I must have brought this on myself. I don't know how else to explain why the polling place I got assigned to was a hotbed of incompetence and outrage, while at the ones down the road things proceeded calmly, without incident.
Things began well enough.
It is bitterly cold in Denver, so cold that this morning when one of the Election Protection volunteers spilled her cup of coffee it froze within moments of hitting the sidewalk. I grew up in Montreal and New Jersey but after 12 years in California I have gone lamentably soft. On the way over to the polling station I kept bemoaning the the fact that I was going to spend election morning standing on a Denver street corner looking like an oversized marshmallow in my white Election Protection windbreaker, size XL, worn over the top of my puffy down coat. Once I got out of the car, I was just grateful for the extra layer.
The voters waiting inside, in the overheated Knapp elementary school, were in lines snaking down the hallways. One of the first I spoke to was a hulking young man, Ulysses. He'd been there since long before the polls opened at 7 AM, but he said he who didn't mind the wait. he was just thrilled, at age 18, to be casting his first ballot. It was P. Diddy who inspired him. Vote or Die.
Some of the other voters were not so sanguine. One man stormed out of the school, cursing the precinct workers, cursing the government, cursing everyone who stood in his way. By then the wait was pushing an hour, the voting booths were empty because the poll workers couldn't manage to process the voters and get them behind the curtains. Instead, they were scrambling through voter registration lists, flipping past people's names, incorrectly sending them on to different precincts, and generally exhibiting a kind of incompetence that was terrifying to behold. They were new to their jobs, some had never done it before. There were three precincts voting in the school, and two moved smoothly. It was only Precinct 221, staffed by a handsome guy with a shock of messy blond hair, and a woman whose sour frown had worked permanent creases into her cheeks by 7:30 AM, that was having problems. These two were just in over their heads, and unable to deal with the ever-lengthening line of disgruntled voters. After my fellow Election Protection volunteers and I had seen many -- far too manyinfuriated voters, I ducked in the other door of the school and found Bunny, the election judge for Precinct 444, a small woman, who oozed informed competence, like a Girl Scout troop leader or a museum docent. I told her what was going on, and asked her to check it out for herself, maybe give the poor schlubs at 221 a hand. Bunny and her team were stationed at the other end of the long elementary school corridor. Now she headed down past walls decked with children's drawings and essays in tortured cursive to to check out what was going wrong.
By the time I got back outside where I belonged, we had another problem on our hands. An absentee voter had never received her ballot. The poll worker had no idea what she should do. The absentee asked me to come inside with her and help her request a provisional ballot.
Which I did. That's where my problems started.
I don't care what the City Attorney's office tells you, I was sweet as pie. A veritable baklava of a nonpartisan volunteer. I spoke softly and patiently and gently. Not aggressive at all. I suggested that they allow her, pursuant to Colorado law, to file an affidavit regarding her missing and then vote. They'd never heard of this procedure. Then I suggested they call someone about the affidavit. No go. Then I suggested she be allowed to file a provisional ballot, always a last resort since who knows if and when those will be counted. This went down okay with the handsome poll worker, and I bid him and my now much cheered voter goodbye.
I don't think it was the poll worker who reported me to the city attorney. Maybe it was the Republican poll monitor. I'm betting whoever it was didn't like me. But by the time we managed to deal with having been reported to the City Attorney for "aggressive protection," and moved our signs a few feet farther away to comply with the 100-foot rule, we were on to another mini-crisis. This one was the closest to voter intimidation, although it didn't result in someone being preventing from casting a ballot. I took an affidavit from an enraged voter who, while she was casting her ballot in precinct 444, overheard a poll worker complain about all the election materials offered in Spanish and wonder why "people" don't just learn English. Incidentally, and perhaps not entirely by chance, this little act of bigotry took place in a bilingual school, where the children's essays decorating the walls are written in Spanish, many of the children whom I watched took their leave from their parents in Spanish, and the door to the girls room had a big sign on it that said "Muchachas."
There was one woman whose vote I could not help to cast. She showed up in a sweatshirt far too light for the bitter cold, with a spangled hairnet covering her thinning white hair, and she was limping from a blood clot that had worked havoc on her knee. She'd been registered to vote, years ago, but had not done so for a long, long time. She was inspired by this election, she said, and wanted to know if she could cast her ballot. Alas, Colorado has a provision that allows a voter to be struck from the rolls if she fails to vote. She had come out today for nothing.
By the time my shift was over, I felt confident that I had done something, that my trip to the mountains had been worthwhile, that at least a few more voters cast ballots because of the presence of Election Protection today. I have few illusions about my activities; I know that for every citizen whose vote we protect there are others, perhaps even more numerous, who will once again be left in the cold. But I can go home tonight, hand my son back his diagram and tell him that, even though I didn't have to use it, I still struck a blow for democracy.
As I walked out the door Monday morning to catch my flight to Denver, my 7-year-old son handed me a drawing he had just made: a diagram, he informed me, displaying the most vulnerable part of a man's body. Just in case.
I have come from Berkeley, Calif., where neither my vote (registered via absentee ballot two weeks ago) nor my presence at the polls particularly matters, to the swing state of Colorado, to work for Election Protection. I am doing my bit to make sure that at least a couple of the estimated 4 million people who were disenfranchised in the last election get their chance to vote.
That astronomical number of voters, according to People for the American Way, one of the groups making up the large coalition that makes up Election Protection, were denied the right to cast their votes, some because of technical glitches like faulty machinery or poorly designed ballots, others through outright chicanery and voter suppression efforts.
So here I am in Denver, and I'm spoiling for a fight. Don't get me wrong. I am here because I know that the very presence of election monitors deters election fraud and voter intimidation. I know the best-case scenario is a smooth election with no attempts at voter suppression, where every individual is allowed to exercise his or her right to vote, even those for whom English is not their native language, say, or whose skin color is a shade or two darker than John Ashcroft's.
I know this, but goddamn it, I have flown 1,300 miles, I have a diagram of the most vulnerable part of a man's body, and a part of me will be very disappointed if I don't see some action.
I am not alone in my truculence. I'm surprised that the barren assembly room at Mi Casa Resource Center for Women, where the final volunteer training is taking place Monday night, is so cold, considering the fact that it is full to bursting with angry, righteous people, most of whom, I'm willing to bet, wish they were in Ohio or Florida, where things might get woolly.
Oh, we'll take Colorado, because it's going to be close, and it has a crucial Senate race going, and at least some history of voter suppression, but you can tell that the guy in the boiled wool Tibetan hat, and the overwrought older man who asked what to do if the cops try to haul away a voter in handcuffs, sort of wish they were someplace else. Someplace where the Republican Party has hired "volunteers" (at 100 bucks a head) to challenge voters at the polls.
(On Monday Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell instructed county election boards to bar all such challengers from the polls, pursuant to two federal district court opinions calling the constitutionality of these challenges into question. Tuesday, the Sixth Circuit overruled.)
We're informed by an earnest young woman wearing a silly black and white Election Protection smock that this is a nonpartisan organization, one whose tax-exempt status depends on the neutrality of its purpose, and all us pissed-off people have to be very careful not to say who it is we are so angry at. There is a wave of uncomfortable laughter.
This training session is at a center started by former Head Start mothers whose mission is to "advance self-sufficiency for primarily low-income Latinas and youth." I wonder if Karl Rove is on their donor list. We're all here to make sure that every voter gets to exercise that right, and since the disenfranchised in this country have traditionally and primarily been people of color and the poor, it's not hard to figure out that we share a party affiliation, or at least a political affinity.
Considering all the righteous indignation in the room, and the helpless disorganization of the poll assignment process, people are behaving themselves pretty well. There's a general tone of niceness, which I think can be attributed to our common cause. One pretty young woman with long, dark hair and cheeks reddened by the chill wind tells me happily that she's getting married in two weeks, in Mexico, on a resort an hour south of Playa del Carmen. There will be 100 people at her wedding.
Another man, a dapper older gentleman wearing a green watch plaid jacket and a varsity scarf and sporting a finely carved cane over one arm, tells me that he campaigned for Adlai Stevenson in 1952. The only overt hostility in the room comes in response to one or two of the more ridiculous questions -- "What if a blind person comes to the polls and wants me to go into the booth and help them vote? Can I go inside with them? Should I take off my Election Protection T-shirt?" There are hundreds of us waiting for our assignments and our T-shirts, and a few can't help from grumbling when earnest questions keep the organizers lecturing for too long.
After a few hours I have finally been assigned my polling place -- I'm due at the Knapp School at 6 a.m., heaven help me -- and received my snazzy Legal Volunteer windbreaker. I'm all jazzed up and ready to go tomorrow. My shift lasts until 10 a.m., and then I'm going to do some get out the vote work. I can't tell you for which party, though. Because I work for Election Protection, and we're a nonpartisan organization.
More to come.