Dr. David Shevin photograph

Votemob

November 27, 2004

A few days before the American election of 2004, the British medical journal LANCET reported that Iraqi deaths in the current war now exceed 100,000. A hundred thousamd. Add the American deaths, and you get a number pretty close to the president's vote margin in Ohio. There was that brief moment when the electoral vote balanced on our state.

The next morning felt a lot like 1984, not just in the Orwellian sense, but in terms of seeing a harsh future. I remember when Reagan had finished his first term of packing the courts and cabinet with fundamentalist zealots, warring irrationally on people of color, giving away the treasury to billionaires, shitting all over the environment, piling up unthinkable debt, throwing everyone out of work and insulting the minority community, we awakened to a second term of the same. "Damn!" thought I. "Another stretch with the reckless and profligate drunk daddy in charge!"

Much has been made of the large turnout of conservative Christians to vote for "moral values" in this election, a turnout that swelled the Republican numbers. Indeed, Ohio had one of the eleven ballot measures outlawing gay marriage on the ballot, and the language of our referendum was so prejudicial and extreme that President Bush came out against Ohio's measure days after the election. These votes contributed to the majority, and our Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell was heard on automated phone banks day after day urging the turnout of voters on behalf of the gay marriage ban. What was not reported in the making of the majority was the other machination to guarantee Ohio's electoral outcome: the suppression of the black vote.

My campus is the one historically black college in the state university system. I was extremely proud of my students in this electoral year. While young people are often taken to task for being politically apathetic, we saw enormous energy on the part of our students - organizing registration and voting rallies, sponsoring informational events, and volunteering in large numbers for volunteer work on election day. Consistent with the rest of the black community, their efforts were overwhelmingly Democratic. On the day after the election, most of the students were reflective on their first outing in the electoral process. Several of them were bewildered and angry, not because of the outcome, but because of their exclusion from the process. These were mostly students who had put out their efforts as volunteers, or those whose registration cards were slow in coming and who had asked for provisional ballots. The poll worker's job was clear in cases of voters lacking cards or not on the voter lists: they were to be given the provisional ballots, which were to be set aside for later verification. Voters disputed by party "challengers" were to be treated the same way. Under Ohio law, a polling place official can not ask the voter for ID or deny a ballot to a voter.

These are the stories which students were telling me the day following the election. I asked three of the students to stop by my office so that I could transcribe their stories. Each of these transcriptions was reviewed and verified by the students. This is Christina, a first year student: "As I waited in line to cast my vote, I was about three seats away, and a young woman came out and said, 'Now y'all know you need your IDs.' A different young lady said, 'For a provisional? They didn't ask me for mine.' The first student said, 'They told me I could not note without my ID, even if it was a provisional.' ('They' were the poll workers.) Then she walked out of the door, called someone to get her ID. But there was no one to answer, so she just left."

Lindsay, also a first year student, was one of those volunteering on election day. "We were supposed to vote at the polls before we went to work, and we were supposed to meet at the union at 12:00. The line was so long, the ACT directors told everybody to get on the bus and we would come back to vote. We were supposed to be ending about 6:30 or sevenish. We got on the bus. When we were trying to come back, we had not been paid. Then they counted the people who still needed to vote, and they took us to a church in Dayton. When we got there, they said we could not get provisional ballots because we were not Montgomery County residents. They said that since we were from Greene County, we could not cast provisional ballots in Montgomey County."

Second year student Mallory was dumbfounded by what she saw. "I had no problem voting. I went in at 7:30 in the morning. We stood in line for about half an hour. It did not bad until the afternoon, when everyone was between classes and the lines were getting longer. We encouraged all of the students to stay and vote. I was part of an organization called Votemob. When the Republican lawyers got there, we were trying to help keep the order because everyone was getting restless. Then we went outside to make sure students were not going out the side door without voting. When we went outside, some students asked how many people were with us. About six or seven had on the t-shirts. The guys in suits, the lawyers, said they were with us. They had their briefcases and cell phones and umbrellas. We were just cracking. We had to take down the Kerry-Edwards sign on the side of the street. A Republican couple put their Bush-Cheney sign on the side of the line. We left and picked up the Wilberforce students who needed a ride to get to the polls in the rain. When we came back, the signs were all taken down. The Democratic lawyer said the sheriff asked for the signs to be taken down. We were checking to make sure everyone was able to vote. Some of the students said: 'I was told I needed my ID to vote,' Another student was told that she needed two forms of ID to vote. They gave some students the run-around and told them they had to go down to the Board of Elections to vote. Around the last hour and a half or two hours to 7:30, students were told that they were not going to be given a provisional ballot to vote. Around 8:30 or 8:45, polls were still open with voters. They didn't close until about 9:30. We were in the Ward Center to clean up, and we overheard the Republican lawyers say they were going to throw out the ballots. We just left after that, because we were tired."

This was the local picture. The night before, as our state was being charted and analyzed, a clear demographic was emerging. The blue counties and precincts in Ohio were overwhelmingly in the cities. Even historically conservative Cincinnati and Hamilton County were part of the Kerry bloc. Rural Ohio mapped solidly red. Then there were the reporters covering the polling sites. Voting was smooth and effortless in the rural counties. The stories of the five-to-seven hour waits all came from urban and minority districts. A writer in Columbus wrote to me the next day that the Columbus channel covered a black church which had only three voting machines and a many-hour wait to vote. The reporters interviewed a number of would-be voters whose other obligations took them away before they could vote.

As the electoral vote count rested on Ohio, the "moral values" vote accounts, at best, for part of the story. The other part is the undercounting of the black vote. Bush's 2004 victory rests on the exclusion of minority voters as surely as Florida turned on the same issue four years previously. The only difference this time around is that the media are not investigating the issue. I guess they have been there and done that.

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