I intended to write the rest of the story of my work with the election at the end of each day, but there simply was not enough time to both experience it and also reflect on it. So the story will have to be continued retrospectively, from a vantage point where we already know that everything worked out fine. Seemingly inevitably fine.
But at the time such an outcome hardly seemed inevitable. In fact, at times it hardly seemed possible. The stress, tension, and pessimism on display in Part I continued to permeate each subsequent day up through the election. The only thing that seemed inevitable back then was disaster.
On the other hand, from the start, my Midwest election adventure began to be kissed by little bits of kismet, happy perfections that made me appreciate what I was doing and remind me that optimism is not always misplaced.
Of course, the first source of my crankiness was that I’d been trying since June to lend my legal credential to the Obama campaign, to no avail. I’d placed calls, sent emails, filled out web forms… I remember writing in one email, “I have never before thought about getting involved with a presidential campaign. But I’ve never before been as inspired by the promise of any candidate’s leadership as much as I’ve been by yours. I became a lawyer in order to make the world a better place and am writing to you today to ask for a position helping you do it.” Alas, it all went unanswered.
But as the election approached and time began to run out I decided to give it another push. The San Francisco office pointed me to http://www.BarackObama.com/counselforchange, which was a web form one could apparently use to sign up as an attorney poll monitoring volunteer. Unfortunately it offered absolutely no other information about what that entailed. Nevertheless I entered my information as best I could, indicated that I had some geographical flexibility, and then tried to call several times to follow-up on my application to make sure it didn’t fall through the cracks — or waste time during which I could have been helping. All that effort was again to no avail, and after a while I had to wash my hands of it. Que sera sera, I guess.
Fortunately, some weeks later I got a call: “You’ve been assigned to Ohio.” Ohio. Hmm. That sounded expensively far away to get to on awfully short notice. I suppose I could have refused, or tried harder to find an assignment in a different, more conveniently located state, but after reflecting on it I found myself excited by the prospect. If I’m going to do something, I might as well do it where it really, really matters. By all accounts, Ohio was just such a place, a swing state rife with voter access controversy. Pretty soon I found myself feeling lucky that I was going to get to go there.
And thanks to an inexplicable fare war, it wasn’t too horribly expensive. Southwest was offering $99/each way fares to Indianapolis, and United (whom I flew) met them. Indianapolis is less than two hours away from Cincinnati, my final destination, so I routed my trip through there and flew out on Saturday.
The first leg of the journey was a flight to Chicago, where I sat next to a man who grew up in India. He’s been in the US for 15 years but still cannot get his head around the Electoral College. I ended up giving him an impromptu history lesson, explaining how originally the United States really was a union of separate states, and how that origin continues to inform our current political structure. Maybe it’s antiquated in our 21st Century world, maybe it would be better now to see ourselves entirely as a population of Americans who collectively choose our president, but there are some strong historical reasons for why we instead leave it up to each state to decide whom it wants, and these are reasons that can’t simply be ignored.
But on my connecting flight to Indianapolis I said nothing that could have been even slightly interpreted as political. Even though I had a conversation with a woman from Cincinnati, I deliberately avoided explaining why I was going there. I felt embarrassed, fearing she’d get mad at me for being some carpetbagger coming in to manhandle her state. Maybe I needn’t have worried; maybe I was mistaken in presuming a political hegemony pointing to McCain. But while on the inside I felt proud of what I was doing, I was afraid to show it on the outside. (Except to one woman I saw disembarking, whose jacket was covered with Obama pins. They were returning from a trip to Glouster, Massachusetts, and I was wearing a Boston University sweatshirt, so I was assured a friendly conversational reception. Which was good because I was just bursting to tell someone what I was up to…)
Even that evening in Indianapolis, where I holed-up in an airport motel, I became unusually introverted. I wandered to a nearby diner for dinner, where I bought a “Southwest Salad” from a very friendly waitstaff that kept trying to convince me I’d really like the “salsa dressing” it normally came with. But I remained unusually reticent in the face of their friendliness. I was afraid that if I let it slip that I was from California (and therefore imply I was already familiar with the taste of salsa) I would be viewed as condescending.
I’ve never really had that fear before when I’ve traveled. Usually I’m quite comfortable acting as a friendly ambassador from wherever I’ve most recently hailed, connecting with everyone I can. But not then. I was acutely aware I was from a Blue State, and I’d just landed in (what I thought was) the middle of a Red one. It would be better to keep my mouth shut, my surprising sense of paranoia seemed to dictate.
The problem with arriving in Indianapolis on that particular Saturday evening was that it was Erev Daylight Savings Time End. There could not have been a more confusing, time zone-straddling, Daylight Savings Time-scorning place to have spent the occasion, but when dawn broke in Indianapolis on Sunday it conveniently turned out I was on plain old regular Eastern Standard Time, just like neighboring Ohio.
After picking up my rental car I began my drive towards Cincinnati. At the Alamo I had a choice of cars, including the requisite Chevy’s, but even though I think I’ve driven the Aveos before without problem, I couldn’t resist the surprising choice of a Nissan Versa. I own a Nissan, and I’ve loved driving every other Nissan I’ve ever tried. I did pause, however, before making my selection, with a strange sense of guilt. Here I was in America’s heartland, spurning its automakers. Then again, my Nissan was made in Smyrna, TN, and I know there’s a Honda facility in Marysville, OH (in fact I have a Japanese friend in California who grew up in Ohio because her parents had come over to work there), so who’s to say driving Japanese isn’t really supporting American industry?
But if it’s any consolation, GM, I really didn’t like it much. Its odd proportions (bizarrely tall and narrow) made it somewhat jittery to drive. But not too badly, and I enjoyed my trip through the Indiana countryside. Along the way I kept trying to catch a view of the front yards facing the highway. There were definitely more visible McCain campaign signs than Obama ones, but at the same time, there were fewer McCain ones than I would have expected. A lot of houses had no signs at all, and the thought occurred to me that maybe it was because their occupants were Obama supporters — and just afraid to show it.
As I approached the hills of Ohio I lost the Indiana NPR station I was listening to, which was too bad because it was just going into the week’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. Peter Sagal was analogizing the waning days of the campaign to the conclusion of a long-running TV series, like MASH or Seinfeld and the like. “Maybe tomorrow Hillary Clinton will roll over and say, ‘Bill! I just had the strangest dream!’”
I didn’t have enough time to check into my motel upon reaching the Cincinnati area before needing to head over to the University of Cincinnati, where the campaign would be holding an afternoon training for its poll monitoring volunteers. No thanks to Google Maps, which apparently doesn’t know where the University of Cincinnati is, I still got there in plenty of time to find a good parking place.
At this training we learned that there would be inside poll observers and outside ones. To be an inside poll observer one needed to be a registered Ohio voter. Obviously I was not. And yet we were trained together, which didn’t seem to make much sense, because our responsibilities were going to be so different. Inside observers needed to watch the poll workers set up and close down the voting machines, get voting tallies, and generally be directly on hand to resolve issues that came up as they came up, plus then call into the campaign “boiler room” at designated intervals with status updates. Whereas outside observers seemed to have much more minor roles: keeping track of how long the lines were, noting any harassment, and otherwise being a last-ditch point of contact for voters with problems before they wandered away from the polls, possibly for good. At least this was how the operation was expected to play out. And given so, a lot of out-of-state observers started to feel a little alienated. What about us? We came all this way; surely we’d get to contribute too? It’s not that the things we were going to do weren’t important, but they didn’t seem all that important. All the really juicy bits of the training seemed to apply to inside observers only, and we got further rankled when they started asking us to bring our own copies of voter logs. We’re in motels! We have no capacity to print! And, no, we don’t know where the nearest Kinkos is; remember: we’re not from around these parts…
But while we wished our presence there had been more effectively managed, it wasn’t a bad training either. A lot of thought had gone into a lot of details — the question was whether enough attention had been paid to the right ones, the things that were most likely to matter, since as we began to ask questions we discovered that there remained some blindspots. Obviously we wouldn’t find out the answer to that question until the polls opened on Tuesday. Yet in the meantime, it still was exciting to be there and be part of what was, definitely, a serious operation. A large lecture hall at the UC law school was brimming with volunteers, all united with a sense of purpose. Grumbly as many of us got as the training dragged on and we fretted about everything that could go wrong, it was because we knew how important it was that we grumbled. Our concerns were based on the palpable fear that despite everyone’s effort the election would still slip away.
And to be fair, the Obama campaign is in line for some criticism on this point. While it has been lauded for its unprecedented use of information technology to foster grassroots campaigning, it’s not enough to simply throw technology at a problem. Information technology needs to be applied effectively to information, and there were instances where it definitely wasn’t. The difficulty in figuring out how to volunteer, or finding out anything about what volunteering entailed, is not a technology failure as much as it’s an information failure, and one the campaign could and should have avoided. By not massaging its information technology effectively the campaign could not massage its human resources effectively either, and the stakes were too high not to. Even after the training, impressed though I was by how much the campaign had anticipated, organized, and planned, I was still left with a pervasive sense of worry, acutely aware of the campaign’s shortcomings and wondering if they would turn out to be the difference between victory and defeat.
But I mentioned that my trip was also marked with some kismet, because in between the high-stakes sense of frustration, good things were happening in Cincinnati too. One of them was meeting another lawyer there, a friend of a friend of my dad’s. We weren’t previously acquainted, but when I’d told my dad about my upcoming Ohio venture he mentioned that his friend knew someone who coincidentally was also headed there too. We got in touch, discovered we both were assigned to the same city, and agreed to meet up at the training.
I’m really glad we did, too, because suddenly my adventure went from a solo, somewhat stressful and alienating roadtrip, to one with welcome company. We got along very well, surprisingly well for people who’d never met before. Maybe it was because we are both New England-trained lawyers. Or New York metropolitan area natives united by our ingrained cultural pushiness… Or both fans of good process and equal critics of when there are breakdowns. (E.g., we shared each other’s irritations regarding the training and overall handling of the out-of-towners.)
But regardless of what it was, through his acquaintance I was able to enjoy another welcome bit of kismet that very day: an appearance by the man himself, Barack Obama, right there, at the University of Cincinnati, where, conveniently, I already happened to be parked…
My new friend had some family in the area who’d been camped out outside the football stadium where Obama was scheduled to speak since early afternoon, thus securing us the benefit of an astoundingly good place on line. (The line ended up so long that it took nearly the whole three hours between the time the gates opened and the start of his speech for everyone to enter.) Yet as the gates opened, suddenly that spot wasn’t looking so good. In order to make sure that the event looked packed, the campaign initially started seating people in sections behind the stage. That approach did not sit well with the people who’d been in line for hours and hours waiting for their good glimpse of Obama, and they quickly revolted and refused to be seated in those sections. An unpleasantly tense stand-off ensued as more people funneled in while the earlier ones, including our group, unilaterally queued up at the top of the sections they preferred. The volunteer ushers looked apologetic but paralyzed, unable to stray from the game plan and let us enter them. A unapologetic cop came by and pitilessly ordered us all to disperse.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my Huey Lewis and the News concert-going in the last few years it’s how to avoid being bounced… And soon the stalemate passed, the campaign relented, our obstinance paid off and the better sections opened up. My concert skillz then came in handy here again, as I was able to secure our group front row seats in our section.
And the campaign needn’t have worried. That stadium filled, maybe not quite to capacity but close, with tens of thousands of people of all walks of life. Volunteers passed out campaign signs and American flags for us to wave and a fun party atmosphere got going as we settled in for a few hours to wait for the man of the hour.
It really did feel like a party, full of all sorts of people of all races and classes there to celebrate the sense of optimism Obama instilled in us all. Of course, it also felt a little disorienting, being in a sports stadium. It almost felt like we were tapping into the same kind of emotion one has for a favorite team, but while at most sporting events there’s usually also people there rooting for the other team, on this occasion we were all on the same side.
About an hour before Obama was to speak other local dignitaries took the stage for their campaign pitches. All Democrats, they were well-received. And then we waited some more. Premature cheering echoed through the stadium a few times as the crowd mistook various other people emerging from the backstage area as Obama. But, soon enough, there was the man himself.
I felt privileged to be there in a way that surprised me. I felt lucky. Here I was, volunteering for a campaign of a man whom I believed in so fervently on principal. (“When I closed my eyes and imagined the kind of politician *I’d* want to be, when I opened them I saw Obama.“) I had no need to be in the orbit of his celebrity. And yet, there I was, and so glad of it too. It reminded me that it was a person we were electing, not a media concoction. While I have never before been in the presence of another presidential candidate, I obviously know what others have looked like — I’ve seen them on TV. But this night, as the world watched this presidential candidate make news, there was no glass separating me from the man, and somehow that felt important.
Plus I marveled in the happenstance of it all. That I just happened to be in Ohio (not a different state)… that day (it turns out I could have arrived the next one)… in that city… at that time (he’d been in Cleveland earlier in the day)… and in that very location (the UC campus where my training was held). Never mind the stress and worry; on that lovely evening surrounded by good company and a collective sense of celebration, I was reminded that maybe things might not be so bad after all.
Not that I was done grumbling about the campaign, however. There were clearly signs that the right hand and left hand weren’t talking as much as they should be. On the one hand, a tremendous amount of effort had obviously gone into orchestrating the event. People were carefully positioned for optimum display on camera, speeches were carefully crafted, and complementary music was carefully chosen. I was in some awe of the machine that had put it together, and yet heartened by the spontaneity that still thrived within it. No one cued the audience to cheer. In fact, the instinctive chants of “Yes we can!” that frequently rose up from the crowd almost seemed to gum up the well-planned works.
Yet as Obama consolidated his message to make his final appeal to voters, the other part of the organization was embroiled with trying to ensure that the voters who wanted him would be able to make their preference known. Ohio has some extremely user-unfriendly voting laws, including confusing yet strict ID and precinct requirements. Without the right documentation, even the most ardent supporter was going to get turned away. My friend and I both shared the same thought: why were there not signs, tables, announcements, or anything at that event giving people the information they’d need to be able to vote successfully? It seemed like a horribly wasted opportunity. Obama might have been leading the crowds to water, but come Tuesday they still might not be able to drink.
After lamenting that we’d also not been able to use our brand new training in any sort of constructive way, on the way back to my car I couldn’t help but approach a crowd at a bus stop. Introducing myself as a poll observer who’d just been trained, I asked if anyone had any questions about their precinct or ID requirements. Some in the crowd had already voted, and others were proud to declare that they had everything ready for Tuesday. I wished them good night and left feeling a bit more heartened.
But arriving at my motel across the river my mood soured again. Apparently the police in Florence, KY, insist that hotels not just check lodgers’ ID (Motel6 policy also appears to require checking at it) but to record it. And not just the driver’s license number, but also birthdate. I argued strenuously with the hapless clerk about this policy. She insisted it was local law, and that she had to do the same when she traveled to Toledo (which quashed my brief contemplation of canceling my reservation and trying to find a hotel in Ohio instead, even though it was already approaching midnight). Why on earth would there be such an intrusive policy, one that makes people so vulnerable to identity theft? “Well, in case anything happens I guess the police want to be able to find you,” she guessed. I gaped at the explanation, although I hardly doubted its accuracy. “But it’s wrong!” I gathered myself to insist. “How can you be ok with it?” Knowing I’d lost the battle with the policy, I switched to fighting for her heart and mind. “Oh, no one would want to steal my identity,” she said. “My credit’s too bad.” I gaped again. “BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT!!!”
The stakes never seemed so high. The very reason it was so important for me to be in Ohio fighting for change was right there on display in the outer vestibule of the Florence, KY Motel6. For too long the power in charge has been siphoning away civil liberties, conning the populace with so much fear that people gladly yield it. “The terrorists hate our freedom!” our government has cried, as it simultaneously rallied the country to surrender it, thus entrenching its power. It’s why states like Ohio today have such onerous voter ID laws, laws that have a tremendous disenfranchising effect, because only through a climate of fear and distrust would such laws ever be misapprehended as necessary. They’re not; the United States has done just fine in the centuries past without requiring everyone to be so precisely measured and indexed. On the contrary, such requirements are corrosive to liberty, and it’s time for a government that understands their harm and ends this rule by fear.
On Monday it was time to roll up my sleeves and do what I could to affect this important change. But first I took a brief tour of Kentucky. Not much of Kentucky, just the bit near where I was. Florence had a lot of hostelry and commerce near the interstate, but it also seemed to be a fairly well-healed Cincinnati bedroom community. During my meandering I turned into a rather expansive housing subdivision. It had that air of modern artificiality that recent subdivisions so often do, but it nonetheless seemed like a fairly pleasant, potentially coherent community.
I was really most interested in seeing the campaign signs, and sure enough, like in Indiana, there were plenty on display supporting McCain. Probably most of them were. But also like in Indiana they weren’t everywhere, and there were even some Obama ones proudly implanted in several front yards. “Kentucky has been going Democratic,” the Motel 6 clerk was to inform me later that evening. “We’ve been electing Democrats for lots of things.” In other words, perhaps Kentucky’s redness on Tuesday would not necessarily be a given?
But I was there to fight for Ohio, not Kentucky, so back across the river I went to Obama campaign headquarters. I was hoping to do some legal work (you’d think all this education and training should be able to come in handy) but there was none for my friend and I to do. Instead they asked if we would canvass.
I’m glad we did, because I think this was the most rewarding experience of my trip.
My friend and I caravanned to another office (him leading because he had a GPS system that’s “never wrong,” except for when it led us down a dead-end street…), where they gave us some canvassing materials. And these were good. They weren’t JUST Obama/Biden campaign doortags; they were doortags with the precinct information for the people living at that address.
I was thrilled to see the campaign had done this because the precinct information was so important. In Ohio, if you vote at the wrong precinct, even if your actual precinct is in the very same poll location, your vote will not count. It’s an amazingly harsh consequence for a simple mistake, and come election day, voters would not be able to count on poll workers to better direct them. It was a huge reason why the campaign was sending observers, so that we could help direct them instead.
So it was a great idea that our final campaign push also involved arming the voters we wanted to reach with this extremely valuable information. We grabbed our stack of door tags and list of addresses to visit (Obama supporters only, to maximize our efforts) and were on our way. (Well, at least after my friend’s GPS once again tried leading us astray…) Interestingly, the neighborhood we were assigned was one I’d passed by on Sunday and had consciously wondered about.
The Cincinnati architecture I saw that weekend fascinated me generally. Cincinnati has a lot of really old structures, the kind that looked to have been built 100+ years ago when there was a lot of money in the area and then never redeveloped as fortunes changed. They’re often very ornate, as well as very narrow. The blocks we visited, in a section of Camp Washington by the interstate, look like they had once been an upscale community that was now struggling to get back on its feet. Some of the buildings seemed to have recently been reinvigorated, while others were languishing into further dilapidation. From what I observed I think the same could be said for the neighborhood’s residents too.
Our afternoon started off well. As two people who enjoy efficient processes we teamed up well and worked our way expeditiously through the neighborhood. But as we worked our way southeast the tone began to change. The housing was becoming more dense, which was ok. What was not ok was seeing some of the conditions people were forced to live in.
I was hanging a tag on the door of one house — one of the last single-family ones — when a woman pulled up in a car. “Don’t put an Obama tag on 1042,” she said. “I don’t want one on my house.” When we got to her house we could see why: it had a gigantic McCain sign in the window. But her house was a multi-family building. She lived in the front unit and rented out the others. Because our list of voters included multiple addresses in the building, we walked around the side to find the entrances to the other units. We encountered a completely open doorway to the central hallway with a stove at the bottom of the interior stairwell. What fire code approves of that??? We obeyed the woman by not hanging a tag on the front of her building, but around the side we wanted to make sure that the interested tenants could still learn of their polling places. The people who are most vulnerable landlord bullying are often the same people in greatest danger of being disenfranchised — and the ones who can least afford it.
The afternoon deteriorated further a few blocks later. We encountered a man at one residence who was visiting the neighborhood. He’d recently moved to a different one and didn’t know his precinct or polling place. Ah, well we could help with that! Except we couldn’t. I tried calling the Obama campaign hotline they told us about in training, but my Treo kept interfering with the call. (To dial the number alphabetically I’d had to turn on the touchscreen. Then every time I breathed my cheek pressed onto it and confused the IVR prompts.) So I tried calling Election Protection instead, where I knew I could get a real person. But because it routed calls by area code I ended up talking to a California volunteer. Who was on her very first call. And had no idea how to find the Ohio information. (California volunteers weren’t specifically trained for that, since they were only expecting calls from western states.) Meanwhile my friend tried hitting the Ohio secretary of state website on his Blackberry but was unable to find out the precinct either.
It was horrible. Mortifying (we looked like complete idiots), and terrifying. All these resources, all that training, and we STILL couldn’t get this poor man his poll information! I apologized profusely for the delay. “That’s ok, you’re pretty,” said the man, who’d been quietly sitting on the doorstep contemplatively drinking his liquor out of a brown paper bag while we tried all this. A little taken aback I blurted out in response, “Well, if it means you’ll vote for Obama, then I’m glad!”
But I’m sure he didn’t. Partly because he wouldn’t have had the precinct information (we think on retrospect that he may have been misspelling his address, which is why we couldn’t find its precinct information), and partly because he didn’t have ID. Nor did he have any of the auxiliary information you could bring in lieu of ID, like a utility bill. This poor guy had just moved back home with his mother, and everything was in her name. Moreover, because his life clearly didn’t involve the typical middle class trappings, he probably never had any need for an official state ID. Until Tuesday, when his rights guaranteed by his citizenship suddenly depended on it.
Licking my psychic wounds I soon left my friend and went back across the river. It was time for some nesting to recharge and prepare for the long next day. I decided to try out the local Steak ‘n Shake for dinner because I’ve never been to one before. A midwestern and southern chain, they aren’t where I usually live.
But that was what was so interesting about where I was that weekend, and Ohio generally. On the one hand, Ohio is an eastern state. (It has Dunkin’ Donuts!) On the other hand, it’s a midwestern state, and shares distinctively midwestern features. But then, next to Kentucky, it also feels somewhat southern. In any case, all these characteristics mixed up make it a particularly politically potent state, a state whose polls, come 5:45 am the next day, I’d be observing.
I was already up at 5:00 am when I got an automated wake-up call from John Kerry. I couldn’t help being a little amused by the fairly candid and somewhat morose Kerry encouraging us to go out and help Obama win a state that, as he reminded us, he hadn’t…
Back now across the river for good, I fumbled around in the dark to find my assigned poll location. Conveniently it was near the UC campus, an area I was now familiar with. Unfortunately it was one of the two or three churches in the neighborhood with a polling location and it took a bit to figure out which one was mine. (Some voters may have had the same problem.) Per our instructions from training I brought donuts for the poll workers and went in to introduce myself and ask if there was anything I could do to help the process along.
The weird thing about Ohio election law is that there’s no pretense of non-partisanship. Instead it is a deliberately bi-partisan operation, where poll access seems to be guaranteed by ensuring that both parties are represented in the process. In other words, the poll workers themselves were purposefully partisan representatives, with two Democrats and two Republicans, and I think this is why it wasn’t viewed as a problem to have partisan observers inside too. (Indeed, the law seemed to specifically allow for them.) Nonetheless, word has it that sometime during the day the Republican party had gone to court to try to have all the Democrat observers expelled. They didn’t succeed, however, and the training had emphasized the point of not behaving in any sort of untoward way that could result in our expulsion. For my part, because I was an out-of-state observer I went to some lengths to minimize my time on the inside — I didn’t want to spur any complaints of shenanigans. Which was something of a problem, because it turned out there was no Democratic one stationed on the inside (yet there were two Republicans).
Still it all seemed so strange to me to deliberately inject partisanship as a way of achieving balance. Partly because, as a current independent not a member of a party, I don’t like that the two parties get to control everything and then call the process fair. Fair would be for partisanship not to matter at all for something as civically critical as voting.
And partly because it seemed inconsistent with the other rule banning “electioneering” within a certain distance (100 feet?) of the polling location.
This rule was of some concern to us heading into Election Day because no one knew exactly how it would be enforced, or how arbitrarily, but in theory it could have required voters to remove any campaign buttons or stickers or even potentially their clothing. Moreover, because we were very worried about the effect long lines would have on turn-out, any attempt to frustrate voters by making issue of their dress might dissuade them from actually remaining to vote. We were genuinely concerned that this law, like the ID and precinct laws and such, could be used strategically by Republicans to suppress Democratic votes. To stave off this possibility some observers brought their own materials. For instance, I brought masking tape to cover buttons, and my friend bought a few $5 t-shirts from Old Navy that people could cover themselves with while they were within the “no electioneering” perimeter.
While such actions weren’t specifically asked of us by the campaign, the theme of the day for us observers, especially the outside ones, was to be a problem solver. Our collective goal was to get as many people regular ballots as possible. So if that meant covering up campaign t-shirts, fine. Looking up precinct information? Great. Providing information on ID requirements? Yep. Keeping voters comfortable and entertained while on line? Of course. Assisting poll workers in navigating the complex rules of residency? Absolutely. Feeding them and keeping them friendly? Definitely that too.
As I mentioned, the first problem I confronted was that there was no inside monitor from the Obama campaign at my location. As a result I started doing some of the inside observer’s tasks, to the extent I could. Hmm, maybe that training hadn’t been a waste of time after all… Otherwise things seemed fine, except that the line at the start was pretty long. People had been queuing up at least a 45 minutes before the polls opened, and for at least the first hour and a half it took about at least an hour to get through the line. But there I could help the poll workers out: since there were two precincts they eventually they opened two lines, and I helped ensure people got into the right one.
Come 9:00 am, however, everything seemed well under control. The lines had vanished and turnout was now a trickle. I suddenly felt like it would have been a huge waste for me to have stayed there all day, helping out the few voters that there were, voters who were by and large not of underserved demographics. Surely there must be some polls somewhere where my help could be the difference between people getting to vote or not.
I called the “boiler room” to run the situation past them, and soon they sent me to a poll across town in a community where my help would be more valuable. Which it indeed would have been, had it not already been pretty well staffed with observers. I spent a few hours there anyway and enjoyed interfacing with that community, because like my time canvassing in Camp Washington the day before, it felt important, like it was actually reaching people who might otherwise not have been reached. But since I really wasn’t needed there eventually I was dispatched back across town to another poll location, one that sounded overwhelmed with problems. As it indeed had been at the very beginning of the day when polls everywhere were overwhelmed with long lines and poor information about ID and residency requirements. But the pre-existing inside observer had long since gotten them all sorted out, and by the time I got over there not only were there not any problems anymore, but there weren’t any voters either…
From what I understand, however, it was quiet at most polls. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise there hadn’t really been a lunch rush, but we were still expecting that once school got out the lines would begin to thicken once again. So what could I do in the meantime that would be useful?
Canvassing, came the answer. So back again across town I went (I must have traveled the same stretch of Queen City Avenue half a dozen times that day…), where I went to a house serving as a local campaign headquarters and was handed yet more doortags and a list of voters to visit.
The problem, however, was that this was the third pass at most of these addresses. Which shows the thoroughness and organization of the Obama campaign in that they were so systematic, but it meant that the people who already weren’t home earlier in the day still probably wouldn’t be home, and I was wasting a lot of time walking quite a bit of distance in between doorbells to find that out. After a while I surrendered my remaining doortags and went back to my original poll location, where I realized no one would otherwise be on hand to help sort out the rush hour final push or report the final results.
Upon arriving I immediately began to wish I hadn’t left. Although there hadn’t been any further problems with lines, apparently during the day 30-50 provisional ballots had been given out to people with residency and/or ID issues and no one had been there to ensure that they were necessary. I felt terrible, because maybe if I’d been there I could have prevented them from being given out.
The problem with provisional ballots is that there’s no guarantee that they will ever be counted, which is why it’s so important to try to get voters regular ones. In a pinch, however, it’s better to vote provisionally than not at all so at least, once the dust settles, there will be something that can be counted. But in addition to the nightmare that Obama might not win the election there was the companion nightmare that Election Day would devolve into an endless series of lawsuits to decide which of those provisional ballots to count.
And here I was, having wasted my time most of the day criss-crossing the city, while these 30-50 people may not have gotten to vote in a way that would be counted. With such razor thin margins, every vote really and truly completely needed to count. I began to entertain nightmares that Obama would end up losing — by 30-50 votes… But to be fair to myself, I was an outside observer. It’s possible that I never would have had the chance to have helped out these voters (as it was, some of them apparently just shrugged off the advice the poll workers were giving them about how they could remedy their IDs and simply took a provisional ballot anyway). Also, given my experience in Florida in 2004 it was extremely reasonable for me to think that there might have been a more useful place for me to have been than that quiet suburban poll location. Still, the other lesson I had taken away from Florida was that things go wrong when no one’s there. Like the expression goes, sometimes you win just by showing up.
But oddly enough, voters were NOT showing up. No final rush hour push ever emerged, not at my location and possibly not at any others. I think it took the campaign by surprise to some extent. It seems that the people who really cared to vote took care of it as soon as they could, either that morning or in the days leading up to the election.
Nonetheless, I buckled down to finish the rest of my shift properly and took over the inside duties I could. I didn’t feel comfortable being inside watching them count the ballots after the polls closed at 7:30, but I hung out at the doorway and waited for the printouts from the machines so I could report them back to the campaign. Nearly two hours passed before it was all said and done and the poll workers left with the ballots. Per the training that was my sign that I could finally leave too.
It was well after 9:00 pm before my long day observing the polls finally came to an end. But shortly before then I got my first sign that it had been worth all the effort. The poll workers had posted copies of the receipts from the voting machines, and unfurling them in my hands I could see with my own eyes: from one precinct, McCain 51 votes, Obama 221, and from the other, McCain 73, Obama 369. Could it be? Could Obama have really won?
Meanwhile my friend called to tell me his tallies were even more favorable for Obama. But still we had no idea how typical the results might be. The next time we spoke we were still extremely subdued: states were starting to be called, and it was already 8-3 in favor of McCain. I guess Kentucky didn’t break for Obama after all.
There’s one other notable example of kismet I’ve left out of this story so far: the weather. This whole time I was in and around Ohio it was absolutely perfect, 75 degrees with not a cloud in the sky. There is no doubt that it mattered: no one was dissuaded from standing on a long line at a poll because it was too hot or too cold or too wet. No one was dissuaded from volunteering at a poll either. Or canvassing. Or rallying. Or doing anything else civic-minded in this whole entire area. The only thing one ever needed to focus on was whatever task was at hand.
And again, the kismet of having the company of a sudden friend was also immensely helpful. Not only could we talk each other off the ceiling when overwhelmed by our respective frustrations, it meant we didn’t have to be alone when riding out this historic night.
He came over from his location to where I was and joined me for a dinner of Cincinnati chili. In a student neighborhood near UC, as I stood on the corner waiting for him I started hearing cheering echo through the streets as different states started being called for Obama.
Including, amazingly, Ohio.
Not only that, but Hamilton County, where we were in Cincinnati, went Democratic for the first time since LBJ’s victory in 1964! Suddenly I was exonerated of those 30-50 ballots. Suddenly I could start to feel proud to have been part of history.
Around 10:30 the TV in the restaurant got turned off, so we left and headed in our separate directions because I was still entertaining this foolish notion that I should start driving back to Indianapolis. It wasn’t really so stupid — my return flight was at 6:00 am! — but it severely underestimated how the rest of the evening would unfold. Maybe I didn’t believe that it would really end so soon. Maybe I feared that an exhausting day would just be followed by an exhausting night of uncertainty. Maybe I felt I just needed to move on. All that angst that had followed me for all this time was not so easy to just shake right off. Not even after I caught a glimpse of the electoral map at 10:30 and realized that as long as Obama held the states Kerry had won, there was no way McCain could win.
But where I really realized the error of my ways was in the car, about to hit the freeway, when I heard on the radio McCain concede. With that I knew it was over, Obama had definitely won, and it was a moment to celebrate.
So I turned the car around and headed back downtown to meet my friend at the bar where all the campaign volunteers had gathered to watch the night unfold. It was a race against time to try to get there before Obama gave his speech, but fortunately at that hour — nearly midnight — there was no traffic yet plenty of parking…
I got there just in time and settled in to take in the moment. It was almost impossible to get my head around it; the enormity was almost too much to bear. I whispered to my friend, “It’s like the moon landing, isn’t it?” The kind of occasion where years later you’d remember where you were. I was in Cincinnati, Ohio, trying to remember how to exhale.
After the speech the exhausted campaign staffers left quickly and we too made our departure. But before parting we had one more errand.
I wanted Barack Obama to be my president because I thought he was the best candidate, not just in this campaign but possibly in my lifetime. A repudiation of the previous eight years, I nearly universally agree with his policies and trust his prudence to navigate the challenges of the presidency he’ll potentially face. Yet I’m not unmindful of nor untouched by the specific history made by him becoming the first black president of these United States.
It therefore seemed apt for us to have welcomed the occasion not five blocks from the Ohio River, the river that separated the slave south from the free north. Cincinnati itself was an important terminus on the Underground Railroad, a gateway for so many people’s freedom. So before saying goodnight and heading back to our respective lives, we took a walk down to the monument commemorating that awful time in order to be reminded just how far we’ve come.