won Virginia Beach by a somewhat larger margin. All three of the precincts that we covered, however, went for Obama in 2008 by healthy margins, from 53% in Laverne's precinct to 57% in mine and 72% in Robin's. Our task was to make sure that no one who was eligible to vote and wanted to do so would be turned away this time. Our expectation was that, given the new voter ID laws, our presence and our efforts would help Obama keep his margins at close to those of four years earlier. Clearly, the local Republicans had also given thought to the fact that these three districts had supported Obama last time around. As the day proceeded, it became obvious to us that Republicans had been given the chief oversight roles at each of our precincts.
THE START OF A LONG DAY OF LONG LINES:
The polls in Virginia open at 6:00 AM and we had been instructed to arrive at our precincts no later than 5:30to set up and introduce ourselves to the election officials there. My district was closest to our hotel, so Laverne and Robin dropped me off first, at around 5:15, and then continued on to their posts. We were all astounded as we drove up to the front of the building where my precinct was voting. In the pitch black, cold November morning, under the weak light of nearby street lamps, there was a line of well over a hundred people already patiently waiting for the doors to open in 45 minutes (see first photo below). Laverne and Robin found the same thing at each of their places. The first thing I did was set up the sign we'd been given that let people know we were Voter Advocates for the Obama campaign and were there to answer questions and, in particular, to help anyone who had been told to cast their vote in a green envelope (see photo below). Virginia requires anyone whose registration or ID is challenged to fill in a provisional paper ballot, rather than the electronic ballot everyone else used, and to seal it in a green envelope for review later. These were the people who we thought would be the focus of our efforts that day. More about that below.
After setting up, I went in to the polling station to introduce myself, so that they would know I was there. Only Virginia lawyers were allowed inside. As out-of-state lawyers, we were required to remain outside all day. There was an in-state lawyer at Laverne's site who observed what was going on from inside, but Robin and I were on our own and had to develop tactics to figure out what was actually happening from moment to moment from outside the building.
In our training, we had been told to make an effort to try to develop a friendly connection with the local election workers and to avoid an adversarial relationship. Despite my best efforts to do that, the cool, suspicious reception I received made it clear that I was not a welcome participant as the day began. As the day went on, I managed to win over the staff at my poll by first getting friendly with a localRepublican official who had set up a table with pamphlets near me. I quickly realized that he was working very closely with the district head inside (and later, when they had relaxed around me and had invited me inside, I even heard him commend the district head on the great job he was doing and promise to "report back to the party" on his performance). I quickly saw that the Republican official was there to influence what was going on and give support to the supposedly nonpartisan, objective election officials. Once I'd earned their trust, they invited me in at lunch time to share the meal they had prepared for the election workers and even ended up inviting me in to watch the vote count at night. By the end of the day, they were giving me their business cards and telling me to stay in touch! This allowed me to see what was going on at close quarters and even to influence the day's outcome. Robin wasn't so lucky. Her staff kept her outside all day and cut her off from any contact with them. They used the rules to prohibit her from even entering the building to use the bathroom during the 14 hours she was there.
As soon as the polls opened, the trouble began. At my site, there was a surge of people at the front of the line to get in and then everything seemed to stop. After about 20 minutes the first people to vote started to trickle out. Several came over to me to complain that there was chaos inside. The first people who got in had been instructed to sit down in rows of chairs that had been set up, which they did. Then the first two people had been called up to register at the front desk. There were three computers set up for registration but only two were being used, so only two people could be processed at a time. And each time another person was called up, the whole line had to move up one chair! People started complaining about the inefficiency of this system and finally persuaded the officials to remove the chairs and let a line form that could move along more efficiently and comfortably. When people complained about the computer that wasn't being used, they were told that theBoard of Elections had instructed all precincts to keep one computer unused as a back up in case one of the others crashed. Of course, this made no sense. If they had used all three through the day and one had broken, they would still have had two working and they would have processed more people quicker all day. The people who came up to complain to me about this told me that in previous years there had always been at least three sign in books there. Those books had been replaced by three computers now, but only two could be used. I went in to object to this and was told the same thing: the Board of Elections had ordered them to keep one in reserve. In light of what I witnessed through the rest of the day, I can only conclude that this was part of a conscious plan to keep the lines longer and slower than they needed to be. They had the resources to move things along, but refused to use them.
As the day progressed and more people arrived the lines only grew longer. The wait was never less than an hour and a half and often was well over two hours at both my poll and Laverne's. Every hour or so, I would pick out a person at the end of the line and then track and time them until I saw them enter the front door. Laverne and I saw many people just give up and leave. Most of them never returned. But we did see a few who came back later in the day to wait again until they finally got in. Their determination in the face of the obstacles to their voting was inspiring.
CURBSIDE VOTING AND DIRTY TRICKS:
Virginia allows people who are old, weak or sick to vote at the curb. They are permitted to ask for a ballot box to be brought out to them in a car or on the street without having to wait on the line or go inside. Our training had prepared us for officials who would resist doing this and to ensure that this rule was honored. So we were all impressed when we drove up to my poll and saw a big sign indicating where people should pull up for curbside voting. There would be no obstruction here. An hour later, when the first person pulled up asking for curbside voting, I went inside to let them know and was struck by how willing they were to comply and how quickly they folded up one of the voting booths to bring it outside. I clearly didn't have to worry about that and focused elsewhere for problems. My mistake. It was only a few hours later that an angry woman came over tome to point out that since I'd called for the booth to be brought to the curb, the election official had stayed outside with the folded voting booth at his side chatting with people on line despite the fact that no one else had driven up and asked for curbside voting. Ingenious, flagrant and subtle. While seeming to comply with a rule meant to ensure everyone, including the old and weak, could vote, they had managed to shut down one of the few booths available for the people waiting on line for hours, making the wait even longer. And I hadn't even noticed. I went over to this man and mentioned that I hadn't seen anyone ask for curbside voting in a while and thought that it would be best for him to take the booth back inside. He was clearly embarrassed and without an argument, realizing he'd been caught, ran back in to set it up again. The line moved noticeably quicker after that.
In the neighboring district where Laverne was working, they used another tactic involving curbside voting. When the first person asked for it, Laverne went in to get help and was told they would only bring a booth outside if the voter had a state-issued handicap sticker on their car. We had never been told that was required in our training and Laverne challenged them. They insisted and refused to go out. She argued with them and then tried to find support for her position in the manual we had studied. She finally called the "Boiler Room," the central campaign office in Virginia where lawyers trained in Virginia's election laws were waiting to offer advice and legal support to all of us on the front lines. They confirmed her position that there was no legal definition of "handicap" in the law. With that she was able to go back and make the argument that the election officials interpretation exceeded the law. They grudgingly had to concede. While she had been fighting this battle, the person who had asked for curbside assistance had left. Later in the day, several vans from old age residences pulled up full of people wanting to vote. Many of these needed curbside assistance but, of course, didn't have personal handicap permits. Because the issue had been resolved earlier in the day, the officials had no choice but to comply with these requests. Laverne is sure that close to 100 people were able to vote this way by the end of the day. While there is no way to know how many of them voted for Obama, that's not the point. But keep in mind that Obama won this district by only 112 votes! If she hadn't been there, the officials would have gone on refusing curbside voting to anyone without a handicap sticker. Before she had won this battle, she noticed many other people with canes or needing support who just got on the line and waited along with everyone else. She even saw one old man who was on oxygen support slowly inching along with the line. There was nothing she could do to help him until she resolved this issue.
At the end of the day, when we compared notes, we were struck by how different the approaches were in our two districts which were no more than a mile apart. In one they had put up signs encouraging curbside voting, but used that to shut down a booth for hours, at the other, they made up rules to reduce the number of handicapped people who could vote. We realized that this sort of inconsistency erodes the ability to make concentrated efforts to address the problems and fix them.
ID PROBLEMS AND THE GREEN ENVELOPES:
As I mentioned above, Virginia allows people whose identification or registration is challenged to vote provisionally in green envelopes. The idea is that they can register their vote on election day, but in order for it to be counted they have to follow up within a few days with documentation to support their right to vote. We had been told that these rules and information on what to do next had to be provided to anyone voting this way. We were surprised to learn that there were no handouts at the polls with written instructions of what was required. We also quickly learned that no one inside was explaining the rules to these voters. Every one of the people who had voted provisionally who we were able to identify and talk to had the impression that they had just voted. They had no idea that anything more was required of them. They were so upset when they learned the truth and grateful to learn that they could follow up with the materials we gave them. I wasn't supposed to ask who people had voted for, but every person I helped with the provisional ballots volunteered the information that they had voted for Obama and were horrified at the thought that their vote wouldn't be counted. Laverne encountered a few Republicans who had had to vote with the green envelopes, but because they had identified her as a Democrat working for Obama they didn't want to stop to speak with her and rushed past her acknowledging that they'd voted in a green envelope but that everything was fine. Laverne was able to help more people who had voted in the green envelopes because she had the Virginian lawyer inside alerting her by phone and text whenever someone who had voted provisionally was coming out. Laverne would get a message that a tall woman with a red coat was on her way and Laverne could look for her and approach her to discuss her vote. Robin and I, who had no inside lawyer working with us were reduced to trying to intercept everybody coming out and asking if they'd voted in a green envelope. I learned that many more people in my district had voted provisionally than I had been able to speak with. Laverne managed to get to most of hers. It shouldn't have taken the presence and effort of two people to make sure that people got the basic information required to ensure that the votes that they had waited over two hours to cast were actually counted. And think of all the people who voted in green envelopes where there were no Voter Advocates. Most of those were probably discarded when no one followed up as required.
THWARTING A FINAL ATTEMPT TO ENCOURAGE VOTERS TO GIVE UP:
My proudest moment came at the very end of the day. In the late afternoon, as it started to get dark again, it began to rain heavily and steadily. This only contributed to the discomfort of the waiting lines of people and caused more of them to give up and go home. I watched this with increasing dismay. By this time, I had become good friends with everyone inside and they let me come in to dry off. The law in Virginia requires that the polls close at 7 PM, but anyone already on line by 7 has to be allowed to vote, even if it takes hours for them to get in. As 7 o'clock approached the line outside still stretched out of sight into the nearby woods despite the terrible weather. At the pace things were moving it would take at least 90 minutes or more for everyone to vote. I overheard the local Republican leader discussing what to do with the head of the election district. They were talking about how to ensure that no one who arrived after 7 could cut into the line and sneak in illegally. They decided to post a staff member at the end of the line to stop anyone from joining it there. They were also concocting a convoluted plan that would have another staff member slowly go down the line in the rain requiring everyone waiting to sign a sheet. Then they were going to match the names on the sheet with each person entering the poll to make sure no one had cut into the line in the dark. They clearly were intent on keeping everyone waiting in line outside in the downpour, with the clear hope that more people would just give up. When I overheard this, I thought I would try to get them to focus their attention on preventing the latecomers from illegally voting rather than on the people already there waiting in the rain. I wandered over and asked what they were thinking of doing at 7. They explained their plan for the list and I said I didn't think that would be the best way to prevent latecomers from voting. There were so many people out there stretching out of sight in the dark that they couldn't guarantee that people didn't cut in before the list maker got to them. I proposed that if they really wanted to avoid this problem, they should bring everyone who was there before 7into a long hallway inside the building that would accommodate all of them. Then, I said, they could lock the doors and keep out any stragglers who would try to sneak in. When I brought up the idea of locking voters out, I swear their eyes lit up. They liked that idea. As far as I was concerned, anyone arriving after 7 wasn't allowed to vote anyway, but I wanted to protect the people who were already there and get them inside where it was light and dry and warm. They went off to discuss it privately and came back to thank me for the idea. As we moved everyone inside and locked out the latecomers, i was thrilled to watch the relief on everyone's faces as we locked them in. We brought in well over 100 people, none of whom left. Among them were three more provisional voters whom I watched seal their green envelopes without a word of advice from the staff. I was able to stop each one of them before they slipped out and got them to understand what had just happened. Each of them expressed their sincere gratitude (and volunteered that they had voted for Obama) and left determined to follow up to make sure their vote would be counted.
In the end, Obama's margin of victory in each of our districts was exactly the same as in 2008. In Laverne's district Obama won by only 112 votes and she was responsible for many of those. In my district, his margin was larger, 319, but I believe I was responsible for a good proportion of those that might otherwise not have been cast or counted When you think of the rest of the 2,400 precincts in Virginia, many of which didn't have any Voter Advocates present, and all the creative methods of suppressing and discouraging voting that we saw in our small samples, it becomes clear that the Voting Rights Act is still a vital tool for ensuring open and fair elections. The overt racism of the past may be unacceptable today, but from our experience I am confident that ingenious and subtle efforts continue to support voter suppression today. Vigilance is still necessary.
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a piece on the effect of waiting times at the polls on the election which said that studies have indicated that the long lines cost Democrats hundreds of thousands of votes in November. One study has shown that in Florida alone more than 200,000 voters gave up in frustration. Obviously, this included many Republicans because the study concluded that the net impact of all of these voters who gave up cost Obama an additional 15,000 vote lead in a state that he carried by about 74,000 votes. See the full piece here: www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/us/politics/waiting-times-to-vote-at-polls-drawscrutiny.html
The Times also published a strong editorial on this topic last week that made the point that “Long lines are not the inevitable result of big turnouts in elections. They are the result of neglect, often deliberate, of an antiquated patchwork of registration systems that make it far too hard to get on the rolls. They are the result of states that won’t spend enough money for an adequate supply of voting machines …and they are the result of refusals to expand early voting programs, one of the best and easiest ways to increase participation.” Our experience inVirginia bears this out.
Starting on election night, President Obama has made sure that this issue remains on his agenda and in the public eye. In his brief comments after it was clear he had won, Obama made sure to mention that the country needs to fix the problem of the long lines that were experienced all over the country that day. In his Inaugural Address last month, he told the country that "Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote."
And just two weeks ago, in his State of the Union speech, Obama included a strong reminder of how important this issue is for him and the country: "We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote. But defending our freedom is not the job of our military alone. When any Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. That’s why, tonight, I’m announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And I’m asking two longtime experts in the field, who’ve recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign, to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.
We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read “I Voted."
Democrats in the House and Senate have already introduced bills providing for online registration and at least 15 days of early voting. And 14 states are considering expanding early voting. After our experience in Virginia, I am going to do whateverI can to support these efforts. I hope you will, too. And let's hope the Supreme Court does the right thing in the Shelby County case. I will be thrilled if by 2016 I don't feel the need to travel to North Carolina or Virginia, as I have for the last two presidential elections, to serve as a Voter Advocate trying, in my own small way, to keep the system honest and to protect citizens from having their voting rights stolen from them.
A FINAL THOUGHT
As I finish writing this, I am in Italy watching news reports about the election that just took place here. The polls throughout the country were open, Sunday, from 8 AM to 10 PM, and Monday, from 7 AM to 3 PM. A full weekend day and a good part of a week day. From the scenes on TV showing the voting sites in every corner of Italy it seems there were no long lines anywhere. People are just walking in to the polls, voting and leaving. There have been no stories about problems for voters anywhere, apart from the bad weather. It's been snowing a lot in broad areas of the country. What a difference from what happened around the States in November. It seems like a process completely unrelated to ours.
It's been interesting to see friends and neighbors here, many of whom are registered to vote in their birthplaces and hometowns or at their country homes, giving up their weekends and making the effort to travel what are often very long distances to get back to these places far from where they live now just so they can vote. One of my closest friends flew back from Paris to his small village in the province of Parma in time to vote today. And watching the news, I've seen people around the country braving the unusually bad weather conditions to make sure they vote. In my experience, Italians, in general, are not used to the amounts of snow that have been falling these past few days in some places and they are completely unprepared for the clean up and lack the equipment for snow removal. Many people don't have snow tires and when it snows schools and businesses close and people stays off the roads. But on the news one person after another, when asked by a reporter if it was difficult to get to the polls and if they had considered not voting, responded with comments about how voting is one the most important civil rights and they wouldn't miss it for anything, or that they are so worried about the outcome that they couldn't afford not to vote. There was a consistent theme of how seriously these people took the responsibility to vote. This was true despite the dysfunctional nature of Italian politics at the moment, a decades-long history of broken political promises and what I would almost call the betrayal of theItalian people by their political class. Even though I am sitting here very upset with the results they are reporting and worried about Italy's near future, I found the average citizen's commitment to voting and the value they placed on their votes moving and impressive.
In North Carolina four years ago and in Virginia in November, we had similar reactions watching the long lines of people, already gathered at 5:30 AM, patiently waiting for their turn, inching forward almost imperceptibly for two hours or more to make sure that they got those few minutes in the voting booth. We saw people who had given up in the morning when they finally had to leave for work returning in the evening to wait again. Their determination and dedication to voting were astounding. Despite the mess of the current political situation in the US, with gridlock in Washington and Congress seeming to be incapable of doing anything, regardless of what people's party affiliations were, they cared enough to make real personal sacrifices to vote. Like Desiline Victor, the 102 year old woman introduced by Obama, they had not given up on the political process and still felt it critical to add their votes to ensuring an outcome that mattered to them. They believed voting meant something crucial and was necessary. It was this same feeling that moved me to fly back fromItaly for a week to serve as a voter advocate. And, if the Supreme Court and the Congress really care about the values of democracy that they so often espouse with their hands over their hearts and their references to American history, they will support the continuing vitality of the Voting Rights Act and pass new laws to make voting for everyone quicker, easier and less prone to manipulation.
november 3, 2008
On this last day of this seemingly endless campaign that feels like it began long before I was born, Barack Obama has chosen to be in North Carolina and, I'm pleased to say, I'm here, too. I've been here with my friends Laverne Berry and Robin Berger since Friday doing Voter Protection work with the Obama campaign. It's been an incredible, moving and reassuring experience so far.
I'm in Raleigh this morning and am preparing to head down to one of the poorest, rural districts in the state for my work tomorrow. Before I leave, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts and impressions.
Those of you who have known me for over 20 years might remember the day the Berlin Wall started to come down in November 1989, when I was so frustrated watching it all on the TV news reports that I got on a plane to Berlin to experience it first hand and do my part in dismantling the Wall. The Wall became a magnet for people from all over the globe who wanted to participate in the dismantling of this powerful symbol. It was a momentous historic moment and I've always been grateful that I was there.
Since then, I haven't felt the same compulsion to drop everything and travel so far to join in something like that. Until now. This time, though, I've had to make a trip in the opposite direction.
I've gone on a bit much below. If you don't have the time or patience to read through it all, I at least want to say that my experiences in Italy and North Carolina over the past few weeks have brought home, in a personal way, more than all the analysis and coverage could ever do, the real significance of this election:
Recently, the sense of hope and the potential of a renewed America that I have felt directed towards the US in Europe and down here in North Carolina among disenfranchised, previously unengaged or alienated voters has been overwhelming. I believe, among the general population, those feelings are at levels that haven't been seen since the immediate post-World War II era. It's definitely different from anything I've ever seen in my lifetime. For those of you who have not traveled outside the US recently, it is difficult to explain what a radical sea change that is abroad. After years of having to deal with the disappointment, anger and surprise at the behavior of the US from friends, colleagues and even total strangers around the world (many of whom had always loved the US), it is moving to see them beginning to have hope about us again. It's almost as if an Obama victory would return us to the days immediately after 9/11, when we saw that outpouring of respect, support, encouragement and affection for the US around the world that Bush squandered so quickly. Obama is appealing to "the better angels of our nature" and people everywhere have been yearning for someone to do that for years. It's been palpable in Europe and it's palpable here in North Carolina.
If we elect Obama on Tuesday, we will have made a big step toward repairing some of the damage that Bush has inflicted. Of course, there is no way to know what challenges lie ahead for the next president and how Obama will fare in the coming years. Just as the world has not changed in the ways that we might have expected when the Wall came down, so an Obama presidency might not deliver on all the promises and expectations we have today, but that won't diminish the great historical and symbolical significance that his election would have, in the same way that world events since 1989 haven't diminished the meaning of the fall of the Wall.
MY DECISION TO PARTICIPATE:
A few months ago, I started feeling very anxious sitting in Italy watching this election unfolding from a distance and I decided to volunteer to serve as a Poll Observer for the Obama campaign in a swing state on election day. According to a recent article in the NY Times, I was not alone. Over 10,000 lawyers have volunteered this year to do the same thing. Clearly, the last two presidential elections have made us all very nervous.
Last Wednesday, I flew back to New York from Scansano to meet up with Laverne and Robin and then head down to Raleigh.
During the days before I left Italy, I was amazed at the outpouring of support for Obama from my Italian friends and neighbors in our very rural area. I wore an Obama t-shirt for a few days and people would come up to me to talk about how much they were hoping for an Obama victory. Some people talked about the need for the US to return to its old values after 8 years of Bush, others said an Obama victory would show them that there was still hope that that they too could make a similar change after so many years of Berlusconi. The common theme was that they wanted to see the US with an inspiring, trusted leader who could have a positive impact on the rest of the world and serve as a model for everyone. In almost 40 years of spending lots of time in Europe, I have never seen a reaction to a potential president like this. Several people there have told me that they are praying for his welfare because they are so afraid that someone will do him harm. I found a similar reaction when I was in Paris recently for business. Everyone I spoke with, from the cab drivers to waiters in restaurants to business executives and friends were obsessed with what has been happening here and yearning for Obama to win. Since I've been in North Carolina, I've been receiving emails from friends all over Europe wishing me luck and telling me how much their hopes are with us tomorrow.
WHY NORTH CAROLINA?
Laverne, Robin and I did a lot of preliminary research to choose the state where we thought we could make the most difference. We considered Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada and Florida, too. As we watched the polls and listened to the stories coming out of each of those states, we came to see North Carolina as the place where we could make the most difference. Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida are of course in everyone's minds, but they seem to be crawling with lawyers and have lots of attention at the moment. Obama seemed to be taking a stronger lead against McCain in Nevada over the past few weeks and just a week or so ago, we agreed on North Carolina, with its 15 electoral votes. According to the latest polls, N. Carolina is now the battleground state with the tightest race. Obama and McCain are virtually even here. Sarah Palin was here in Raleigh last night for a big rally. Obama is coming to Charlotte today. Clearly, they see this as a crucial state on the eve of the election, too.
THE PROBLEMS HERE:
This is the state that gave us Jesse Helms and where Elisabeth Dole is now giving us an example of one of the lowest points in negative advertising with her "Godless American" ads against her opponent Kay Hagan. Since we got here, we've learned in our local election law training sessions that North Carolina also has a serious problem with its ballots. Just last week, the New York Times, in an editorial, wrote that it feared that North Carolina could become the Florida of this election. The ballot has problems that could be this year's equivalent of the hanging chads. We spent all day yesterday in rural Granville County serving as poll observers in Oxford and Creedmor on the last day of early voting here and learned first hand how confusing the ballot is. It's designed in such a way that a lot of people could end up realizing, after the fact, that they failed to vote for President when they thought they had. At our training today, they told us that the strange configuration of the ballot in previous presidential elections has resulted in 3% of ballots in the state showing people voting for every candidate but President. The average in the rest of the United States for this sort of thing is .3% (note the decimal point there). I won't bore you with the details, but if you're interested it's explained clearly and briefly in the Times. It's an interesting piece: www.nytimes.com/2008/10/27/opinion/27mon2.html
EARLY VOTING YESTERDAY IN CREEDMOOR AND OXFORD:
Saturday was the last day of early voting in North Carolina, a period during which people could both register and vote. We learned today that an incredible 42% of eligible voters have already voted before election day.
On Saturday, we were sent up to rural Granville County, just north of the Raleigh-Durham Triangle. The early voting polls for Granville were in two towns: Creedmoor and Oxford. Oxford, the bigger of the two, has a population of about 8,300 ( 44% white, 51% African American. Twenty one percent lives below the poverty level). As recently as 1970, a local black man was murdered in a violent attack after someone claimed he'd made flirtatious remarks to a white woman. The reaction that followed led to Ku Klux Klan violence and then a group of black Vietnam Veterans launched a series of arson attacks against white-owned businesses. An award-winning book about all of this, Blood Done Sign My Name, an autobiography by Timothy Tyson, gives a good description of all these events. Creedmoor has a population of just over 2,200 people (70% white and 27% African American. About 11% of the population lives below the poverty level). At first, I thought that those were significant poverty levels that distinguished this area from where I live in New York. In fact, Laverne then pointed out that 19% of New York's population is below the poverty line (and under a new formula that Mayor Bloomberg recently proposed to take New York's higher cost of living into account, that number would rise to 23%). That helped erase any Northerner attitudes I had brought along with me.
The day was spectacularly beautiful, with temperatures in the 70s and a clear, cloudless blue sky. We had to be at the polls when they opened at 8. The drive up from Raleigh took us through impressive landscapes of rolling hills, horse farms and past a crystal clear lake with mist rising from its surface reflecting the strong bursts of autumnal color from the surrounding trees. We knew we weren't in New York anymore when we passed the End Time Church.
We passed through Creedmoor first and saw a line of voters in front of the town hall that stretched out of sight around the corner of the building. We decided to take a look at Oxford too (only about 15 miles away) to decide where we could do the most good. At Oxford, there were no lines and everything seemed to be moving smoothly and quickly. In both Oxford and Creedmoor, the local Obama presence was much stronger. But, of course, that doesn't mean there isn't strong support for McCain here. While there were many more Obama lawn signs and bumper stickers to be seen, there was also a sizable McCain presence. It really does feel like a swing state.
We decided that we could be of more use in Creedmoor, where the lines were so long. One of the problems we were told to look for were unusually long wait times. When we got to Creedmoor, we learned that people had been waiting for an hour and a half to two hours to vote. Anything more than 30 to 40 minutes is an issue. In fact, we saw a few people in midline give up and leave and we met a woman who'd been there the day before and had left after 20 minutes because she had to pick up her daughter. She had returned on Saturday morning prepared to wait for a long time. No one thought anything sinister was going on. There just weren't enough voting booths for the number of people. Robin had the idea that we should let people know that they could go 15 miles up the road to Oxford and vote without a wait. (During early voting, you can vote at any site in your county, unlike on election day when you have to vote in your precinct) After we called to make sure the line was still short there, we let everyone know about that and many of the people from the middle of the line back chose to go there and save time. We also spoke with the local Democratic office and they arranged a shuttle bus up to Oxford for those people without cars who wanted to vote more quickly. The most impressive thing was that almost everyone was prepared to wait as long as it took to get in there to vote. Among the people waiting on line, we could feel a strong sense that they were involved in something important.
We also met the Mayor of Creedmoor, Darryl Moss, who was there checking on how things were going. We explained the problem to him and he made arrangements to get more voting booths in to ease the congestion. Mayor Moss was impressive. An African American who has been Mayor of Creditor for 10 years, he seems to be popular with everyone not only in Creedmoor, but also in Oxford. Throughout the day, he seemed to be everywhere at once, helping handicapped people in cars who wanted to vote curbside (which N Carolina law provides for), dealing with arrangements for a gospel concert in Oxford by Shirley Caesar, a nationally known singer from this area who has won 11 Grammy Awards, speaking with the people on line or dealing with issues and just generally bringing a good spirit to the day. Whether I was in Creedmoor or Oxford, he always seemed to be busy and nearby. It started to feel like a trick. I'd be talking to someone and I'd see him in the background. Laverne would call me and I'd look behind me to respond and there was Mayor Moss off to the side helping someone with a problem. He was so appreciative of the work we were doing that he asked us to join him for lunch at a local barbecue place. Somehow, I imagine that while the three of us were eating with him, he was still out there in Creedmoor and Oxford helping out. He could secretly be one of a set of triplets.
There is so much more to tell (stories of the impressive local people we've met, the Shirley Caesar concert), but I've got to get ready to leave for the area we'll be working in tomorrow. I'll try to tell some of those stories after the election is over. I hope you get an idea of what the day was like from what I've been able to describe. It really felt like we had a chance to experience the democratic process at its grassroots level in a way that I never had before It was reassuring. I also have to marvel at the Voter Protection process and all the dedicated people here, from Raleigh to every small town we've been in who are working around the clock to ensure that everyone who wants to vote can.
Robin has been doing this work for decades and has taught Laverne and me so much about how to be most effective in this effort. I have to thank her here for all her guidance and insights that have put us in touch with all the right people in every local field office as we've been traveling around the state and that prepared us for the very practical things that Laverne and I might not have anticipated, things as simple as stopping at a convenience store when we arrived in Creedmoor to buy up discount Halloween candies to offer to people through the day as they waited on line (which was definitely appreciated by everyone and helped make people comfortable with our presence) I don't think we could have been half as effective without her. Thanks, Robin.
WHERE WE'LL BE ON TUESDAY:
We were told at our training that there will be Democratic observers in 1,000 of the 3,000 precincts in North Carolina tomorrow. The focus, of course, is on the most critical places. The organization and discipline of the campaign down here is impressive. In a situation that seems filled with opportunities for chaos and communication breakdown, everything seems to be working very smoothly. They have answered all our questions, offered loads of support and moral encouragement. When I sent an email with questions to the headquarters at 11 PM last night, I immediately got a flurry of responses from several people who clearly are going without sleep these days. And they mentioned that they had already heard reports of our activities in Creedmoor and Oxford. That surely puts even the best run companies I've worked in to shame.
On Tuesday, we will be stationed in Hoke County, North Carolina. I will be in the town of Antioch, Laverne in Raeford and Robin in Red Springs. This is one of the poorest counties in the state, with a large African American and Native American population. People we spoke to in Raleigh and in Granville County referred to Hoke County as "Deep Country." I've been told by people I've met here that Antioch, the town I'll be working in, also has a long history of tension among the races and problems with elections. We've just learned that during Early Voting over the past few weeks, there have been cases in Hoke of voter intimidation and of people who have been paid to get on line and spread disinformation to take advantage of the confusing ballot so that people fail to vote for President. The more we've heard, the surer we are that we have come to the right place.
Among the most valuable advice we've been given so far is the suggestion that we speak very slowly, because as Yankees, and especially as New Yorkers, we speak much too fast for any one to understand us. We've started practicing saying "Yes, Sir" and "Yes, Ma'am." People here really are very polite and do that all the time. Yesterday afternoon, one woman, sincerely, and in an effort to reassure Robin, told her that she and I needn't worry about being perceived as Jews down there since neither of us has "kinky hair or hooked noses." Well, that's a relief.
That's all for now. As I said at the start, this election does feel like it began before I was born. In some ways, I think that's true. More than any other election I've voted in, the origins of this one seem to stretch back to the intentions of the Founders of the United States through the Civil War to the fall of the Berlin Wall and right up to 9/11. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but from the vantage point of my recent time in Europe and my week in North Carolina, it feels like that.
On to Tuesday. I hope we're celebrating by the time I write again.
NOVEMBER 4, 2008
It's 3:30 AM and my mind is racing. So, I finally got up and decided to put down a few more thoughts on what we're doing here in North Carolina to amuse you as you wait for the election returns tonight. I apologize for the length of my earlier note and for what I imagine will be the rambling quality of this one. In the midst of all our work here, I haven't had as much time to write as I would like so I'm just putting my thoughts down as they occur to me without much editing. To paraphrase someone, I think it was Mark Twain: I would have written a shorter piece, but I didn't have enough time.
As Laverne, Robin and I have been driving deeper and deeper into the interior of North Carolina, we've taken to calling ourselves The Mod Squad, after that old TV series from the sixties that featured a team of three people who chased criminals. The original Squad consisted of a white man, a white woman and a black man For those of you who don't know the three of us, Laverne is a black Christian woman, Robin is a white Jewish woman and I am a white, gay, Jewish man. We certainly make an impression down here. Although, now that I'm thinking about it, we actually aren't making the kind of impression I would have expected. Everyone pretty much takes us in stride.
But as I have reflected on our profiles, I have realized that we actually share one characteristic that also has significance - we are all in our mid to late 50s. And I know so many other friends in our age group who are out there right now in many other states doing what we're doing today. Most of them have never done this before.
I think the media have missed a story about Obama's impact in all their focus on the young people and minorities he has galvanized for the first time. He's inspired people like us - old cynical geezers who thought they'd seen it all already - to break out of their normal routines and travel these long distances, at their own expense, so that they could work and drive for 18 - 20 hour days, sleep in a shared room with two beds and a cot at a Days Inn (the only "hotel" for miles around) on a strip mall in Raeford, North Carolina and then get up at 4:30, so they could be at their assigned polling stations when they open at 6:30 AM (and you can add the jetlag from my flight from Italy to all that in my case - maybe that's why I'm here writing this at 3:30).
And why are we doing this? Because we WANT to stand in the rain (well, we could do without the rain) for 13 hours explaining to lines of poor, disenfranchised, mostly uneducated people, many of whom have never voted before in their lives, how they can make sure they know how to vote for the President they want: a man we also believe offers the best hope for restoring what is good about this country after 8 years of shame.
If Obama is elected today and can find a way to maintain even a small portion of this kind of sacrifice and dedication when he is President the possibilities are unimaginable. And not just the sacrifices we are making here, which are relatively easy and comfortable compared to those being made by people like the old, black man who happened to stop into the Obama field office in Raeford last night when we were checking in. He works at a plant here that he worried wouldn't let him have the time off that he needed to get to his voting precinct while it was open. He wasn't even sure where he was supposed to vote, but he had found his way to this office at 8 PM to find out and to get information on his rights so he could get time off to vote.
We've met so many impressive people over the past few days. There was the woman who worked at the guns and ammo counter in the Wal-Mart we stopped at this afternoon to buy the umbrellas and ponchos and supplies we need for later today. She was helping us find folding chairs and noticed our Obama buttons. I thought I detected a slightly disgusted look on her face as she asked me: "Y'all are for Obama?" And, I answered, "Yes. You don't agree?" And, to my surprise, she answered: "Don't agree? Are you kidding? We can't go on in this country the way we've been doing." Another stereotype bites the dust.
And there was Omar, the lawyer from Texas, who has left his family back home to spend weeks here organizing Voter Protection activities in several counties. As he told us, "you might as well throw my absentee ballot in the trash for all the good it's going to do in Texas." So, he found a place where his effort would make a real difference.
The deeper we've gone into what people here call the Deep Country, the more people we've met like that. There's Martha, a black "community organizer" in her 50s or 60s who was working at the Raeford Field Office tonight. Among other things, she's been trying to get people here to start acknowledging they have a problem with AIDS in the community despite real resistance to that because of the continuing deep stigma that AIDS has here. As she told us, no one used to speak about cancer and now that's out in the open. She's going to continue to keep going on about AIDS until people can discuss it without fear or shame. She was so appreciative of the fact that we have come down here from New York to make sure people get to vote properly that she's offered to meet us at the Days Inn at 5:30 AM to lead us to each of our precincts.
She'll be here in a few minutes, so I'm going to have to stop now.
Wish us luck and let's hope the waiting will be over early tonight.