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October 27, 2004

Public Conversations About Voting

Okay, I think I need to embrace the fact that I'm not going to be thinking about anything besides the election for the next few days, so my radio is tuned to Air America, I'm following all the political blogs, and right now, it's hard not to think about voter suppression/voter registration issues.

These somewhat scattered thoughts were inspired by Kathleen's decision to post the content of a MoveOn.org letter about voting rights, Kari's comment to that post, and Alex's assignment to his students that they write about their voting experiences (which I've rather freely borrowed), and conversations about voter registration controversies (including people calling voters to tell them their polling location has changed--thanks to bitchphd for the link). For many reasons, I find the act of voting here in the United States to be a rather mysterious process (I can't think of the right term, but that just about gets it). I think that part of that is due to the act of voting itself. You go to a public place--a church, synagogue, community center, or school, usually--but when you get there, you go to a "private" space, a booth with a lever or, in Georgia's case, a computer screen, to cast your ballot. I know that one of the goals here is to protect voters from having someone "looking over their shoulder" while they vote. In the past, I've experienced the voting booth as communicating that voting is a "private" expression of individual preference for a given candidate or ballot initiative. Once you vote, you give the ballot to a poll worker and it disappears. And with Georgia's no-paper trail electronic voting, there are no visible, material traces of your vote. Your "ballot" looks exactly like it did when you took it into the booth, just an opaque piece of plastic with a small computer chip.

The result of all this mystery: people don't really talk that much about voting, a point that Alex makes in his entry on this topic, and I'd imagine that this lack of conversation leads to a lot of the misconceptions that many Americans have about our rights as voters, or about election rules in general. So, I'd like to formalize Kari's suggestion that voters use their blogs to document their experiences, hopefully making this mysterious process just a little more transparent.

So, this is a call for people to write about their experiences in the voting booth in their blogs or in the comments to this entry. If you write about your voting experiences, link to this entry (or not), but after the election crisis in 2000 in Florida, I think we need more transparency regarding the election process, not less.

Update: If you're not sure where to vote, check MyPollingPlace.com. rusty, who voted early, reports on his experience, which included some fairly long lines (a good omen for high voter turnout on election day, I'd imagine).

Update 2: It looks like lots of people here in Georgia are joing the ranks of advance voters. David has a great narrative abot taking his daughters to the polls.

In the comments, Jen mentions that her parents rarely discussed politics with her when she was a child, and I realized that I had a similar experience. My mom, especially, wouldn't tell me how she voted, and she's still uncomfortable talking about it. In some sense, I think that silence has probably contributed to my perception of the process as being a mysterious one. Oh, and while I'm linking, here's Steve's experience.

Update 3: Via David, Josh Marshall reprints this letter from Florida:

This was one of the most moving, meaningful days of my life.

My job is to get people to the polls and, more importantly, to keep them there. Because they’re crazily jammed. Crazily. No one expected this turnout. For me, it’s been a deeply humbling, deeply gratifying experience. At today’s early vote in the College Hill district of East Tampa -- a heavily democratic, 90% African American community — we had 879 voters wait an average of five hours to cast their vote. People were there until four hours after they closed (as long as they’re in line by 5, they can vote).

Here’s what was so moving:

We hardly lost anyone. People stood outside for an hour, in the blazing sun, then inside for another four hours as the line snaked around the library, slowly inching forward. It made Disneyland look like speed-walking. Some waited 6 hours. To cast one vote. And EVERYBODY felt that it was crucial, that their vote was important, and that they were important.

And there were tons of first time voters. Tons.

[...] The best of all was an 80 year old African American man who said to me: “When I first started I wasn’t even allowed to vote. Then, when I did, they was trying to intimidate me. But now I see all these folks here to make sure that my vote counts. This is the first time in my life that I feel like when I cast my vote it’s actually gonna be heard.”

To see people coming out — elderly, disabled, blind, poor; people who have to hitch rides, take buses, etc — and then staying in line for hours and hours and hours... Well, it’s humbling. And it’s awesome. And it’s kind of beautiful.

Great stuff.

Posted by chuck at October 27, 2004 4:01 PM

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I'm going on Friday. A full blog report will be forthcoming.

Posted by: Dylan at October 27, 2004 5:27 PM

I voted on Monday, though my post did not actually reference much about the process except that to say that it was organized chaos. But I'll go into more detail here.

We ride up to the 4th Floor of the Fulton Government Building. It's chaos. Some people are sitting. Some are standing. There's no line. And some woman is yelling out people's names. Uhm, yeah.

So me and Randy stand in what we think is the line. We were wrong and some gentleman came up to us and asked if we needed the forms. He was wearing a suit, so I suspect he was either a poll monitor or just a nice guy and not an actual poll worker. We fill out the form, turn it in to the lady at the table and stand in another line. At the end of the line, we handed over our paperwork and ID to someone who checked it.

Then we waited in the mass of people waiting for their name to be called. It was kind of like Bingo. Once a person's name was called out, some people would cheer. It was quite interesting. Finally, my name was called and I entered the room and received my card and did my thing on my the computer screen. Then I gave it back to the man in the room.

The whole process took around 45 minutes, which according to news reports is a short line. And even though my early voting experience appeared to be disorganized, I felt much better about my voting being counted than I did when I early voted in the run-off election. At that time, there was one lady servicing everyone who wanted to vote. And I had to wait a long time to give her back my card.. and there was a stack sitting on the counter, so who knows.

Here's my original post from Monday:

It appears the comment won't let me insert HTML.

Posted by: Jen at October 27, 2004 5:51 PM

Thanks, Jen and Dylan. I temporarily turned off HTML in comments becuse of comment spam, but especially for this entry, I think I'll start allowing it again.

Posted by: chuck at October 27, 2004 6:50 PM

Private/public spaces.... interesting view of the matter. I would venture that some other folks in other jurisdictions would envisage the space as continuous with many players distributed throughout its nodes all intent on preserving the integrity of the secret ballot process. Or an alternative view is to conceive of contiguous spaces that support the stages from preparation of ballots to their counting. Of course, many of those jurisdictions are not bound by custom to a de facto bipartisan situation.
Your post led me to a quick comparison between Canada
And the United States and I found a paper on the Federal Election Commission
Just compare the opening screens for the Elections Canada and the FEC site
http://www.fec.gov to understand what I'm getting at in terms of the multi-player support for democratic processes. Elections Canada spends money on public education (in more than the two official languages). Does the the FEC? The FEC seems to be a body limited to oversight of campaign financing.

In terms of the international context: "Elections Canada is a founding member of the Partnership for Electoral and Democratic Development (PEDD). PEDD was created in April 1999 and involves the following organizations, in addition to Elections Canada: IFES, an international, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that has undertaken activities related to democracy and governance in more than 100 countries since 1987; IDEA, an intergovernmental organization founded in 1995 to promote sustainable democracy and develop standards and guidelines for election administration; the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division (UN-EAD), which provides electoral assistance in numerous countries; and IFE, Mexico's non-partisan agency for electoral administration."

I apologize for what may appear to be blunt Canadian chauvanism. I just want to point out what the ethos is like elsewhere in a country with two official languages and formal policies on multiculturalism and programs for citizen participation.

Posted by: Francois Lachance at October 28, 2004 9:58 AM

I just looked at the Federal Election Commission website, and yes, the first image you see emphasizes that the FEC enforces campaign finance laws. The comparison between the organizations is interesting. This issue has come up occasionally in class this semester, with students noting the lack of information, especially.

And don't worry: I don't see it as an example of Canadian chauvanism.

Posted by: chuck at October 28, 2004 1:26 PM

I think this will be the biggest turn out in US History. Lots of early voters everywhere.

Posted by: Steve at October 28, 2004 7:24 PM

Voted today. My report is here.

Posted by: Dylan at October 29, 2004 5:45 PM

Thanks for the report, Dylan. Steve, I agree about voter turnout. Everyone is talking about it.

Posted by: chuck at October 29, 2004 5:53 PM

What a great resource! Your entry is fast becoming a clearinghouse for first-person voting narratives.

I'll be posting mine tomorrow.

Posted by: kari at November 1, 2004 9:38 PM

Thanks, Kari, and thanks for the reminder to re-post my request.

Posted by: chuck at November 1, 2004 10:25 PM

I voted early here in Texas, on Thursday. Stopped in on my way home from the office. I guess the time of day and the small size of the town in which I live influenced this, but the wait was literally nil. The elderly election workers were sitting around bored. Took me a while to find my voter registration card (I don't know why -- we just moved here for the start of the fall semester, and I slipped the card in my wallet as soon as it came, but it was in the least accessible part of my wallet, based on frequency of use -- and yes, I am always this anal about stupid little things).

So anyway, I went in, got 'verified,' and they handed me three paper ballots and said to pick one. I briefly wondered about this. It was a new thing for me, never had that happen. I presume it was to make sure I wasn't being handed a 'loaded' ballot -- i.e., by picking from a random assortment, election fraud is less likely. This is the only thing I can think of for that -- it was a little odd.

The ballot was a simple piece of paper with ovals next to candidate names. Like taking a scan-tron test, I had to fill in the ovals next to my choice of candidates (I also had the option of voting a straight party ticket for all elections, including local offices, by filling in the one party oval; I opted not to do this. I voted for candidates of different parties, but I probably wouldn't have done it even if voting for all one party --it just seems like taking the cheap way out. But then, I feel compelled to fill in the oval next to the names of people running uncontested, so what do I know.)

I filled in the ovals at a little voting "station" separated by cardboard from other stations, and then I slipped my ballot into a metal box and took my "I Voted" sticker.

I think I take voting for granted. This election season has been wearying and annoying. I am one of those people who values real debate but sees mostly yelling and punditry from both sides, and I'm sick of it. So while I knew who I was going to vote for, I would have enjoyed seeing the level of debate in this country raised to the point that people actually listened to each other rather than waiting for pauses so they could attack back. It depresses me, and it made me feel like voting and elections in this country don't really reflect debate and consideration but rather knee-jerk political reactions to a lot of hate-filled invective.

Sorry for the negativity -- you asked for my voting narrative :-)

Posted by: Chris at November 1, 2004 11:56 PM

I want the good and the bad stories, so I appreciate your honesty. There are things about the process that I find tremendously unsatisfying. Interesting that you didn't encounter long lines where you voted early. I wonder if that's due to a lack of publicity for early voting in Texas or some other factor? Georgia has publicized early voting pretty heavily, and apparently the lines have been fairly long....

Posted by: chuck at November 2, 2004 12:06 AM

Some other examples of first-person voter narratives: The Rude Pundit had some problems with touch screen voting, and like me, the Rude One is soliciting stories about your voting experiences. Atrios had to wait in a "nontrivial line" (good news, I believe), but otherwise had no problems. I'm not writing this from my home computer, so I'm unable to update this entry right now. I'll try to add a few more voter narratives as I find them.

Posted by: chuck at November 2, 2004 11:42 AM

Oh, and Meteor Blades at Daily Kos is also collecting voting narratives. Since they have more traffic than I do, there are a few more narratives to choose from, but I'd still appreciate any voting stories you wish to share.

Posted by: chuck at November 2, 2004 11:46 AM

One Dartmouth student (a Bush supporter, in this case) is live-blogging the election with updates throughout the day. Interesting to follow his story as it develops.

Posted by: chuck at November 2, 2004 12:16 PM

Here's my post on Election Protection monitoring this morning.

Posted by: Jen at November 2, 2004 2:54 PM

I trackbacked my post. Thanks for the resource chuck.

Posted by: Jason at November 2, 2004 5:16 PM

Not entirely sure about how trackbacks work, but my entry about voting is here.

I've enjoyed reading all the voting encounters.

Posted by: Cassie at November 2, 2004 5:34 PM

I've got the first part of my election protection poll-watching story up now. I should have a second installment up tonight.

Posted by: David at November 2, 2004 6:05 PM

Thanks everyone. The link works just as well, Cassie, so no problem. I just got home from my little voting adventure, so a report is coming soon.

Posted by: chuck at November 2, 2004 6:12 PM

Is anyone else getting as excited as I am? I feel like it is Christmas mixed with Superbowl Sunday all wrapped up in one.

Posted by: Dylan at November 2, 2004 6:20 PM

My experience is here:

It has been an incredible day!

Posted by: Hypatia Cade at November 2, 2004 6:29 PM

My experience is here:

It is right below the post about some college-age friends of mine who were denied the right to vote because their absentee ballots were never mailed.

My experience was painless. I got there at 6 AM, voted at 6:05, and was home before 6:10. The Sequoia electronic voting machines were not at all what I expected.

Posted by: Michael at November 2, 2004 9:55 PM

Posted by: David at November 2, 2004 10:05 PM

I spent lots of time at the polls in my Florida neighborhood over the past couple of weeks, first as an early voter, then as a poll greeter. My experiences are here.

Posted by: Beth at November 2, 2004 11:05 PM

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