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.

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