Rev. Valerie's Reveries

This blog contains personal reflections from Unitarian Universalist minister Valerie Mapstone Ackerman.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Election Protection

Coming up to the mid-term elections, I thought you might want to read my abridged journal entry following a two-day volunteer stint with Election Protection in Ohio in 2004:

2004 Election Protection in Toledo Ohio

I REALLY dislike driving, especially alone for long periods of time through heavy rain, but this was an important election and I was not about to sit at home while poor folks had their right to vote questioned so I signed up for a People for the American Way Election Protection assignment. After a drive of precisely 1000 miles over two days, I arrived at the Toledo Ohio Election Protection Coalition (EP) headquarters (HQ) occupying the gymnasium and a classroom of the New Life Center of Bethlehem Baptist Church on Bancroft Street at Auburn in Northeast Toledo. Within sight of the gleaming new building boarded up businesses and homes dotted the neighborhood.

I found about 8 men and women keeping busy with various tasks. The usual campaign chaos spread around the room: computers and phones, newsprint checklists and grids, boxes of t-shirts, stacks of paper fresh from the copiers at Kinko’s, piles of office supplies, used take-out containers, discarded cardboard boxes. Training for 150+ loomed in just 3 hours and the gym had no chairs or tables set up. T-shirts needed to be sorted by size, a check-in table organized, poll volunteer supply boxes needed to be completed, and stacks of handouts collated. In spite of these pending tasks the Site Leader said, “Oh there really isn’t much work I can offer you, you might want to go tour the city or take a nap somewhere.” This was a BAD sign. Just looking around I knew there was more work than the crew at hand could possibly accomplish. Thankfully, more experienced organizers arrived and sent us forward to get things in place. We finished just as the first volunteers arrived.

“Training” was disjointed, reflecting that the leadership group had been perhaps too busy to coordinate well? Or couldn’t agree? Or just didn’t plan well? It became clear that the Lead Lawyer was a little too full of self-importance and also clear that the African American women organizers carried the weight of considerable experience compared to the young white woman assigned to be the Site Leader. The Site Leader refused to allow everyone who wanted a poll shift to sign up, insisting we had more than enough volunteers. The volunteers to be trained were restless and a little annoyed, but in the end they ate lots of donated pizza and departed with sheaves of paper and heads full of cautious optimism for Tuesday.

I caught a few hours of sleep in my granddaughter’s bed an hour’s drive away in Ann Arbor. By 5:30 AM I was back at HQ. Off into deep rainy darkness through Toledo city streets approximately 50% of the street lights didn’t function. Funny thing, when we passed through an upper middle class neighborhood, all of the lights were working. Andy, a sweet Jewish woman, my partner for the morning, begged for a coffee stop since for some reason the HQ workers had only purchased decaf. I don’t use caffeine and don’t drink coffee, but I am pretty sure this was a terrible mistake in planning!

As we pulled up to the Keyser Elementary School on Hill Street at 6:10 AM we could see a parking lot already full of cars, two entrances (the EP HQ had planned for only one entrance) and about 40 people in line for the 6:30 opening of the polls. By 7:00 there were 100-150 in line and by 7:15 voters reported chaos inside. People were leaving without voting, needing to get to work and not knowing whether or not they’d have another chance to vote. The scanners had ceased working and voters were being encouraged to leave their marked ballots in the “emergency slot” trusting that poll workers would scan them later. Three precincts (6N, 6G, 6H) vote in the gym, but few voters knew which precinct line to get in. In addition, the signage was terrible so people were standing in long lines only to be told they were in the wrong place. Sometimes the voter interpreted this to mean that they were in the wrong location altogether, not just the wrong line. We began intercepting disgruntled voters and helping them to figure out where to go. A volunteer from Kerry’s campaign had a magic book that located precincts and voting locations. The school employees arrived, directed by the school principal to park on the soggy lawn. Teachers handed out voter guides to school tax issues and offered hot drinks to the partisans and to us, the officially neutral. We spent almost an hour on the cell phone reporting trouble to our mobile lawyer team and pleading for extra volunteers to work both entrances. I couldn’t help but recall that so many willing and able volunteers were turned away the night before. The only sign of Republican advocacy all morning was the mid-sized sedan with a Bush bumper sticker that crept slowly through the lot while the passenger snapped pictures of everyone.

The principal and vice-principal began helping to direct voters and eventually helped to post signs inside that would clear up some of the confusion. At one point, the lawyers asked me to go into the polling area to assess some details. I found out that the poll workers were in over their heads, that they also thought that the set-up was abysmal and that they resented that they were not permitted by the Election Board to do more to fix the problems. They said they felt under-trained and under-supported. Voters reported inconsistent handling of ballots among the three precincts and this made folks very nervous about the legitimacy of the election. We needed to stay in frequent contact with both HQ and our field lawyers to answer voter questions. Roving volunteers showed up regularly to offer us supplies, to take our complaint forms back to HQ and to do coffee runs.

A middle-aged black man had tears in his eyes as he walked past us. One of us asked if everything went OK inside (that was our standard approach). He came back and asked if we could hear his “confession” I joked, “well I AM a minister.” He said he wanted us to know that he had voted for the first time in his life---could have voted for Carter the first time, he told us—making him at least my age (47). He said this was the first time he realized that someone would make sure his rights would be protected and thanked us for being there.

One of our approaches to the voters was to offer a voter’s bill of rights guide. Several black men and women of a certain age laughed and said things like, “Oh don’t worry, there is no one who can prevent me from voting ever again.” Unfortunately it is possible to intimidate and at least inconvenience others. Several young black women with children in tow had to leave because irate employers would not be understanding about being late due to voting problems. We estimated that 25+ left without voting at this precinct in the morning. Many said they knew they could not return as this was their only chance to vote. Some said they would return. We have no way of knowing if they came back. Because I was at the same poll again in the evening I can tell you I didn’t see any of them at the entrance I worked.

Relieved by a troupe of (temporarily) dry younger men and women, Andy and I took off to HQ. Andy joined her spouse and went home but I was ready for more, so I got busy with important things like appointing myself OSHA inspector. There were massive extension cords traversing the gym floor waiting to trip some little old lady to offer up a broken hip so I dug around in the trunk of my husband’s car and found some duct tape. (Bill always sends me off well-prepared for emergencies!) Cords secured, my next assignment was much more interesting. Would I be willing to go to a nearby polling place to investigate a “situation”? Sure I would! Seems that a county election board worker named Ray physically assaulted one of our volunteers. Police had been called, but we needed to know more.

Five minutes drive away I arrived in a “transitional” neighborhood. Well-kept homes intermingled with well-worn ones. A beautiful park and stately homes sat within view, probably NOT in the same precinct, my guess. The church polling site provided excellent access to voters as they arrived. Everyone on foot or in car had to run the gauntlet of Kerry supporters on one side and Election Protection volunteers on the other. I found the young woman who had the much too close encounter, introduced myself and asked for her side of the story. She was a European American from the neighborhood who has lots of friends of other backgrounds. She specifically chose that polling site and was well-known to the folks coming to vote, primarily young black voters and elderly white ones. Because Ray was well-known in the neighborhood as a racist, several first-time women voters had expressed concern for their safety at the poll. One woman asked for assistance inside and so our EP volunteer went in as is appropriate and allowable by law. A poll worker named Ray told her she had to leave. When she protested he shoved her hard enough to cause her to lose her footing. She claimed he was spouting racist bile all the while. She was not physically hurt, but she and the other young white EP volunteers were very angry and somewhat belligerent.

Taking off my NAACP Election Observer baseball cap, I went inside asking for Ray and was directed to an older white man in a plaid shirt. Our conversation was not the easiest I ever had. I introduced myself, apparently impressing him with the Rev. part because he seemed very willing to offer a confessional attitude. He admitted that “these” people acted as though voting was a cause for celebration, that they brought cell phones and answered them and talked loudly and greeted each other raucously. Didn’t they know that this was serious business? And that woman I pushed, you know, the well, really big blonde? That’s how I want to say it, really big. She had no business partying with “these” people.” Asked more about the partying remark, Ray went on, “They were laughing and talking too loud. So I threw her out on her a__. But I let that woman, the negro woman vote.” I murmured some words of compassion, “Must be hard to do this work…” “Oh I have been doing this for 20 – 30 years so has that woman,” pointing to a tiny elder white woman, “And we never had any trouble until they came and changed everything about 10 years ago.” At some point in the conversation, to emphasize a point, Ray starting jabbing his finger into my chest. Actually into my breast. I moved his hand higher up without pushing him away and still he didn’t take the cue that he might want to stop poking me. I kept listening to him vent about how horrible “these” voters are. When he seemed ready to slow down and grow calmer I asked if he thought it would be possible for him to be more welcoming to the voters even if they weren’t his kind of people. “After all, “ I said, “Election day should be a cause for celebration. It seems the church encourages that by having the bake sale and rummage sale right in the same room as the voting booths.” “Oh, yeah, they shouldn’t be allowed to do that either. The “old church never did.” (formerly a mainline Christian church the space was now home to a Pentecostal congregation) More commiserating, “Things change.” “Yeah, well I don’t have to like it.” “No. you don’t but you do have to behave with a certain amount of tolerance.” More poking, escalating again. This time I stopped him and asked if maybe poking people might be considered offensive and I poked him on the shoulder as I said it. He said, “I poked you and you weren’t offended.” “Well I’ve been trained not to react to such things. Most people would be more than offended. Some call the police.” “Well the cops didn’t cart me away,” he trumpeted, “They’re stuck with me now and I am not going anywhere.” The whole time we talked, my line of sight took in Ray’s co-worker who pleaded with her eyes and with hand gestures to get him out of here. I asked if he could step aside to talk with me more, but a third election worker insisted he couldn’t leave. Ray then said “Hey, I’d be happy to leave if there was a replacement for me.” I apologized for the interruption and thanked the workers for their time and effort to make a free and fair election possible. The woman rolled her eyes and shook her head. I told Ray I’d see if I could get the Lucas County Election Board to help find a replacement.

The Republican and Democrat Site Challengers followed me to the exit where we conferred about Ray. The Republican was not willing to suggest that Ray was acting from a racist point of view, but he was willing to say he was too aggressive and then he agreed he’d watch over things. The Democrat went outside with me and thanked me for treating Ray with respect even though he didn’t earn it. “I couldn’t believe you let him poke you!” Oh yeah, takes more than poking to get to me.

Back outside I conferred with the EP volunteers and asked them to do two things: take their NAACP caps off when they re-enter the building and find a way to have compassion for the racists. This was not well-received by the belligerent white women. I tried to explain that THEY weren’t the ones who would suffer the most wrath, their black friends and neighbors were and until we could neutralize the “Ray effect’ he would continue to find reasons to harass voters. Their righteous indignation was justifiable, but not helpful in the short run, I told them. The compassion comment was completely outside of their spiritual understanding. My suggestions that compassion has the power to heal was laughed at and then ridiculed. Oh well, it takes two to act up I guess.

Feeling that I didn’t necessarily help much, I went back to HQ and reported to Cheryl and Willa Mae from NAACP. Willa Mae got on the phone to Lucas County Election Board and reported that Racist Ray was willing to be replaced. Wheels were set in motion, but it turned out that no one was able to persuade him to leave the premises even after extra workers were sent in. (Apparently it is hard to find local Republican poll workers in some neighborhoods and balance IS required by law) Even the Mayor paid a visit to the site and couldn’t get action. On a later visit, I found some more seasoned EP volunteers in place and found that they thought things had settled down quite a bit.,. though Ray was still there.

Early afternoon at HQ, I answered some phones, did some problem-solving and helped enter a list of complaints in a database
Among the list of complaints Toledo Election Protection and NAACP fielded;
• Ballots ran out, voters being asked to use provisional ballots instead.
• Machines not scanning ballots (many sites reported this and several reported repeated problems)
• Insufficient #2 pencils available, and voters being told to use anything therefore voters unsure if votes were recorded by scanners.
• Ballot tabs being handled improperly (throws off tracking of spoiled ballots vs. recorded ballots, we discovered.)
• LONG lines up to four hour wait, voters leaving before voting (estimated in the hundreds in Toledo alone)
• When scanning machines are reset after breakdowns, the number of votes recorded starts at zero. (What happened to the votes previously recorded?)
• Because most voters only know where to vote and don’t know their precinct number and letter, confusion and frustration ensued when multiple precincts vote in same building. No employee was available to help people get into the correct lines.
• No parking available within reasonable walking distance.
• People being told to change clothes or being ejected if they had “political” shirts on, even those without candidate names (“No war” “Vote or Die” “Gay Rights” )

I finished the afternoon with another assignment from Cheryl from NAACP who asked me to fulfill a request from the Lead Lawyer to take on a “wild goose chase” (her words) to obtain a filing of a lawsuit somebody (we didn’t know who) filed against somebody (again, who or what?) on some urgent election matter (don’t know) in Federal District Court (that we knew!) I inquired about the law students I had heard were in the midst and quickly found Carla, an impeccably dressed stately African American woman in black alligator cowboy boots. Her online research skills being excellent, Carla quickly found not only the names involved but how to obtain the paper copy and also the precise location of the courthouse, photo included. As we left the courthouse with the filing in hand, lawyers were running up the stairs, prepared to argue the case. As tempting as it was to turn around and listen in, we headed back to the HQ. I will always treasure listening to Carla read the brief out loud with dry and sometimes biting analysis thrown in as I drove us back to HQ.

Back at HQ again, I tried watching CSPAN but couldn’t sit still. Eventually I got hungry and couldn’t eat the food provided at HQ (food allergies) so I went off in search of a decent salad, which I found in a funky coffee house in an unlikely strip mall. CNN on TV and sitar player in the corner. Good vibe.

Returning in plenty of time for my evening shift and finding the AKA ladies (a black sorority) serving dinner I took pictures of them with their cameras. By this time the full ruling from the afternoon lawsuit was available but I noticed poll watch volunteers were already deploying to the polls without having been briefed about the changes. I asked the Prima Donna California Lead Lawyer if she was planning to inform the volunteers. No, she said, I can’t get them organized (that was SO true). Eventually she deigned to allow me to organize the remaining volunteers into a circle to hear about the late breaking court ruling and a rule change by the election board. The court allowed that those who had attempted to vote absentee but who had not received the requested ballot COULD go to their regular polling site and cast a provisional ballot. The County Election board had no mechanism for alerting their poll workers of this development. Although EP media people tried to get the word out to voters through radio and TV, it was unclear whether this had taken place (estimates were that 60,000 Lucas County voters had not received their duly requested ballots). In addition, in a rule change, the Lucas County Election Board had agreed to stop forcing provisional ballots on people who had changed their address within the precinct or within the county. Instead they would simply fill out a change of address form and vote with a regular ballot in the precinct where they currently reside. This meant that hundreds if not thousands of the provisional ballots already cast COULD have been cast on regular ballots.

I finished out the evening witnessing a much slower rate of voting at the same chaotic poll I worked in the morning. Apparently the shift change at the nearby Jeep Assembly Plant caused a huge influx of voters from 3-4pm. By our 5:00 arrival things had slowed to a trickle making the lines manageable. While the rain continued as it had all day, Democratic Party volunteers arrived with food and hot drinks for their volunteers. They offered us the same. Earlier we had been admonished to refrain from “being too friendly” with the Democrats but hey, there were no Republicans to fraternize with! By dark, we were in a festive mood and had lots of fun chatting with voters before and after they voted. Even the poll workers and the sheriff had become friendly by evening and took their breaks by visiting with us.

At 7:25 a woman came dashing out of the building saying she needed proof of address. She arrived back at 7:32, two minutes past the closing time. Against the advice of the Democratic Party lawyer then present I pounded on the door begging that she be allowed to cast her vote. The poll workers relented and allowed her to go back in, but it turned out that she had moved between counties and couldn’t cast a vote anyway. She promised to make sure she had her registration in order for the next election, thanked us profusely and asked if we could explain the electoral college system which had always confused her. American Civics lesson over, we packed up and headed back to HQ.

Election Protection helped countless people access their right to vote in Ohio. So did the Democratic Party. Although we know of hundreds of pre-emptive voter challenges prior to November 2, I observed only one incident of an official direct Republican challenge of a voter on election day. Jimmie and Jay, European American brothers, one a gang member, the other fresh from Federal prison, were first time voters at ages 19 and 20. They were both doubtful that they were duly registered mainly because they never received confirming registration cards. They lingered so long outside I finally asked if they were ready to vote. They admitted that they needed help and so I agreed to accompany them. After the poll worker affirmed their registration and gave a cursory lesson in filling out the ballot, they were both still confused. I asked if I could take them aside to show them the sample ballot. We got the OK. Jimmie was so excited to learn that he could write in votes he almost threw away the chance to vote for his favorite presidential candidate in favor of writing his brother’s name. Both said they didn’t plan to vote for any of the questions on the ballot since they hadn’t studied them. I urged them to just read through the language and then decide. Jay said something mumbled. I gently moved in close and asked if either one needed help with reading. Jay said, “I don’t understand what I read. Only got to the 7th grade and have been in jail mostly since then.” I then approached the poll worker to ask how to obtain reading assistance for Jay. By this time the Republican and Democratic challengers noticed my presence and the Republican politely but firmly objected to me helping them or even being in the building. My training and the law supported my being there, but I was more interested in assuring that Jay got help rather than BEING the help. The poll worker firmly stated that the protocol suggested that two poll workers from opposite parties would sit with Jay to help him. The Republican insisted that it was impossible that this young man was illiterate since he had signed his name. I thought about arguing, but instead simply stated, “Well, you need to do what you need to do. And the poll worker gets to decide, right?” I carefully bowed out at that point. Later the Democrat came outside, with tears in his eyes to thank me for handling both the young men and the Republican “with such respect.” Jimmie and Jay practically floated back out of the building, shouting, “Kerry! Kerry!” We had to admonish them from advocacy in front of other voters so close to the poll entrance. They kept chatting for a long time, sharing so much of their lives with the two ministers at the door (me and an Episcopal minister from Boston). Both said they really were afraid that Bush would send them over to Iraq to kill and perhaps be killed. Jimmie revealed that he voted to ban gay marriage. Jay loudly admonished him, saying, “I don’t care who loves who. Don’t hurt me none.” Jimmie said he hadn’t thought too much about it and now wished he had just left it blank because though he was raised to “hate queers” he really agreed that gay marriage doesn’t hurt anyone. Then Jay said he wished he HAD voted on the questions to cancel out his dumb brother! Good brotherly ribbing. I felt deeply grateful for the time spent listening to these young men; men trying hard to find maturity and hope in the face of poverty and war.

Do I trust that everything was done in accordance with the law and with concern for ethics? Do I believe that Bush really won this election? No, I don’t. Previous experience as a poll worker informed me how easy it is to corrupt the vote counts accidentally---and that was BEFORE the electronic methods we use now. I know that having fewer ballot scanners than the number needed is a way to frustrate and offend voters especially those who live in the hardship of economic deprivation, people who earn hourly wages under oppressive bosses. Who can assure us that when machines break down, the final count is correct? How do we know that the unscanned ballots left in the emergency slots were in fact counted?

More than anything else, I will take away hope for the future of liberal activism in America. Hundreds of fine and committed people from all over the country converged in Ohio without any compensation other than the knowledge that we tried to save our democracy from corruption. Again.

In hope for peace, with justice,
Valerie Mapstone Ackerman