I spent the last two weeks before the election campaigning for President Obama in my hometown of Cincinnati (that’s the southern-most “C” city in Ohio – i.e. not Cleveland or Columbus), in Hamilton County. What would make me leave the 60-degree comfort of life in California to stand out in the cold of Cincinnati as polls opened at dawn?
It was nerve-wracking, fun, and inspiring.
California, where I’ve lived for almost 30 years, is a diverse place, full of innovation and change. It’s a relatively easy place to be new. Like myself, the vast majority of Californians are immigrants to the state; the populations are so fluid that power is more easily accessible to more people. There’s so much diversity that in a way people are more the same, because the vast majority adopted the state.
But for all its diversity, the Golden State’s electoral votes go consistently Democratic. The urban areas, such as Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, lean overwhelmingly liberal, while the rural areas are generally more conservative. 44% of California’s registered voters are Democrats and 30% are Republicans.
Not so in Ohio.
Image Credit: Amy Pearl
Ohio as a whole is different, a microcosm of America as a whole, very sharply divided. Its population is divided urban and rural, but also north and south. Politically, it’s more evenly divided, leading to swings in its dominant forces. Hamilton County, where Cincinnati is located, has become a microcosm of the state.
The northern part of the state tends to be more liberal and Democratic. The further south you go, the more conservative it generally becomes. Hamilton County is in the far southwest, just across the river from Kentucky. As an urban center it has substantial liberal leanings, but as a southern county, its dominant culture and political leanings are conservative.
What I saw during my two weeks of campaigning and my role as Election Observer in a predominantly African American polling place on Election Day led me to look at my experiences of these two states in a new way. What I’ve seen over a lifetime shows me that the changing demographics of the US are reflected in Ohio, that a Republican Party hijacked by extremists living in some fantasy past has a limited future, and the historical white Republican power elite is not going to change without a fight. A dirty, unpatriotic fight.
And I saw firsthand how systematic attempts at voter suppression can backfire, if communities are organized and voters feel they can make a difference.
Cincinnati: Microcosm of Republican Party Problems?
When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, Cincinnati had an established and somewhat unchanging population, elite and power structure. Cincinnati’s diversity was limited to African Americans, and white Protestants, Catholics and Jews. The population was very stable, not very fluid. My elementary school class was literally the same 30 kids for seven years, except for three kids who came and went; it was a hard place to be new. Republicans were unashamedly the party of the wealthy, and if you hoped to be successful in business, you joined the club. In the dominant view, reflected by its daily newspapers, the Democratic Party didn’t exist. The dominant culture was strong, but in the urban areas, minorities such as Blacks and Jews had very strong, generally liberal, communities, and along with other liberals tugged the reluctant conservative dominant culture toward modernity.
In the 1980s, the city was trying to stimulate its economic development partly by emulating the magic of the entrepreneurship and innovation of Silicon Valley. The city has become far more diverse, with many immigrants and ethnic minorities that weren’t visible when I lived there. These reflect the demographics of the US. I left Ohio after high school, so I didn’t see the changes day to day or year to year, but I visited every year. I first really noticed a shift in 2004, the year of George Bush’s re-election.
In 2004, the year of Bush’s re-election, my parents’ Republican conservative friends disliked the administration’s foreign and fiscal policies and the economic drag on local development. The Iraq war was foundering, draining our national treasury and costing lives with an unclear end goal. Shockingly, the local newspapers printed editorials and letters that actually questioned the policies of the administration. While Hamilton County and Ohio ended up re-electing George Bush in 2004, the tone of the election reflected the changing demographics. Going forward, the Republican Party doubled down on the political policies and election practices they’d developed. It has led to turmoil within their party and a country tired of politicians refusing to cooperate and solve very serious problems. Their approach did not serve them well in this election.
Ohio: If you Really, Really Want To Vote, Maybe we’ll Count It
Republican efforts at voter obstruction began in earnest in 2004, when Republican Ken Blackwell was Ohio Secretary of State and simultaneously an honorary co-chair of President Bush’s re-election campaign. Blackwell arguably made attempts to suppress votes in a way that could disenfranchise voters more likely to vote for Democrat John Kerry:
- Voter registration forms distributed in voter registration drives were rejected that weren’t on the proper weight of paper
- Student voters who were Ohio residents, but who were in school out of the state or county were required to vote at their specific local polling place
- Several predominantly African American and college area polling locations had inadequate voting machines to handle the turnout, resulting in hours-long lines to vote.
- Blackwell also announced he would enforce an Ohio State election law decreeing that any person who appeared at a polling place to vote but whose registration could not be confirmed would be given only a provisional ballot; the voter then had to deliver proof of their residency to their county Board of Elections within 10 days of the election for their vote to count. The state has one of the highest rates of provisional ballots, a substantial percentage of which are not counted (25% in 2008).
Early Voting in Hamilton County
The Tuesday one week before the election, I went downtown to the Board of Elections to find out how early voting was going. Even mid-morning the weather was very cold. And the line of people voting early was out of the second floor office, down the stairs and down the block. It was taking 30-45 minutes for people to vote. I went down to the Board of Elections several times in the next week and as the week progressed, the line was getting longer. On the weekend, it stretched several blocks long and could take over an hour of waiting to vote. There were news outlets from all over the world: France, Japan, CNN. Thousands of voters in this one county took advantage of the last three days of early voting that the Secretary of State had tried to eliminate. And from how many took literature from Republicans versus Democrats passing out literature – it’s not clear whether Secretary of State Husted’s voter suppression efforts were the result or the cause of the overwhelmingly Democratic early vote. Regardless of which party the voters were supporting, it was incredibly inspiring to see such an outpouring of commitment to exercising the right to vote. I can’t imagine anything like this in California.
By the way, I went into the Board of Elections to get publicly available data. I talked to some of the people who work there – like most election professionals, they want to do the right thing: enable eligible voters to have their votes counted accurately, safely and securely.
Election Day, November 6, 2012
Voters waiting for polls to open in Cincinnati, Image Credit: Amy Pearl
On Election Day, I was an Election Observer at Hamilton County Precinct 3D, in the almost all African American neighborhood of Evanston with about 1,700 registered voters.
The first thing that happened had nothing explicitly to do with voter suppression. The site was a community center. When I arrived at 6 am, donuts in hand, it was 38 degrees, and the election officials, other observers and about ten voters were there. The janitor who was supposed to open the facility was nowhere to be found. I reported the problem up my chain of reporting. Polls were scheduled to open at 6:30 am. Around 6:10 am, the election officials started trying to find someone who could do something. Voters were steadily arriving, planning to vote before they had to go to work. By the time the county Democratic chair had arrived, the mayor had been called, and someone with a key finally showed up at 6:55 am, there were 100 people in line to vote, not counting the five to ten people who had left, saying they couldn’t wait that long, but would come back.
The election officials went into the room to do final setting up of the polling place. Fortunately, the center was large enough to allow all 100 people in line to move inside while they waited. But then the issues started. The election officials set up as quickly as they could, but of course the voters were pretty pissed off, not to mention in a hurry. Some discussion took place about possibly asking everyone to vote provisionally, which didn’t require the same degree of time-consuming scrutiny that regular ballots would. Fortunately, between the Democratic county chair and our inside polling location attorney, that notion was put aside. Voting started and once it did, people were pretty patient.
The next thing we heard from our attorney inside the polling place was that the poll workers did not know the correct law regarding voter id and provisional ballots as specified in their own training materials. They were insisting that some voters vote provisionally that should have had regular ballots. We started educating people in line about the correct rules and instructing them that if they were told they had to vote provisionally, they should talk to us before they did. Toward the end of the day, a Democratic attorney and trouble shooter came by and asked us to get the total votes to that point and the number of provisional votes – there were about 11% provisional votes. He told us that in several other predominantly African American polling places such as Over The Rhine there had been 15%-20% provisional votes.
The first person in line had arrived at 5:45 am, 45 minutes before the polls were to open. After voting, he left two hours later. I can’t express how inspiring it was to see this long line of citizens so committed to casting their vote. Would you wait two hours and probably be late to work in order to vote? I worried especially about the many first-time voters – would this make them less or more likely to vote in the future? And I saw so many young people voting. Young men with their baggy pants hanging down around their knees, who I’d never have believed would vote. All sorts of people whose doors I’d knocked on in the preceding weeks, many of whom recognized me or vice versa. It was really fun and inspiring.
After a few hours, the Board of Elections sent over four additional voting machines, two additional poll workers and some extra supplies, in order to speed things up. By 9:00 am, the line was considerably shorter with about a 20 minute wait. By 10:00 am there was virtually no line, just voters arriving, voting, and leaving. By 11:00 am, 400 people had voted, over half of the 742 people who would vote in the precinct that day. After that it slowed considerably. By 4:00 pm another 250 people had voted, and in the last 3 ½ hours the final 100 people cast their vote.
Change Will Come
No patriotic American wants ineligible people to vote, nor ineligible votes counted. And no patriotic American wants to keep eligible voters from having their votes counted. But not everyone is patriotic, and the more that is at stake, the more self-interest can poison things. One thing that this election showed is that a well-organized grassroots campaign can mobilize underrepresented communities. And one thing that helps motivate those communities is attempts to keep them from exercising their legal right to vote. I told one middle-aged African American whose house I visited that we wanted people to early vote because we had concerns about what might happen at the polls on Election Day. He looked me in the eye and said, “We’re familiar with that, they’ve been trying to stop us from voting for decades.” Republicans face demographic challenges in the future, but it’s not because there are fewer ethnic, religious and sexual minorities and single women in their party. They have fewer minorities because their party is wedded to a fantasy of the past that doesn’t appeal to or address the needs of the future. Rather than trying to keep people from exercising their legitimate right to vote, they need to do something much harder: develop a fact-based, pragmatic and inclusive vision of and solutions for the America of the future.
Amy Pearl is a Certified Financial Planner®, Computer Scientist, and Community Contributor in Silicon Valley. She is Chair of the non-partisan Santa Clara County Citizens Advisory Commission on Elections. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, she has lived in Silicon Valley since 1983.
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