As Election Day 2016 looms, I wanted to revive this post about my experience monitoring the election as a law student in 2004.
I talk a lot about making a difference. This election day I really tried to.
Electionprotection.org was asking for volunteers, particularly lawyers and law students, to monitor the polls. I decided to go down to Florida to help out.
I flew down on Sunday to the Fort Lauderdale/Miami area. I met my cousin for dinner in Little Havana, where there was a raucous pro-Bush demonstration outside the restaurant (and, being Halloween, a diner dressed as Fred Flinstone on the inside). A few Kerry supporters were on the other side of the street but the Bush crowd was louder. My cousin explained that the Cuban community historically has supported Republicans, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
I had a training for the poll monitoring on Monday evening, but, not knowing they could have used volunteers earlier in the day I instead volunteered with MoveOn.org to help get out the Democratic vote. I went to the Fort Lauderdale office, which was a bustling place. Volunteers from all over the country had convened to help out with the campaign. Many of us were tasked with canvassing neighborhoods to remind previous Democratic voters to come out to the election. Others were on the phones trying to organize still more volunteers. In the morning I was given the task of rearranging the dozens of Ethernet and phone cables running all over the office. I ran new ones to reach a farther room and taped them down so people wouldn’t trip. It was the kind of job where if no one noticed it meant I was successful. Not glamorous, but important nonetheless. In the afternoon I did the same kind of canvassing as the other volunteers, except it was over the phone. I generally don’t like doing telephone solicitation but as I learned to hone my pitch, I got used to it. Of the people that were home, nearly all of them were friendly on the phone, and many expressed excited commitment to go out and vote for Kerry. But there were a few tough moments. One woman complained she had not received her absentee ballot, despite having made lots and lots of calls. “I’m just sick about it,” she said. She didn’t think she would be able to make it to the polls the next day due to a painful disability. (It turns out that disabled voters were usually able to have a poll worker bring out a ballot machine to their car, but I didn’t know that yet to be able to advise her.) The other hard moment came when I asked to speak with one voter, and was told by the voice on the other end, “My father just passed away a few minutes ago.” I blurted out, “I’m so sorry to hear that!” and I’m really glad that’s what I said. Particularly because the first (thankfully unvoiced) thought to pop into my head was, “Had he already voted?”
I opted to do the canvassing in Fort Lauderdale, in Broward County, because I’d volunteered to do the poll monitoring in Miami-Dade county, and I didn’t want to do something partisan (the canvassing) in the same county where I would be doing something non-partisan (poll monitoring). The next day I was paired up with a retired law professor to circulate among various polling places south of Miami. The idea was that there would be poll monitors stationed at every precinct (or at least every one where minority disenfranchisement was particularly feared) and the legal teams would go between them to offer particular expertise. In practice however it took a while to put all the monitoring teams into place, so early in the morning before the polls opened we went to one at a high school and settled in as the monitors themselves.
Even at that early hour it was a busy place. At 7 am there were easily 150-200 people queued up to vote. There were a lot of other people there as well, but here terminology is important. There were poll workers, who were the people who ran the polling places. There were poll watchers, who were attorneys sanctioned to be inside the precinct to watch what was going on. (These would be the people to mount the challenges if they objected to some voter, and it was feared that there would be many of these. But as I understand it the challenging didn’t widely occur. At our initial polling place there was a lawyer from the Democratic Party and another from the Republican. They seemed to cancel each other out. The Republican one may not have put up much of a fuss, but the few times he came out of the polling place he demonstrated himself to be quite the asshole. It was as if he felt that he should live up to the worst liberals’ stereotype of a Republican lawyer.)
Also in attendance were two other attorneys from a liberal cause to handle any disenfranchisement issues, a Republican picketer, various Democratic picketers and representatives from other liberal groups, and people handing out fliers for the local candidates in the election. There were also “good-will ambassadors” from the county, poll counters, and others who did exit polls on the voting experience. And then we were there, poll monitors from Election Protection, with our distinctive black t-shirts with bold white writing loudly informing people that they had the right to vote.
As we were monitoring we didn’t really encounter any significant problems, but we suspect just being there kept the funny business to a minimum. We heard from some monitors at another precinct that earlier there had been a man from some official sounding group telling people (falsely) that if they didn’t speak English they couldn’t vote. But once the monitors arrived, people like that scurried away. Although we were accused of being a liberal group, and it’s true the liberal causes were particularly concerned about the franchisement issues, we were really non-partisan and I was proud of that. Protecting the process was a noble cause, and one I was happy to keep separate from the politicking. It’s one thing for the majority of people to choose the candidate I don’t want. It’s another thing for them not to choose him but get stuck with him anyway. The latter problem is much worse.
By mid-morning we had left our original polling place and gone by several more to check in on them. At all of them the turnout was huge. Up until about 10:30 lines were very long, and I imagine they grew again later in the day. The biggest problem we encountered was that people would go to the wrong polling place and not find this out until they had already waited potentially over an hour on line. Some polling places tried to minimize this problem by checking for eligibility as soon as the voter got there. Another group of polls, supervised by a Frank Hinton (whose name I want to mention because I think he should be commended), gave voters who discovered, once reaching the registration tables, that they were at the wrong place, a pass that would let them go to the head of the line at the correct place, as long as it was a polling place supervised by Hinton, who could require that his other polls recognize the passes. Most poll workers we found were serious about facilitating the vote, although some were more informed about the particulars than others. Some gave incorrect advice, for example, about using provisional ballots that we had to correct.
But even though there was no defining moment, with some great conflict that was disarmed solely because of us, there were a lot of small things we were able to do to ensure the right to vote, one voter at a time.
I had to leave by 2 to catch my flight home so the professor I was with took me back to the starting point and picked up, ironically, another law student named Cathy. He also nicely helped me change the tire on my rental car, which was completely flat. On my way to the airport I stopped to get dinner and chatted with the clerk about the election. She planned to vote when she got off work, the first time ever for her. She was nervous, but I encouraged her. I told her she had the right to vote, and as long as she was on line before the polls closed at 7 she could vote, no matter what anyone told her. I told her to bring her registration card if she had it, and if not, an ID and proof of residency. She thanked me for making it seem less daunting, and we talked about how exciting it was to be able to participate in something so important and historic.
I was a little worried, with my trip to Florida, that Floridians might resent the influx of out-of-state volunteers. I thought they might feel a bit manhandled. But people seemed happy to see us. Wearing my poll monitoring t-shirt I was thanked by more than one person for being there and for making sure their right to vote was recognized. The election didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, but I know I did what I could to help it along. Next time I will do even more.