In 2004, like most of my friends, I was asleep at the wheel, even with questions still lingering following the 2000 election. As an active mother, advocate and writer, I felt entitled to this lethargy. It's all too much was my hidden mantra. If I hadn't been asked to take my outdated family video camera to the polls on Election Day, I might still be able relieve myself of the burden of being awake and aware. But from that day forward, things changed. In late 2004, I added Voter's Rights activism to my list of duties. Nobody in my life saw it coming, least of all me.
Linda Byrket, a filmmaker and the organizer for video-documenting voter issues on the day of our last presidential election, had nabbed me three days before the election, while I was waiting in line for a showing of the film, Unprecedented, at the Drexel Theatre. She assured me that my ineptness with a video camera wouldn't get in the way of making a video record of voters and their stories.
I took film footage at precincts in Franklin County, Ohio, and it changed me, forever. Following that, I also attended two public hearings about election abnormalities and following that, I volunteered to become an official Witness for the Ohio Vote Recount.
On Election Day, 2004, I pulled out the camera, dusted it off, and showed up to precincts where voters were having problems. My job, and that of others who volunteered at the last minute for this project, was simply to document voter issues, complaints, and testimony of injustices. It was assumed there might be problems with Republican challengers. I would have taped happy voters, as well, but in my precincts, they were few and far between.
In the afternoon and evening, I went to precincts near the Ohio State Universtiy campus and to three predominantly African-American neighborhoods. In each of these polling places, there were not enough voting booths for the number of voters. What is going on?....was a constant question.
At 6pm, filming at a precinct in a small library, I followed a line of more than 200 people out of the doors, down a path and into the woods, in the dark, in the pouring rain. One woman yelled to me: "Get a picture of me. I'm voting! My vote counts!" My footage includes drenched people without umbrellas, smiling and giving me the thumbs-up sign.
Taking a break from the rain, I had a quick dinner at the simple, little church that was the headquarters for Election Protection, a coalition for the protection of our vote. There, I met people from Washington, New York and Michigan. Busloads of bright-spirited students from Howard University in Washington, DC got up at 4am to "protect the right to vote."
A young man came back to the church after his shift with what he called a victory story. He stood in front of the crowd to tell us that a man returned to vote after having been in line for 2 hours in the morning and leaving before voting in order to get to work. After coming back and waiting 3 more hours in the late afternoon he was about to leave in irritation again without having voted when these students found him. They talked him into going back and taking his place in line again. They brought him food. This time he got his vote cast. "One more vote!" this kid shouted to the group as he told his story. There was camaraderie here, real spirit! We were all in this together to try to make a difference, make a change.
Taping people's stories was the fun part of my job, but the truth about their devastating experiences, sometimes serving as roadblocks that kept them from casting their vote, started to unhinge me. To this day, visions of chaos at the polls and the glistening, hope-filled faces of people standing in long lines, in the rain, swim through my mind, haunting me.
Coming home that soggy night, thinking of my two sons, aged 17 and 19, twisted my insides. They are the next generation of voter and this had been the second election they would witness where fairness or even civility didn't seem to matter anymore. Common decency was exchanged for political advantage by our Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell. My own confidence in our system was slipping, so how would I be able to insure that my sons cherish their own vote someday? It made me think.
Once home, and after disturbing realities that my husband and I had witnessed that day, we were not ready for the final vote tally that gave George W. Bush the presidency. At midnight, heading up to bed, we felt sure that, by morning, John Kerry would be investigating the serious questions still lingering in Ohio--- long lines, machine errors, the lack of enough machines in Democratic districts and provisional ballot inequities--- since this was, after all, the swing state. I could not fathom conceding with even a hint of disenfranchisement after the Florida debacle in 2000. We had yet to find out whether our growing concern about local voter disenfranchisement was an anomaly or part of something bigger? Who knew?
In my mind and the minds of many, Kerry's concession speech was premature, at the very least. We were stunned by his seeming lack of curiosity. Were we just sore losers, wanting our man to win, or was there more to this story? Why did this feel different than a mere defeat? How could we get the answers we needed?
Multitudes of people in Ohio were outraged that the press had invaded our state for months, prior to Election day, following the candidates and yet ignored the voters, themselves, once Mr. Kerry conceded. In the end, we were left to stand up for the very institution of fair voting itself, our basic rights, rather than just for our candidate.
Irate political leaders stood up and demanded investigation and truth. They demanded a recount, which was complicated because Kerry, himself, with money in his budget for a recount, had not requested it. Citizens persisted anyhow. Meetings and public hearings were held to give a voice to disenfranchised voters. Bob Fitrakis, Harvey Wasserman, Cliff Arnebeck, CASE Ohio, Black Box voters and many, many other people stepped up the pressure on anybody who would listen. They were spirited and tough. The Green Party painstakingly put all the pieces in place to eventually get that recount done. They conducted themselves like true statesmen, wanting what was best for all of us.
Linda Byrket's documentary, Video The Vote, provided actual footage of many of the problems. It is a now powerful record of the rain, the lines, the attorneys, people in tears and other general chaos. My own shots were included. Was I at the right place at the right time to see the long lines, etc. or was it the wrong place at the wrong time? Either way, this voter is unhappy about what she witnessed. I do not concede my vote. My life as a US citizen will never be the same.