November 4, 2004

No Challenge

Confessions of an Ohio GOP Poll Observer

It was 5:40 a.m. Election Day when the email from my RNC contact hit my machine. I had already left for the polling place in Akron not sure whether I would be going inside to observe the voting, or standing around outside in the rain all day. The standing outside option was a hastily assembled "Plan B" necessitated by U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott's ruling on Monday, which barred poll observers from both parties on the basis of a suit by a black Cincinnati couple that claimed Republican intentions were to "intimidate and block black voters".

I had seen on Fox News at about 8:30 p.m. on Election Eve that the GOP was appealing the Dlott ruling, but went to bed not knowing how it would be resolved. I was barely out of the driveway in the morning when my wife called to alert me to the new email, and I raced back home to read it:

WE'RE BACK IN!!!

Over the night the 6th Circuit ruled in our favor. Our observer program is allowed! Therefore, do all the things we told you in the training on Sunday. We are back to the original plan.

That original plan of course was to station one Republican observer at each voting precinct, to be joined by one counterpart from the Democratic Party, a detail overlooked in many of the news accounts of the various rulings and appeals, (the original online story on the Akron Beacon Journal site read "GOP challengers ruled unconstitutional").

The 300 or so Akron area volunteers had met just two days before, on Sunday afternoon for a training program and precinct assignments, and believe me, this group didn't need the pep talk we got from the twenty and thirtysomething Party guys who were conducting the orientation that day. The kids were great, don't get me wrong. But this group of citizens had a quiet strength and resolve about them, staying patient through the inevitable chaos and delays in getting the 3-hour meeting started, and dealing with the bad acoustics of the converted old Goodrich tire plant where we were meeting. They were deadly earnest about the task at hand. Every person there was a member of the silent majority that just re-elected George W. Bush.

We learned that day that we were part of a statewide group of some 2600 GOP observers, who would function as credentialed election officials, empowered to observe all phases of the election and post-election process. We were instructed to observe, ask questions where appropriate, call party officials for direction in the event of problems, and represent the Republican Party and its candidates in good faith and with integrity. We were alerted to keep an eye out for activity outside the polling places, possible illegal acts of electioneering inside the 100 foot radius of the polling place and unauthorized access to the polling place itself by non-voters. Complete updated lists of registered voters were supplied to us by the GOP, and all voters were to be checked against the list, including notations of voters receiving provisional ballots. Totals of regular and provisional ballots cast were to be called in to the RNC four different times during the day.

We were asked to sign confidentiality agreements for the contents of the training manual, but since the Cincinnati Post has since published a summary of its contents online, and the election is won, I think its fair to share part of the direction we were given that day. While the manual discussed the legitimate reasons and procedures for formally challenging a voter (i.e. someone who is not on the registered voter list AND who cannot demonstrate that they are a resident of the precinct by presenting an ID, pay stub, utility bill or other document with an address) we were given repeated and explicit instructions by our GOP leadership; Under no circumstances were we to challenge ANY VOTER without first calling the local party hotline number, discussing the circumstances on a case-by-case basis with an RNC official who would then direct the course of action, possibly dispatching a representative to the scene to investigate. It was by our presence in the room and at the voting table that we would hope to deter the possible incidence of voter fraud. We knew that the other side would pass up no opportunity to claim "intimidation" or disenfranchisement", and we were determined to be vigilant, but not to give them a pretext for making any such claims.

So with all of my call-in reporting numbers and the special GOP War Room hotline programmed into my cell phone, my bag of drinks and snacks, and a stack of reporting forms in my notebook, I showed up at my assigned polling place in Akron's 5th Ward. It was 6:05 a.m., still 25 minutes before the polls were to open, and there were already at least 25 voters sitting in the large room, waiting to make their voices heard.

There were two other precincts voting in the same room as ours, so the set-up was in triplicate and three lines of voters snaked through the room all day long. Our ballots, ballot boxes, registration notebooks etc. had arrived a bit late, and of the four official election workers (two from each party) and the Presiding Judge for our precinct, only two had any recent experience setting up and running a voting table, and it showed in the time it took to get things arranged and rolling. I introduced myself to the six people with whom I would spend the next fourteen hours, pulled up a plastic cafeteria chair behind the voting table, and set about to "observe".

News Flash - Turnout was huge. By the time we logged in our first ballot at 6:45 the line was out the door, through the lobby and out the outside doors. We had no letup in the stream of voters until almost 2 o'clock.

I had checked out the "unofficial" personnel outside the polling place when I first came in, and took an additional stroll out there later in the morning to observe how the MoveOn.org and ACT activists and Democratic organizers were functioning. (My charter to check off the names of each and every voter on my roster didn't allow for many or long breaks from the table.) The activists were camped in the parking lot of the polling place with tables set up barely beyond the required 100 feet from the front door of the building. They were clearly "electioneering", handing out Kerry pamphlets and lists of all the Democratic candidates. Two men were wearing neon green T-shirts with the words "Got Questions? - Ask Me" across the front, clearly hoping to be perceived as official election workers, and succeeding in having verbal contact with a large percentage of voters approaching the building. These same non-officials ignored the 100-foot limits outside, came into the building at will, walked into the actual voting area, talked with voters, asked Presiding Judges for "counts", reviewed lists of voters posted on the walls, and generally acting as if they had the run of the place. I expressed some concerns about the legality or propriety of these activities to the Presiding Judge, as did some of the election officials from the other two precincts. They had words with the judge, and for the most part stayed outside after that.

While they were milling around the voting room, one of the neon green guys came over to me and asked me if I was an "approved election official". I replied, "I'm the Republican Party observer" He asked "Not a challenger?" I repeated my statement. He walked away.

But despite what might be characterized as overzealousness on the part of the Kerry people outside and inside the polling place, the actual voting was inspiring, even exciting for me. There was an intensity and an urgency in the room that I had never experienced in a voting place before. Lots of pride showing...the good kind. There was a little defensiveness with some people as they approached the table. Sort of an "I dare you to tell me I can't vote" attitude, which invariably dissolved into relaxation when their names appeared on the voter lists and their ballots were handed to them. But there were lots of Rockwellesque scenes too, like the 60-year old man proudly escorting his frail 85-year old mother to her voting booth. It was very, very cool. And we were all excited about the numbers, even this Republican, who kept silently wondering where the precincts might be that could balance out what I assumed would be a heavy majority in this one for the Senator from Massachusetts.

Early in the day the wait was as long as 45-50 minutes in line, and on average, it was probably about 30 minutes. I did not see one person step out of line to leave. These citizens were on a mission, and were generally friendly, but serious. When they reached the voting table,nearly everyone in line was still clutching the "Vote Democratic" handout listing the names of all the Democratic candidates that they had been handed in the parking lot. Many commented that they had never seen turnout like this, and perhaps 5% admitted that they were voting for the first time. These folks were given gracious assistance by the election team. I had no responsibility for communication with voters at all relative to the voting process. Outside of eye contact and smiles, and a bit of small talk about the Browns game this week, or a question about how long their wait had been, I limited my communication to the team at the table.

It was a tough job for the election workers who were constantly pushing themselves, conscious as they were of the long wait being endured by the voters in line. My frustration was not being able to help out much, since as observers we were strictly forbidden to so much as touch any ballot, registration log, official voter list, or anything that would have allowed us to assist in a substantial way. I couldn't even sit in for a couple minutes to give one of these guys a bathroom break. I tried to help a little bit by listening for the voter's name, and then after checking it off on my own list, enunciating it and/or spelling it for the official who had to look it up on the master voter list. This yielded mixed results, so after a while I settled for being the official supplier of Snickers bars and Goldfish crackers for the team, and quietly filling in my RNC report.

I can't say enough about how the precinct team went out of their way to do right by each and every voter. Like the two gentlemen precinct workers who ably assisted the first-timers with their voting, without so much as a hint of impropriety. If a voter had waited in line only to find out when he got to the table that he had the wrong precinct, we had one woman who took it upon herslf to negotiate "cuts" in the line at the other precinct table, so the voter wouldn't have to wait in line all over again. That's one of dozens of examples of that kind of accommodation.

It became obvious early in the day that the turnout might be some sort of record. The precinct team started to take a certain pride in the numbers, celebrating as the hundred ballot milestones passed by. By the time we finally had a break in the line of voters, it was nearly 2:00 p.m., and we had "voted" some 450 citizens. Eight hours in, seven people who had started the day as total strangers were tight. This mixed-race, mixed-party team had an emotional buzz going, because as stressful as it had been, things were going without a hitch. By that point in the day, we had given out about 15 provisional ballots, and if I recall correctly, all of them were either for voters who had registered too late to be included on the master voter lists, or who had recently moved to the precinct. Not ONE voter had been challenged by an election official or by a party observer. It was about that time that a fresh batch of Democratic (MoveOn.org?..ACT?) activists and Ohio Democratic Party operatives showed up and began to inject themselves into the process.

There must be something about fluorescent chartreuse with these people, because we started to see voters coming in with flyers in that lovely shade that the new arrivals were handing out in the lobby, with the heading "YOUR RIGHT TO VOTE" in a typeface large enough to read from across the room. (I guess these were for those people who showed up at the polling place on Election Day who were unaware that they had the right to vote here in America.)

There were five or six of them this time around, a mix of men and women mostly in their thirties, who spent a few minutes interviewing voters out in the lobby before strolling into the main voting area. Some were wearing large nametag identification badges with "Voter Protection" on them. They didn't seem like happy people, and they paced around the room scowling as if something was very wrong. A couple of the V.P. women came right up to our voting table, and seemed to look me up and down, I suppose checking to see if I had a "Voter Kidnapping" badge on. They then took chairs adjacent to our voting table and proceeded to scan the room for telltale signs of intimidation. Excuse the sarcasm, but these people had walked in with the attitude that they were spoiling for a rumble, and it was in such contrast to the prevailing attitude in the room all day that it was striking and distressing.

A serious looking young man with a clipboard, who had arrived with the Voter Protection folks, approached my Democratic counterpart, a meek little girl not a day over 22, from whom I had been able to wring about a dozen words of conversation in eight hours of trying. They shared a few quiet words and left the room, for a consultation I guess. Within a few minutes, clipboard guy was back with some questions for me.

"What's your function here? Are you a credentialed election worker?" With all the civility I could muster, I asked in return, "And who are YOU?"

He identified himself as being with the Ohio Democratic Party, and returned to the interrogation. "What's your name?" Not sure of what information I was required to give him, but assuming it was zip, I just said "My name is Dan, and that gentleman over there is the Presiding Judge for this precinct. I suggest you ask him if you need any more information about me or my credentials."

He offered that he just might do that, since as he said "we've had some voters here today who have been denied their rights. Some people were asked for identification, and you have no right to do that."

I could only reply with an incredulous "Oh, really?", but what I was thinking was more like...

Oh, really? Because that would be big news to the seven people at this precinct who have been here since 6 o'clock this morning assisting these wonderful citizens in the exercise of their franchise to vote, and have successfully completed that process for some 450 people so far, without so much as a whimper of dissatisfaction from any ONE of them about their treatment by this fine group. It would be big news because not ONE voter has been challenged in eight hours of non-stop voting, either by an election worker or by a party observer. Not ONE voter has been asked to produce identification if the name they gave us appeared on the voter registration lists, although dozens if not hundreds of them have arrived at the voting table with their Drivers Licenses, picture ID's or Voter Registration Cards in their hands, presenting them voluntarily to assist the volunteer election worker in determining or spelling their names or confirming their addresses. And it takes a lot of nerve, cynicism and self-importance for you to show up for ten minutes at 2 o'clock in the goddamn afternoon, talk to a couple people and start throwing around accusations that impugn the integrity of this process and these people who have been busting their asses all day long already, and have six hours yet to go. Sideways with the clipboard, pal.

Or something like that.

Two nice men from the County Board of Elections stopped by to check on things shortly after this, and asked the "protection" folks for some written credential that would permit them access inside the polling place. They were unable to produce any document, and were asked nicely to leave.

I didn't know what to expect coming in. We hoped that the presence of observers from both sides would help deter vote fraud, and I think that the program is worthwhile, and should continue. The party observers certainly were incidental to the proper functioning of this particular precinct, and my personal contribution was no doubt negligible. But it's the only precinct I can speak for.

Looking back now, I do think that there may have been 2 or 3 people who stepped up to our table on Tuesday who weren't the people that they claimed to be. There were a couple of signatures that didn't match up well at all with the ones on file in the book. They occurred later in the day, and the experienced hands at the table, both Republican and Democrat, were disinclined to challenge on the basis of a shaky signature comparison, after all we had been through that day. A judgment call.

We had only 24 provisional ballots cast all day, and the availability of that option I think, allowed us to avoid what otherwise might have been one or two contentious situations. We can't prove anything here...let the Board of Elections sort it out. As long as the provisional ballot numbers don't overwhelm the capability of election officials to do that sorting out, it's a system that I think can work, with some tweaking.

We were instructed to stick around afterwards for the counting of ballots and ballot stubs, and I did stay for part of it. But it sure wasn't because I felt I needed to be there to help assure the integrity of the process. I had arrived at 6 in the morning, and by noon I would have trusted any one of those six other election workers with my wallet, my children, and the keys to my house. I have the utmost faith in them, and in 99.99% of the voters I saw come through. This process, and the civic commitment of the people who work it, are American treasures.

I am not as sure of the integrity of some of the other activities undertaken by partisan outsiders to the process, whose actions were not supervised or monitored, and whose numbers are too great to expect Board of Elections staffs to control them.

Posted by dan at November 4, 2004 11:53 PM