Tuesday, November 4, 2008

If It Rains

It's sunny in New York and Chelsea's 29th Congressional district was the one at my polling station with the shortest line (I was the only one in it). Beside me people snaked around and stared as I self-consciously tugged at my coat. The Republican poll-watcher checking me off on his list chuckled that the 30th Congressional district (the line next to me) only had two machines and we had one and no other voters.

Let the games begin. Turnout’s been great so far but if it rains today – will all the college kids expected to tip the balance show up? It’s the kind of doubt that’s trickling in, now that black voters, older voters and Latino voters are proving their mettle by withstanding rain, sleet, long lines, ID-related harassment and GOP intimidation.

But after the overworked Obama volunteers cannot be called on do more; and have to take a breather and wait for results (NY volunteers can still phone-bank; check for event listings)– will the kids who weren’t steam-rolled by canvassing and phone-banking responsibilities make it or break it? Will they live in the woolly warm world where “Obama-is-winning-anyway-so-no-biggie-if-it-rains” or make their collective admiration finally known? I’ll still go with the latter. I’m imagining oh-I-don’t-know – raincoats, galoshes and camping gear to ride the day out.

First we’re likely taking the day off from class or work as the Obama campaign has asked us to do. But alongside the one thousand attorneys expected to line up near Georgian voters, there is the anticipation now that kids in North Dakota (there’s a wet front coming through Bizmarck folks!) and Montana (sleet and snow are predicted) – who aren’t telling their parents and grandparents how they’re voting – will creep to the booths with their tents and pillows, umbrellas for those who forgot them and extra M&Ms and breath mints for those who'll find out they need to miss work. To all those youthfuls in Missouri – bring your friends – and your Ipods (as it seems much of the state hasn’t been voting early.)

Some college professors have high hopes for their students. Others are skeptical. U-Wisconsin professor Kathleen Dolan says the voting rates are pretty high (75 percent in the state) and it’s always possible the under-30s will under-perform (because that's what they've done in the past).

But this election is far from normal and the news looks promising.

In 1920 when women gained the right to vote, some were skeptical of their influence. “Nothing has changed except that the number of docile ballot droppers has approximately doubled,” wrote one male journalist.

The point being made was just because there were more voters in the electorate didn’t mean it would necessarily bring change. And oh how wrong he was. Nine years later, Roosevelt would adopt the ambitious New Deal, finally creating checks and balances in a wayward financial system and providing succor to a working class that had lost the lion’s share of jobs– women would become an active part of the constituency that would make this possible.

This year there are once again many voters who have joined the rolls (now 16.5 million and counting). But there are 140 million others across the country registered. How many will turn out? What do 16 and a half million newbies really mean? Guess we’ll find out soon enough. I, for one, am harboring fantasies about a rally in the global financial markets.

Mind the gap when reading the chart below..

Swing state predictions (electoral college only)
Electoral vote count: 320 Obama; 218 McCain

Obama wins: North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, North Dakota, Nevada, and probably also New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

McCain wins: Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Indiana, Arizona, Montana.

State Name (Electoral votes; counties)
Voters registered Early or Absentee Ballots Cast; Turnout expected Demographics


(9 votes; 67 counties)

Currently: MCCAIN
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Narrow McCain.

3 million in total have registered;
80 percent of all registered are expected to turn out. 40 percent of new voters are also under the age of 25; and 14 percent are between the ages of 25 and 30.
50 percent of all registered were expected to turn out early.
Nearly a quarter of the state is African American, but black voters are now close to 40 percent of the state’s electorate.


(6 votes; 82 counties)

Currently: MCCAIN
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Narrow McCain.

190,000 new voters are registered this year; 1.9 million in total.

The state does not otherwise have a voter ID requirement in the state but has begun pressing for people to verify addresses. High estimates reflect 85 percent of all the voters in the state may turn out.

U.S. DOJ will observe in Bolivar, Jefferson Davis, Jones, Kemper, Leake, Madison, Neshoba, Newton, Noxubee, Washington, Wilkinson and Winston counties.
No early voting.
37 percent African American; the highest concentration of blacks than any other state.


(13 votes; 95 counties)

Currently: leans OBAMA
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Narrow McCain.

436,000 new voters;

Biggest increases are in urban areas and college towns; final registration deadline has passed; 71 percent of all voters cast ballots in 2004.
300,000 have cast absentee ballots.20 percent are African American and 4 percent are Asian.

North Carolina

(15 votes; and 100 counties)

Currently: SWING
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Obama.

235,000 are new white voters; 150,000 are new black voters and 35,000 are self-described “other” new voters). 40 percent of all voters have already cast their ballots.

2.6 million have voted across the state so far.
22 percent are African American, 2 percent are Asian.

Black voters so far have made up 26 percent of early votes cast.


(15 electoral votes; 159 counties)

Currently: SWING
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Obama

5.7 million registered.

Bush won the state in ’04 by a 17-point lead.
This Election Day, more than a thousand attorneys are expected to be watching polling booths.
2 million (35 percent of total) have already voted, surpassing 2004 early turnout in which 20 percent voted.

30 percent are African American; the state is one of the fastest growing across the country.


(21 votes; 67 counties)

Currently: SWING
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Narrow McCain.

500,000 new voters registered. No early voting.11 percent are African American, 2 percent are Asian.


(27 votes; 67 counties)

Currently: SWING
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Obama.

430,000 new voters, with Democrats having a slight majority among them.

15 percent black, 10 percent Latino, Asian and mixed-race and other groups.

2.6 million have voted. 46 percent of early voters have cast ballots for Dems and a third of all voters have already made their choice known.


(20 votes; 88 counties)

Currently: SWING
2004: BUSH

Prediction: McCain.

830,000 new voters.
Nearly half are under 30. Majority of new voters are registered in Democrat-leaning counties.
At least 530,000 have cast ballots so far. 1.5 million absentee ballots requested. 11 percent black.

New Mexico

(5 votes; 33 counties)

Currently: Leans OBAMA
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Obama

1.2 million total are registered. 80 percent turnout expected (Note that 70 percent turned out in 2004). New voter counts not available.226,000 have voted and included those who voted by absentee ballot.29 percent speak Spanish at home, 4 percent speak Navajo.

Democrats are predominant in 21 of the state’s counties.


(9 votes; 64 counties)

Currently: SWING
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Obama

217,000 new voters. Republicans maintain a small lead in new registrations.56 percent of Colorado voters have already cast ballots. 70 percent of mail-in votes have been returned.

In 2004, 60 percent of those registered, voted in the election as a whole.
19 percent Latino, 5 percent black, 4 percent Asian.


(11 votes, 114 counties)

Currently: SWING
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Narrow McCain

340,000 new voters, 150,000 of which are under 24.

Expected turnout is 75 percent of total voters registered, a slight decrease over other popular election years.
10 percent of total ballots have been cast.12 percent African American, 2 percent Asian and mixed-race.


(11 votes, 92 counties)

Currently: SWING
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Narrow McCain

525,000 new voters.409,000 have voted early.9 percent black, 5 percent Latino.


(10 votes; 15 counties)

Currently: SWING
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Narrow McCain.

270,000 new voters since 2006 election, 168,000 of which are Dems. State otherwise leans Republican.

80 percent turnout of registered voters are expected, an increase of 9 points over 71 percent in 2004 and 2000.
Some believe half of all voters have cast early ballots but no confirmation of that yet.29 percent Latino, 3.5 percent black, 4 percent Asian and mixed-race.


(3 votes; 56 counties)

Currently: leans MCCAIN
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Narrow McCain

38,000 new voters, 24,400 of who are under 35. 184,000 voted early.7 percent American Indian.

North Dakota

(3 votes; 53 counties)

Currently: SWING
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Narrow Obama

State does not require voters to register. None available. 25 percent of all residents are under 30.


5 votes; 16 counties)

Currently: SWING
2004: BUSH

Prediction: Narrow Obama

2.2 million registered. Half the state’s voters are expected to have already cast their ballots.7 percent African American, 6 percent Asian and 20 percent Latino.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Celebrating In One Swing City

Photo: Baby pumpkins in the windowsill of a Bethlehem home.

Published to the Huffington Post.

On the eve of Diwali, known less formally as the Hindu New Year, my partner and I found ourselves in one northern Pennsylvania town toasting the festival of lights alongside a slew of other celebrations. Most overtly, we were a part of the city’s latest weekend event - the hunt for ‘undecideds’ – and my, what a glorious day for that it was.

Bethlehem is a 'city of festivals' as Karen, one Obama supporter, described it – and she was right. It was hard not to notice. Golden leaves sparkled in the eyes of Jack-o-lanterns and fall wreaths helped turn the town a hue of burnt orange. The city is otherwise famous for its name, which draws out-of-towners from miles around during Christmas to the post office here; they come to mail holiday cards bearing the city’s fortuitous stamp. This year, the Christmas stars (of Bethlehem) were already mounted in the town’s main square.

Bethlehem is a ‘swing city’ this season– it has scores of McCain supporters who, for the most part, are starting to see their hold weakening. And most residents, in general, are also beginning to keep their opinions to themselves. (Two weeks ago, the city saw a vitriolic response from some locals who emphatically sought to smear the nation's leading presidential candidate. A video on YouTube featured it - a gathering in which several people branded Obama a terrorist. An article on a local blog at about the same time discussed flyers by white supremacists designed to drudge up race-based fears.)

McCain headquarters, however, as we noticed it, was a ramshackle old hair salon with the sign “Hair Style” still posted above. It lay along a tired mall across the highway, far beyond the city center. By contrast, Obama volunteers a short distance away had been pouring into a home in the historic downtown district to share stories, cookies and oodles of campaign buttons. They spoke of occasions in which ‘undecideds’ said they had been wooed seven or eight times by Dems but never once by McCain supporters. People had come from all over (one couple flew from Scotland to rally city residents. Their travel blog is posted here.)

Safe to say, that despite the racial angst weeks ago, Barack Obama is quietly becoming religion in the city. Obama-Biden signs crisscrossed lawns steps from downtown (a shift from a visit we took to the area some weeks ago when signs were scarcer) and local college students were doing their part to buck older trends.

“Why don’t you work on that one while he’s in,” one postal worker called out as he left a home where he'd just exchanged some mail and banter. We had otherwise been traipsing the other side of “Wall Street” (a misnomer for a row not much larger than a New York mews, but with several ‘undecideds’ living doors away from one another).

Mr. Talbot, the man the postal worker was referring to, seemed jittery when he saw us. But his voice boomed and he cut us off sharply, making it clear he wanted us to scurry along our merry way as soon as we possibly could.

“I want you to know I’m not voting for either candidate,” he professed proudly as though calming our worst apprehensions. “Neither of them has very much to offer … but my wife is voting for Obama.” (Secretly, we decided Mrs. Talbot had nine more days to work on him which, right then, seemed like a good enough chunk of time.)

Talbot had managed to lift our spirits. We had just left one Mr. Illick’s door, on the other end, a tad deflated. The man had an indecently-long, white Santa’s beard and an adorable basset hound. We only saw the hound because we had waited a little while extra after knocking rhythmically on his front door. We then noticed him exiting silently, through an entry off to the side, moments later. (We exchanged awkward hellos.)

Across from Illick and Talbot lived the Peskins family, who were not only voting for Obama but holding election parties the following weekend. “We’re on board,” chimed an enthused Mrs. Peskins along with her husband. She was volunteering, canvassing too, the whole bit. A college student on Market Street was fired up but looked ambushed by homework. “I spend a lot of time in Philly,” she quipped, in response to a question about whether she’d be willing to volunteer. We assured her we’d ask a local Philadelphia campaign group to get in contact.

The rest of Market was strewn with Obama-Biden signs. They perked up lawns, windows, sidewalks. Pumpkins, scarecrows, wreaths and McCain signs followed almost as often. On our quest to find one family of ‘undecideds’, we came across a polite but restrained McCain supporter whom we asked for directions. “Have you decided whom you plan to vote for?” we asked after he'd offered his counsel. “I have,” he said shortly, nodded, and began closing his door quickly. I suppose he realized we weren't the average downtown residents.

Turnout is what Obama volunteers in Bethlehem are hoping for most next week, and it became evident from the notes in our voter lists. A good portion of folks we were trying to meet were already registered Democrats.

“Push To Vote!” was the term most commonly placed next to voters’ names. “Bring ID” was another –which presumably meant people had to be reminded to bring state-approved identification.

But arriving at the polls will be especially important for Pennsylvanians come November 4th because of the latest conundrum over the state’s voting machines. ‘Direct-recording-electronic voting systems’ or DRE’s (as they are more often referred to) are machines requiring that voters use an electronic screen to cast votes. Most have not been found to be as reliable as optical-scanners, which require paper ballots and can, therefore, more easily allow for recounts. DREs are difficult to monitor and, for the most part, don’t leave paper trails.

Distressing accounts in Pennsylvania of DRE breakdowns were recorded in as early as April of this year, during the state’s primaries, when people were made to wait in Philadelphia and other places after dozens of them went awry. Late last week, voting-rights groups sued the state demanding more emergency paper ballots be made available on Election Day when and if it happens again. So far the state has declined to allow it unless all DREs in a particular polling place fizzle out.

One poor voter (and candidate), in particular, is at wits’ end over the issue. Tom Lingenfelter is running in the 8th Congressional District, as an independent, and lives next to Northampton county, the one that includes Bethlehem. In Bucks, where Lingenfelter lives, the county is entirely dependent on touch-screen voting.

“I can’t rely on these machines to get an accurate count,” he ventures anxiously. “If Canada can count 12 million votes [from a single province] in four hours, and they can do it with paper ballots, why can’t we?”

It’s the same question armies of advocates have asked and several have been trying to get the word out for years now. In June, David Eckhardt, a Carnegie Mellon computer science professor and member of VoteAllegheny, one rights group, was far from complacent when his requests to test out the software in his county's DREs were repeatedly ignored. (Allegheny county, where Eckhardt lives, is home to over a million people and is one of the state’s most populated areas.)

“We have been calling for verification for at least two years … It's not like this election was scheduled suddenly. We knew it was coming since 1789," he'd said at the time. Nobody knows exactly why, but for some reason, one of his county’s senior-most administrators denied the request.

The president of Eckhardt’s group, VoteAllegheny, is Collin Lynch, who described DRE machines with some frustration as, “cars that have hoods welded shut … that have gauges, dials, and a place for gas but [for which] we have no ability to check the internals of the machine or to examine them in detail. As a result we cannot really determine whether, internally, they are working as advertised.”

So, most are sitting tight, waiting to see how it all pans out. Lingenfelter has taken it upon himself to sue Bucks County to stop the use of DRE’s completely. He wants to take the election entirely to paper, and is waiting to hear back from the courts on his case. In the meanwhile, Professor Eckardt’s pleas were finally heard last week when his County’s Council finally agreed to test out 18 machines (there are 4,700 throughout Allegheny county). All 18 worked. It's good to hear.

What fraction, I wonder though, do these 18 make up compared with all the other DREs across the state, including those, say, in the eastern counties, where the Peskins, Lingenfelters and Talbots live? (the state, unfortunately, does not have early voting.) So, just guessing here, but chances are, not many have much of an idea about this either.

However, as far as Bethlehem's volunteers are concerned, they have continued to encourage and fuel the passions of their peers. The town's focus on the importance of the election itself may do more to answer the uncertain questions than anything else that follows.

It may well be that on Election Day, there will be the sense that the residents of this swing city and other Pennsylvanians across the state will, in the end, hold strong in their positions, confirm their views and make sure the votes count as far as necessary; their fortitude and sense of purpose through all of it may ultimately help them ably meet the challenge. Hopefully, we'll be celebrating with them soon enough for it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Waltzing For Numbers

Photo courtesy Florida, FreeLargePhotos.

Published to the Huffington Post.

In a startlingly narrow race to the presidency where one candidate has outspent the other two-to-one but is pulling past nationally by just a few points, rather than fearing the “Bradley effect” as analysts have done by fixating on the leading candidate’s race, it may be time to keep tabs on the “Romney” effect. It’s that force that brought a successful Republican millionaire to his knees. Despite his competence speaking thoughtfully on a range of issues, Mitt Romney, the tidy businessman-governor from an eastern state, found himself prancing around an older, more officious, inveterate politician in the GOP establishment. And despite the familiar, genial, reliable candidate Senator Obama is to many of us now; to win, there’s one group he’s hoping to reach in the weeks ahead –the independents.

Though he’s winning the “waltz" for numbers when it comes to budgets (the Obama people raised more than double in September what they did in August, crossing the $600 million mark for the campaign, thus far), there’s a chance voters may not come around in a few crucial county races…and a bumbling McCain could endure.

Should Democrats be concerned? Despite the promise of lower taxes for much of the country, polls that show Dems lead on both the economy and family values, and a group of sound and responsive economic advisors (the Senator’s formidable list now includes two venerated former Treasury secretaries, a former Federal Reserve chair, four Nobel prize-winning economists, a former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Warren Buffett, the richest man in the world), Senator Obama will be trying to garner trust among many more Republicans and independents in the days ahead.

One such woman is Barbara Snodgrass, featured last week in an article on Ohio. Snodgrass works three jobs, nearly seven days a week, earning forty thousand a year. She is concerned the tax policy Dems have proposed may not lead to a decrease for the middle class, and could instead lead to an increase; in her terms, rich folks can’t pay for all of us because they can’t afford it. “How many people you know make more than two hundred and fifty thousand a year?” Er, don’t know about you but perhaps it’s time Warren Buffett and Barbara had a fireside chat. Will you do it for us, Warren? Perhaps Charlie Rose will agree to moderate.

Then there are the independents in Florida..

When they join the polls this week, Floridians will no doubt confront a specter of broad, gut-wrenching incidents past; those in which voters, officials, party operatives and attorneys played a role in some of the state’s most peculiar electoral history. Take the voters in 2000 across the state who were disenfranchised when they were either purged illegally from the rolls or whose provisional ballots weren't properly counted following the election, the elected officials and Republican party operatives who artfully forestalled by crying 'election fraud', caviling the state’s Democratic-leaning court justices; and lastly, there were the ‘overvotes’ and butterfly ballots among Florida’s Lake and Palm Beach counties, all of which, in the end, hurt the integrity of the state's voting process.

In 2000 and 2004, the turn in Florida was the result of less predictable, independents (partially comprised of Latinos who voted on immigration and abortion as well as elderly voters), who make up over 20 percent of registered voters, that contributed in 2000 and 2004 in making the state "too close to call."

Floridians have already demonstrated they are fond of the sitting president. Much of the state has voted for President Bush in not one, but two presidential elections. With the exception of overwhelming Democratic support in the pockets around Broward and Palm Beach counties, Florida’s registered Democrats otherwise chose Bush 11 percent of the time across the state in both 2000 and 2004. Statistically, Senator Kerry did slightly worse in Miami Dade as compared with Gore in 2000 (though he still won there and managed to get more Democrats to turn out). But the Dems who jumped ship cost Kerry the state. One writer described “George W. Bush’s vote tallies, especially in the key state of Florida” in 2004 as “so statistically stunning that they border on the unbelievable.”

In 2004, Bush found roughly a million new voters to side with him in Florida and increased turnout in all 67 counties. Overall, he achieved a 34 percent increase in Florida votes over his 2000 total. And although Kerry received 114,000 new voters in Broward and Palm Beach counties (the second and third most populous in the state), Bush received 5,000 more in these areas, winning him the state. (Bush also won a fifth of the statewide Jewish vote and 56 percent of the Hispanic vote.)

This year, votes in Broward and Palm Beach will once again constitute one in six of all votes cast in Florida, so both parties will be watching them closely. In fact, some Democrats surmise that unless well over 60 percent of both counties side with Senator Obama, the party would likely lose Florida, and subsequently the election.

Could it come down to 537 votes the way it did in 2000?

"Hell yeah it can" chirped Brett Doster, the sitting president’s former Floridian political director who was staffed on his campaign back in 2000.

“I’m not going to anticipate a problem. I’m just going to prepare for a problem by making sure that we’ve got lawyers in precincts all across the state,” Senator Obama said late last week, as part of an effort to encourage early voters and trust the process. Then on Tuesday, Obama spoke to the numbers on his side, "More than 150,000 Florida voters, students and seniors, teachers and military personnel, came out [in the first two days]," he said, noting that the campaign will "working closely with county officials to handle the incredible turnout." Senator Obama's general counsel has now also sent two letters to the Department of Justice, the second as late as Tuesday, asking the special prosecutor Nora Dannehy (who is staffed with investigating the 2006 firings of eight US attorneys) to also look into cases in which senior officials may have spoken illegally to members of the McCain campaign about voter fraud cases the Republicans have filed.

In the end, Florida could, yet again, be where it all begins and ends - Floridian Democrats make up 42 percent of the voting electorate and 350,000 new Democrats have joined the rolls, but polls continue to lurch in both directions. The state is also one of the hardest hit economically. It has the second highest rate of home foreclosures in the country and has lost more jobs than any other state.

So where does this leave the rest of us? Don’t be surprised if Florida November 4th comes close to what it looked like in 2000 and 2004. But now, for the first time in a while, at least, there’s a turn to purple in many others ... Michigan … Wisconsin … Georgia … Nevada… Virginia… Pennsylvania … North Carolina ... and New Mexico. It's a first on many counts and so, maybe Florida will end up one of those great-aunts whom you love dearly but whose opinions will always just boggle your mind.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Maybe Vote

Published to the Huffington Post.

Update: A CNN "Likely Voter" poll in GA reflects that McCain leads in the state by 6 points. Have anything to do with voter IDs I wonder?

Half the voters who cast ballots in the Democratic primary in Georgia this past February were African-American (the state went to Obama). Despite long lines, incidents in which machines broke down and polls closed unexpectedly (rather than staying open late), black voters managed to show in record numbers.

Voting has begun again in the state of Georgia and one white voter, based in Atlanta, revealed his experience trying for an early shot at the ballot box on Tuesday:

“A long line folded itself three times in a relatively hot October sun, shortly before lunch-time. Perhaps a dozen people couldn’t stick it out — they left before getting to the front of the line... Every one of those who gave up the effort was white.”

Whether or not their votes get counted entirely accurately, sufficiently, or on time this season, black Georgians have waited long enough for a fair shot at electing the first African American president. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act first laid the groundwork in 1965 by requiring that any changes made to an electoral voting process had first to be submitted to the Attorney General for federal review. The reason was that President Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner and a Texan himself, no longer trusted the South to promote burgeoning civil-rights legislation. The Voting Rights Act rallied 60 percent of Southern blacks to sign up for the next presidential election, a rate in keeping with Southern whites (ten years earlier, only one in five blacks had been registered.)

This year, the state mandated a single machine be allocated for every five hundred of the state’s voters. By comparison, in Ohio, a state only slightly larger in size, that number is closer to one in a hundred and seventy five. In Ohio, 12 percent of the state is black, while in Georgia, a third of residents are African American.

The state of Georgia is one of those places northerners would likely choke to death in -it’s endlessly hot, sticky, and riddled with historical iniquities; as evinced by a Superior Court decision as recently as July in which the court ruled all voters must show state-issued ID cards when they arrive at the polls. (GOP Sec. of State Karen Handel said later she was pleased a “frivolous" attempt to block the law had been thwarted.) As part of the case, Democrats submitted that nearly half of the state's registered black citizens lacked a driver's license or state-issued identification.

Then, a few weeks ago, Georgian officials asked the Justice Department to check social security numbers for 2 million new voters, a request more ambitious than any other state (note Georgia has just 9 million people). Rep. John Lewis of the state’s 5th Congressional district, in which over half the constituents are black, made a plea to his state's voters on Monday. Lewis is a civil rights advocate-turned-politician and was relatively plain:

"there is a deliberate, systematic effort to depress the turn out of African American, Latino and other minority voters on November 4th. This is harassment. It is intimidation … Who decides, based on what standards which 2 million voters deserve greater scrutiny than any others?... I urge all the registered voters of Georgia to become informed and know your rights so that no one can discourage you from casting your vote on Election Day."

What Lewis means (and hasn’t said in many words) is that he’s taking the long view. In 1963, he and others his age were intimidated when they tried to vote, mostly by local officials. Howard Zinn laid out the incidents in “Battle-Scarred Youngsters,” an account of voting struggles in the South underway while President Kennedy was in office. Zinn described the sister of a student he taught, a “tall, beautiful, dark-skinned” girl, being “beaten by police” and being found in jail “swollen and marked, barely able to speak.”

The violence from that period is impossible to imagine but the disenfranchisement may not be. Voting rights groups have now sued Georgia saying broad voter-checks will protract out the voting process, and have urged the federal government investigate. Sec of State Handel once again countered that officials were “simply trying to follow the law.” The issue has gotten particularly heated over the case of one immigrant voter, Jose Morales, who turned citizen last year and registered to vote last month. When Morales tried to submit his voter registration form, county and state officials asked for proof he was a citizen, something they now wish to do by mail for thousands more new immigrant voters.

If that doesn’t exhaust your patience, requirements for provisional ballots – yes, those that must be filled by hand and left in a dusty corner until voters return to the polling booth with valid enough ID– don’t exist in Georgia (or any other battleground states for that matter save for New Mexico.). Which means nobody in these states needs to have a clear sense how many extra provisional ballots officials should keep handy in case they have to reject unforeseen numbers of “ID-less” or “ID-imperfect” voters. And if you’re waiting in line past official polling hours in Georgia, you’ll have to fill out a provisional ballot even if you have a state-issued ID. (Weird ol’ Georgia! Ain’t it grand?)

Hard to say whether provisional ballots will be top anyone’s agenda when the much of the work is done and vote-counters are in the final throes. And African Americans who live in Georgia fortunately aren’t as distrait and short-tempered as many of us. I’ll bet that they'll have a pretty clear impression of what’s in store (courtesy some of their trusty government officials) come Election Day.

For more on voting in Georgia and the Deep South, check out the Voting Rights Act, the “Bloody Sunday” riot of the same year (in which John Lewis, quoted, was beaten along with hundreds of others for participating in a voting rights march) and Howard Zinn’s 1963 article (quoted) in the Nation on young, black activists fighting for a shot at freedom.

Monday, October 13, 2008

What’s the Matter with Ohio?

Published to the Huffington Post.

Updates: The US Supreme Court has now quashed the ruling of a lower court that tried to require that government databases be provided to county boards by Oct 17 to cross-check thousands of voters registered. The earlier ruling was a response to
ongoing challenges by Republicans.

This annoying sign was posted in my neighborhood and reminded me of the latest debate out there on voter dumbness. (I’m reserving the right to save the “dumbness” of New York tourists for another post.) But for the time being, “Who’s dumb and who’s smart, attractive and eats fresh arugula salad” has become catnip on political blogs and in cable news shows. It's raised ubiquitously – you almost can’t read a word of media drivel without seeing it sometimes, the euphemisms directed at working class votes somewhere in between metropolitan New York and San Francisco.

A pundit laid out this dimension luridly in his article on campaign activism this week, in which he described in inordinate detail how to volunteer ‘smartly’ (doing it stupidly, I suppose, is the other alternative). Those asked to make signs in states like Pennsylvania or Ohio are probably too ingenuous to do brainier tasks like beguiling fence-sitters, according to this guy. His point seems to be that you’d better watch out, if, as a young activist, you are relegated to such trifling efforts.

Funny any efforts to woo this season could be pegged as too cute for the educated classes since hundreds of thousands of new voters have registered so far, and many of them in none other than tiny Ohio (total population: 11.4 million) which has made history in both past presidential election seasons. In 2004 Ohio tipped the scales against Kerry when tens of thousands of voters were purged from the rolls and scores of provisional ballots and voter registration cards were not counted.

Last week, the New York Times reported another case of voters being purged in the state so safe to say that in every last county every last volunteer is likely to help. And if signs aren't your thing, perhaps electing to be an election observer (something some Ohioans have suggested) is worth considering.

For those who do get to rally fence-sitters, one recent post on volunteerism may have managed to challenge nearly every dismissive red-state stereotype. Filmmaker Sandi DuBowski outlines the unlikely story of an Ohio woman he met who became a field organizer of sorts when she opened her doors to Sandi and scores of his friends campaigning for the Dems in 2004 for several days. Mary Ellen, this kindred spirit, was a home-schooling mom of six and has a gay, Evangelical best friend.

But there’s still a distrust of Democrats in Ohio that's now rising to fever pitch. Especially in one case in which a Republican group pinned allegations of fraud on Democrat Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, urging she needed to check the integrity of every ballot cast. When a left-leaning group called ACORN announced that a small group of its volunteers had been bullying voters to fill extra forms, after firing the volunteers and denouncing their behavior, the GOP nonetheless seized on the group's honesty and called for every ballot to be personally checked by Brunner (PS- note there were no more than a handful of spurious forms).

Judges in an appeals court thankfully overruled a lower court’s decision siding with the GOP by charging in an opinion that, "[w]ith less than a month until the election, and less than two weeks until the beginning of counting absentee ballots, the secretary cannot be required to undertake the extensive reprogramming and other changes to the election mechanics without complete disruption of the electoral process in Ohio." In the meanwhile, election officials in another significant Ohio county have voted unanimously that the county prosecutor investigate all registrations submitted by ACORN in their district.

Li’l Ohio has just 20 electoral votes but what the appeal court judges were concerned about, of course, are the state’s new voting rolls now 8 million strong with over a half a million new voters. Yikes, now I’m pondering how many extra election officials it takes to goad 600,000 newbies to use scanners properly, especially since everyone is still fumbling to learn how they work themselves. Which machines will they use? How many are too few? How many are too many?

In 2004, it seems many election officials couldn’t make that choice either, especially when it came to certain districts. So some ended up waiting six hours at their local polling station. It had something to do with black and white districts going something (though not exactly) like this: there was, oh, say, a single machine for each black county and 9 for each white county of similar size. The black county’s machine worked just 80 percent of the time and after 5PM had to be transferred to a white district so folks after-hours could use it when they got home from work. And then maybe the black county was given more provisional ballots to fill out by hand, and so, all in all it was pretty much square in the end? Well, wasn't quite like that. For starters, white voters were more likely to vote in the morning than at night. But otherwise there hasn’t really been much more of an explanation apart from the fact that black voters felt resentful for waiting four to six hours. White voters waited twenty minutes.

This year most new registrants are in the three more populated urban counties in the state, so how machines are allocated will probably matter once more. And more space to be sure for some fetching barnyard antics.

This past Friday Sheriff Gene Fischer, in Greene County which is home to five colleges (two are attended predominantly by black students), retracted an earlier request he made to ‘verify’ every new voting registrant (I guess young voters can’t be trusted either!). These were voters who had opted to register and cast their ballots on the same day. After a few intrepid folks at FOX News posted the story (go Fox?!), the sheriff’s doubts evanesced. Lets just hope there are enough well-meaning “vote-checkers” this time around to keep black and college-going voters from waiting nine hours in line to get their voices heard. For more on what happened in 2004 you can read what Raw Story discovered several years after the fact about African Americans who voted in Franklin County. It turned out to be one of most egregious examples of voter intimidation in the course of the election.

Disruptions are relatively common during elections as both sides are gearing to win but claims of voter fraud at the ballot box are greatly exaggerated, according to Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State and Associate Director of the university’s Election Law Center. In a recent discussion online he outlined an attempt this year to require voters register for at least 30 days before even requesting an absentee ballot. Thousands of veterans would have been made ineligible in addition to many others. Fortunately, the courts saw it as voter suppression and rejected the request.

Lastly, for those of you wanting and waiting to just do the right thing, wearing your favorite Obama t-shirt may get you turned away at the polls, although that doesn’t seem altogether clear either so maybe it will depend on your district. Conventional wisdom now has it though to post your Obama sign on your lawn and hold an art show for your candidate as much as it pleases but leave all your t-shirts home in the dryer Nov. 2nd.

And that concludes this post on Ohio, at least for now. Keep your comments flowing and feel free to write on this page! You can also click “follow” in the lower right-hand box to get an e-mail each time there’s a new post.

Thanks for reading and wishing you all a great week.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Old, The New, The Sorta-New

Update: On Oct 14, the AP reported Denver opted to double its voting booths.

Balloting In CO, NY And Other Key, Fired-Up States
Coloradans will become guinea pigs in a statewide voting experiment this fall that begins this week and carries through to Election Day. That's because many of the state's residents will be making their choice for president by sending ballots by mail rather than lining up at the polls.

Colorado is one of only four in the country that has made mail-ins a permanent option for voters but the idea is already picking up steam in Iowa, New Mexico and elsewhere. For Coloradans, though, it rides the heels of a "glitch’" in 2006 in which thousands in Denver and surrounding neighborhoods waited for hours while a new electronic voter database system stalled and had to be booted back up. “If the computers go down and the line stops moving, maybe a volunteer will buy me pizza,” the state’s Dem Senator Ken Gorden mused this past month on his blog, in an effort to stir up support for mail-in voting.

(Photos of Washington's Inauguration, New York, 1789 provided courtesy of
Free Clipart or Photos: www.ace-clipart.com and the Library of Congress. More on Washington's inaugural address and the text of his speech here.)

Colorado has 215,000 new voters this season, 60 percent of whom appear to be planning a showing Nov.4. What will they find? Nobody seems to entirely know for sure. And stunningly, it seems new voters are hardly the state’s greatest concern. Laws mandating the number of machines each county must have on-hand don’t exist there as they do in other states, so officials now surmise counties will be scrimmaging for machines, pens and pencils, potentially, on an ad-hoc basis. State officials have reportedly ordered more voter ‘stuff’ since 2006 so that’s at least good to hear. But this time around, voters will either use digital or optical-scanners depending on where they live. It could also affect how long they wait (electronic voting is expected to take longer than voting on paper? geez seriously?!) but this means they'll vote either by using (1) touch-screen machines or (2) paper-and-pencil ballots fed into optical scanners. However, before state leaders address these troubles, they will need to deal first with the state's the latest controversy over the voting rolls. It seems, according to the New York Times, that 37,000 voters may have been purged illegally. The story was reported yesterday and officials now say they're looking into it.

Speaking of New Yorkers, the Empire State is the only one in the Union that has dissed the idea of new machines entirely, so those of us who live here will be the only ones listening to levers cranking. Not that that’s a bad thing– at least some of us will have more than a passing idea of how voting will work this time. And yet, that's only if all our registrations are processed in time since it seems the Board of Elections has been struggling to keep up with - you guessed it - new voters.

In the meanwhile, Denver officials aren’t fazed nor are they holding back. City Councilwoman Carol Boigon was flustered when the governor made a statement that mail-in ballots would serve Colorado state well by preventing it from being the one that keeps the rest of us up Election Night. According to her, mail-in voting was “not exactly Denver's message”. Other city officials have said they don't believe they'll be finished counting ballots by election night anyway.

So break out the flannel folks and dial the pizza guy. Sounds like the spills on E-Day won't be mopped away, not just yet, in any case.

More soon on voting regulations, machines and rolls across the country particularly in the nine other swing states, so stay tuned.. and I look forward to hearing and reading your thoughts.

Happy election season to you all.