20 September 2014

It was 8:30 pm, and the polls had closed an hour ago. The basement of the Centenary United Methodist Church just outside Columbus was steamy and dank, filled with a line of voters that snaked through several hallways. There were so many loops that the beginning and the end of the line were indistinguishable, but no one fought about it. Several hundred people stood or sat on the floor or on stools they had brought, waiting. At the rate the line was moving, it would take hours more for them all to finish. They had already been waiting for up to eight hours, and they were ready to wait hours more. To vote.



Ten minutes and a world away, TV sets at the America Coming Together Victory Party blared, “It’s all coming down to Ohio.” Those of us volunteers who had gone out in vans in the pouring rain to help at the polls watched it slip away. In this church basement, like so many polling places in predominantly poor, Democratic precincts, our little outpost of hope and grit stood solid, and I watched it refuse to flinch, and I watched it lose.



There were three voting booths for all those hundreds of people. Most of the voters were black, with some whites and Hispanics mixed in the endless lines. It was a poor neighborhood, but there was a dignity in their calmness that moved me to both respect and tremendous sadness. It was hot and steamy, they were hungry, they were tired, and they were determined to keep on waiting.



Why were there so few machines for so many people? Why in the richer districts was the wait only about an hour? Why was Ohio’s Secretary of State Blackwell telling the press the election was going so smoothly? Why was the press buying it? Precincts just like Centenary were being reported on all over the state, but no one who could change things was listening. I was enraged and incredulous.



I thought about my American University Park precinct in Washington, DC. How many of us would have waited eight hours to vote? We would have stormed our Council Member’s office, blasted the Mayor. They wouldn’t have tried it on us. Maybe because they knew they wouldn’t have gotten away with it.



The rain had just let up and a cold mist hovered outside. Inside, the hallways were quiet, considering how many men, women, old people, and children were stuffed into them. The kids played, people talked, no TV din, no music, just human sounds­feet shuffling, mouths coughing, as the election was lost.  I wished for someone who would rally us to rise up and shake the earth. I wished I could have shouted out and led everyone in some rousing song. But like everyone else, I was wet and cold and tired.



I even wished for a TV so the people there could realize that the world was watching them, that hundreds of thousand of people were with them in spirit, hoping they would hold, praying for their continued patience so that they would vote and their votes would count. But for once there was no TV, no radio, only muted conversations, jokes, and comparisons of who’d waited the longest. Did the people here realize how important they were, how enormously what they did in that dreary basement mattered? I believe that they did. But in the end it didn’t matter.



How can we help, we asked. We brought pizza and cokes and chips and Twizzlers, we brought encouragement, and we brought the press. We called Channel 4 and Channel 10, telling them that the real story wasn’t the challengers brought out by the Republicans. The real story was the determination of so many people to vote, no matter how long they had to wait. The real story was that even now, decades after the Civil Rights movement, justice is so far away. The real story was that this could happen, and no one did anything.



Channel 4 appeared with its TV truck, and the voters were elated. Dozens of children, remarkably well behaved considering the hour and the circumstances, ran out onto the sidewalks, delighted at the prospect of being on TV. The Channel 4 reporter was a heroine. The crowd began to stir, and anyone who might have been thinking about leaving was now determined to stay and vote. Reporter Teresa Garza spoke out for the waiting voters, interviewing a jovial man who had waited over six hours but had no intention of going home without casting his vote.



Back at ACT headquarters later, we watched the reporter’s story, lost in the hubbub of the night, the point and the people in the Centenary Church a blip soon forgotten. The next day, Matt Lauer did a quick piece on a cute blond co-ed from Kent State (another Democratic precinct, surprise) who waited for hours to vote and even had to miss hockey practice! The little girls at Centenary whose mother lost a full day’s pay to vote, who missed lunch and dinner both, the toothless, gentle man who had come directly from working the night shift at a bakery and quietly stood in line in the pouring rain the whole next day­they  were now gone from everyone's TV and radar screen. Bush had won, and that was that. Vague talk about  long lines, then on to  some other topic.



How many hundreds and thousands of voters were essentially denied their right to vote that day? How accurate were the election results? Why wasn't the press talking about this?



Where is the outrage? Why were the voting machines so unevenly distributed? Our experience was anecdotal. Yet the entire day we heard constant first-person accounts of incredible lines in the poorer Democratic precincts, and much shorter ones in the Republican precincts. People told of polling places where in the last election people voted in the gym, but who this year voted in a tiny room where the lines let out into the outdoors and the merciless rain.



 There was a consistent pattern of Democratic precincts with enormously long lines and voting problems, and Republican precincts with remarkably fast-moving lines.



 Was it a conscious Republican strategy to disenfranchise people? Or was it simply Ohio’s administrative incompetence? The lines were long just about everywhere. But the difference between waiting 90 minutes and waiting six or eight hours is arguably the difference between voting and not voting. Ohio Secretary of State Blackwell, a strong Republican who tried to disallow provisional ballots that weren’t on the right weight of paper, owes America an explanation.



I’m haunted by the memory of that night. Why didn’t anybody do anything? Would all these people’s votes have made the difference? We need to find out. We can't let this drop. We owe that to all those people in line, and to our own grandchildren.  The real America was in those polling places, in the determination of  every person there who stayed to vote. Their votes will count.