Dirty work at Philly polls
By Margie Burns
In Philadelphia, the Republican Party hired local people including down-and-out addicts as neighborhood poll watchers, paid the poll watchers to challenge their neighbors' voting, and sent visiting teams of burly enforcers in window-tinted vans in a mixed strategy of intimidation, pay and misinformation to suppress voting on November 2, according to a Brooklyn law student who worked as a poll monitor.
"I witnessed the difficulties of getting out the vote firsthand, exacerbated by the Republican Party's operations in urban, predominantly Democratic communities," she says.
Third-year Brooklyn Law student Anne Edinger went to Philadelphia's largely African-American Ward 16, division 8, on Election Day. Edinger was assigned to the Bouvier Street polling place with a friend and another volunteer. "It was clearly low income, overwhelmingly pro-Kerry, and, according to a police officer, a drug area."
"We were volunteering for [Election Protection 2004, a nonpartisan organization], and our purpose was to make sure that any eligible citizen got to vote." Election Protection 2004 was formed after the 2000 election by several groups, including the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
First hurdle: they arrived when the polls opened, at 7 a.m., to find the street shut down for road construction in an inner-city neighborhood that seldom sees amenities. "The crew was tearing up the entire street with a jackhammer, which would keep it closed, noisy, and dusty for the entire day. To access the polling place, located in a private residence, you had to walk 500 feet through this dust. The foreman said that since the work was for the gas company he could not suspend the job."
The street crew advised Edinger to get a police order. The monitors' legal team said the election judge had to make a formal request to the foreman. "I arranged the meeting between the judge and the foreman, my friend found a cop, and the other volunteer helped an elderly woman with a walker navigate the 500 feet to the polling place and back. After a short interchange between the judge and the foreman, with the police officer waiting in the wings, the crew packed up and left, opening the street to voters." The election judge, presiding inside the house, had to suspend oversight of the poll to resolve the street construction issue.
Locating a polling place in a private citizen's house is not unusual, according to a city elections official. "Not in this city," she laughs. In spite of the Voter Protection Act passed by Congress, "We have a hard time finding facilities, so [a polling place] could be anywhere."
A bit player during election-day operations was "James," in his early twenties, from the neighborhood. Edinger says, "We thought he was a friend of the poll workers" sitting next to the stoop in lawn chairs, passing out pro-Specter and pro-Kerry leaflets. But shortly after the street-construction matter, a small SUV pulled up, carrying three out-of-town GOP party workers and their Philly driver. James had been waiting for them and went for a short drive with them. He and a friend came back with plastic-cased ID cards hanging around their necks. "They were now official poll watchers," Edinger said.
The law allows a poll watcher to be inside the polling place while people are voting and to challenge votes if there is a legal basis. The poll watcher must be from the precinct's district.
Edinger and the others observed the SUV GOP group tell James to go inside the polling place (the house) and "stand behind the machine and watch. The owner of the house, an elderly man who had been running the polling place for 25 years, would not let him in." Neither would the election judge, also well known in the community. After much arguing, a member of the Board of Elections showed up and told the group to "stop trying to get into the man's house. The judge wanted the authenticity of the certificate verified and a court order before she would admit him."
The controversy continued "for a good two hours," Edinger said, with different election organizations periodically coming by with different versions of law. "James," who knew everyone at the polling place including the judge, and everyone from the neighborhood, looked "completely miserable." Edinger does not know whether "James" supported Bush, although he eventually voted. The SUV GOP team took James away to get the court order. The leader of the group, "a lawyer from Texas," stayed.
Soon after, "a huge, tinted-window SUV pulled up and five very big guys got out," Edinger says. Looking like well-dressed gangsters because of their size and number and "tendency to surround you, however politely," Edinger says, "we thought they were there to protect the elderly owner of the home, but we were wrong. They were hired by the Republican Party to 'patrol' the neighborhood polling centers." After talking briefly with the monitoring group, "they told me that since it was a man's home, they would leave him alone," and left. The owner said that they had "come to make trouble," apparently not for the first time.
The monitors visited five other polling places while waiting for the court order. "We found out that not only did they all have Republican poll watchers either already inside or in the process of getting a court order, but that some of them were known addicts or alcoholics, and were not being let in because the election judges said they were incompetent." One GOP-hired poll watcher, described by the election judge as on crack, "pulled a small knife out and waved it at the election judge and another poll monitor when she was denied access to the poll."
The GOP was paying each poll watcher $100. They were also given lists of community members they were supposed to challenge, "many of whom they knew." According to Edinger, the lists were "rumored to be names of people whose mail, sent by the Republican Party to their registration address, was returned," but the Board of Elections "got wind of this and issued a memo to the effect that the returned mail was not enough to form the basis for a challenge." However, the memo did not circulate until early afternoon.
Over a day filled with rumor and hearsay, "No one really knew what to do about the challenges," Edinger says. "We heard that in other precincts [challenges] were not being upheld by the judges, and that another court order had been sought to compel judges' cooperation. We also heard that some of the poll watchers were too out of it to challenge anyone. Then we heard that the Republican group was asking that the election officials announce the name of every person voting as they came in, so that the poll watchers could identify the persons they were supposed to challenge," and also that "some poll watchers were confronting voters when they entered the poll, asking them who they were."
Back in the [16th], when James finally returned in the SUV with the court order, there was further dispute when "the election judge allowed him to come in, but not to stay in. This was finally resolved when the man from the Board of Elections came back and told her he was legally allowed to enter and leave freely."
By afternoon, with everyone voting fairly smoothly, "Our biggest problems were voters with names not on the rolls, and voters at the wrong precinct, and a rumor that a radio station was saying that no one could vote if they had outstanding traffic tickets."
Voter challenges turned out not to be a factor, largely because "James" was embarrassed. He clearly did not want to be there, according to Edinger: "He sat outside, and then about once an hour the group would drive by and lower the back window and whisper something to him." Or they would pull over and take him aside, "showing him something and giving him instructions. Maybe then he would take a quick trip inside, but as soon as they left he was back out on the porch."
Several times during the day, "James" went for rides with the group in the SUV or on short walks down the block, getting jawboned.
Later on, the GOP muscle crew was followed up by its finance crew. "Money guys" pulled up, this time in a Firebird, and gave "James" his cash. The monitors saw them "making their rounds to all of the other precincts, paying the poll watchers and the numerous other neighborhood people they had on the payroll, either for handing out flyers or driving them around . . . We saw a few shady transactions with the poll site owners, perhaps to gain access without a fight," but in any case, "everyone was getting paid."
The other side had comparatively few Democrats certified to poll-watch. Edinger says that "generally, they were very nice people but were unorganized and unable to witness any challenging that might have been going on inside." They were "dolphins," compared to GOP "sharks" with "their network of paid homeboys and girls."
What concerned Edinger most was that the GOP "was preying on inner city kids and people in need of money, and paying them to challenge voters in their own communities. And to challenge them for no reason, at least not one they understood. They treated them like pawns," she says. "Meanwhile, all around were other young people voting for the first time," wearing "Vote or Die" T-shirts, "driving cars covered with political signs, shouting to each other to vote. They would go home for ID, go to a different polling place, even get a court order so that they could have their vote counted. Yet the Republicans were paying those worst-off in their communities to challenge their votes."
"And I kept hearing about how Bush was winning on 'morality' and with the 'evangelical' vote." They have the "audacity to applaud their own morals while they manipulate the very people who need democracy to work for them."
She comments, "I don't think it worked, necessarily. It didn't seem to be having much effect where we were, because the election judges were tough, and used to fighting against it."
That might not hold up forever, though. That night, "we were at the hotel in Philly, getting ready to drive back to New York," and fell into conversation with an older man at the hotel bar who felt guilty because he had missed voting to take his wife to the hospital. "He told me that he was glad to hear that young people were turning out, not because he was worried for himself, he said, because he doubted that he would see the demise of America as a great democracy during his lifetime, but because he feared we would see it during ours if things continue the way they are. At the time . . . I thought he was overstating the case. Now I know that he was not."
Margie Burns is a journalist in the Washington, DC-area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was compiled from direct observation by the poll monitor in email and telephone interviews.
originally published on onlinejournal.com
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