Confessions of a voter intimidator

BY ERIN SHELEY

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On November 3rd, roughly 100 protestors gathered in Copley Square for the “Rally and Vigil for Democracy,” intended, as a Harvard undergrad told The Crimson, to “protest the results of the election.” Wondering about the purpose of “protesting” a national exercise of democracy (Were they protesting the voters themselves? And, if so, how many Bush voters did they think they’d find in downtown Boston?), I visited the website of the rally’s sponsor, No Stolen Elections! Apparently the (then) yet-to-be-counted provisional ballots in Ohio, the touch-screen voting in Florida, and “reports of voter disenfranchisement across the country” all strongly support the fact that Bush “stole” the election. Now, I’m clearly biased, and I won’t even get into the statistical impossibility of the claim with respect to Ohio, or that the admittedly-sketchy paper-less Florida system is just as likely to have erred in favor of Kerry as Bush. However, having just returned from five days in the battleground state of Pennsylvania where I volunteered for the Republicans as an “attorney observer” at the polls, I’d like to offer my perspective on “disenfranchisement.”

I went into this experience knowing that, simply for being a Republican in a suit in a minority neighborhood in West Philadelphia, there was a great chance I’d be labeled a “voter intimidator.” After all, it was the official policy of the Kerry-Edwards campaign in cases where “no signs of intimidation techniques have emerged” to go ahead and “issue a press release” and “prime minority leadership to discuss the issue in the media” (Source: Kerry-Edwards Election Day Manual, distributed nationwide by the DNC to their poll watchers and attorneys). In reality, my job involved making contact with the Republican poll watchers at each of my six precincts (both parties are entitled to have a certain number present during polling), making note of irregularities they reported, and phoning them in to the real election lawyers who would determine if anything warranted litigation after the fact. At our training, we were told never to challenge anything done by an election official and, indeed, to do nothing that involved any interaction with voters whatsoever.

This task seemed simple enough and, while putting on my little black interview suit at 4 a.m. on Election Day, and optimistically packing up my Con Law book to take along, I felt surprisingly un-intimidating. Once my fellow attorney observer (also a 2L) and I arrived at our first polling place, we realized that we had not been given the required credentials for the vast majority of our poll watchers. As it turned out, the (Democrat-controlled) Philadelphia election commission had processed only a little over 200 of the 1600 credentials to which the Republicans were legally entitled. This meant that at most of the sites, our watchers could not even get into the polls. For most of the day, then, we traveled around the neighborhood delivering food to our poll watchers, the vast majority of whom could not get close enough to an actual polling place to report an Elvis sighting, much less an illegitimate vote. To the extent that bringing pizza and Egg McMuffins to some people, and not others, was disenfranchisement, guilty as charged. We did have a little action when we had to ask our own poll watcher to stop distributing Kerry literature (which was illegal, within ten feet of the polling place).

The highlight of the day for me came at the one polling place where the Judge of Elections actually allowed our poll watcher into the room without the official credential, and let us go inside to talk to her. A young man, seeing that we were holding a list of the precincts, asked us if we could tell him where he needed to go, as he was not in the right place. My partner obliged, and handed him the list of precincts. All of a sudden, the legions of Mordor were loosed upon us: four or five “Election Protection” volunteers, clad in matching black T-shirts and wielding video camera and microphone, descended to chronicle this outrage. The young man looked up, confused, as one of the women elbowed me out of the way and implied that she was there to save him. “Get the hell out of my polling place with those cameras!” shouted the Judge of Elections, a short middle-aged woman, “or I’ll call the police.” The Election Protection soldiers started to explain that they were protecting her from our presence, but when it became clear that they were about to be the ones in jeopardy, the troops contented themselves with herding the would-be voter out of the polling place to escort him where he belonged.

On the whole, the day was long, mostly futile, and occasionally fun. We had a nice bonding moment with a couple of “Lawyers for Kerry” when we brought them some extra bottled water, and they reciprocated with a copy of the Wall Street Journal. Us awkward-looking preppies in suits have to stick together I guess. In any case, this particular neighborhood of “minority Americans” (as No Stolen Elections! would refer to it) seemed well-able to fend for itself against the machinations of two law students in a minivan. I can’t speak for what went on in every precinct across the country, of course, but if my experience in Pennsylvania shows anything about the innocuous intentions of attorney observers (or the unlikelihood of bad intentions proving successful), I’m perfectly comfortable laughing at the claim that Bush’s multi-million vote lead was “stolen” through disenfranchisement. To angry protestors in denial in Copley Square and across the nation: it’s time to Moveon to the next stage of grief.

Erin Sheley is a 2L.

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