Friday, November 7, 2008

A Blue State Girl

It's official. North Carolina has gone for Obama. And I have moved from what was, as of yesterday, the only other state still too close to call but leaning red (that's Missouri, for those who haven't been following) to the one that leaned all the way blue for the first time since 1976.

Finally, disbelieving friends, do you believe me when I say I don't live in the Appalacia of Dorothea Lange photographs and moonshine stills defended with shotguns and raw-boned hound dogs?

After a year in Asheville, I was much less surprised by the election results than the Obama organizers sent in from sophisticated climes like Washington, D.C., and New York (home to many of those friends who still say, "You moved to North Carolina?" in a tone that suggests I am a hair's breadth away from committing child abuse for taking my son here). I had suspected all along that these poor souls who saw nothing more of Asheville than the inside of an office located next to Bojangles were under the delusion that the people pouring in to help with phone banks and canvassing and, yes, poll watching were the dedicated few liberals hiding out in our homes sandwiched between gun-toting hunters who might not have seen a moose in these parts but could bond with someone who shoots them from airplanes nonetheless.

Thus, when the news broke yesterday one of the Obama organizers in charge of us poll watchers sent us an email admitting that they had expected far more problems than they had encountered on Election Day. Indeed, during the poll watching training I heard about voting machines "incorrectly calibrated" so that a punch for Obama somehow landed in the McCain box. The New York Times ran a story in which a West Virginia voter recounted hitting the Obama box on the touch screen machine and watching his vote jump to McCain; the poll workers, he said, advised him to keep hitting his choice until, after a sufficient number of times, it stuck where he put it. We were on alert for long lines created by insufficient ballots, workers, or machines and designed to discourage voters in precincts that could be counted on to vote Democrat.

Given these dire possibilities and how hard it would be to snatch North Carolina from McCain, I fully expected to be assigned as a poll watcher to some precinct outside of Asheville, somewhere I have yet to discover that looks more like the place my L.A. friends think I moved to when I told them I was relocating to North Carolina. Instead, I was assigned to a precinct in West Asheville -- a part of town I associate with the most progressive, most hipster, most non-North Carolinian area around.

Hmm, I thought. I guess the Obama people know something I don't know.

And so I showed up at 6:15, already vigilantly looking for signs that the polls wouldn't open on time at 6:30. Workers ready? Check. Plenty of ballots? Check. Lines out the door and down the block? Um, no. Just six or eight people who had heard the same predictions of hours-long waits as I and who were also discovering the power of early voting. Turns out, I stood on line two weeks ago for a lot longer than anyone waited in this precinct on Election Day.

I took my place behind the poll workers, trying not to hover because -- despite the task I was taking on and the law degree that qualified me to do so, I really do hate confrontation -- but striving to be close enough to hear the challenges they might make to people's right to vote. Knowing that at least one of the three precinct judges had to be a Republican, I was on the lookout for that moment when I would step in, liberal legal credentials flying, Obama-issued handbook at the ready, to enforce the law.

Why was that precinct judge having such a hard time with those two students' registration? Why was the chief precinct judge spending so much time on the phone with the County Board of Elections, and what information was she giving the voters having trouble receiving their ballots?

It took me less than an hour to figure out that those students got to vote. And that chief precinct judge? She was on the phone transferring voters into our precinct when she could and encouraging those she couldn't transfer to go to their correct precinct to vote instead of casting a provisional ballot that may well not be counted. She was, in fact, so impressively doing all the right things that I told her more than once how much I admired what great work she was doing.

And what about the poll watcher credentialed by the Republican party whom I had been told to expect? She was, the Obama campaign had discovered, not qualified to challenge voters, and I was ready to pounce on her if she did. Except that she never showed up.

There was, it turned out, little for me to do except chat with the poll workers and accept their invitation to have some of the treats the precinct judges had kindly brought to keep spirits high and stomachs filled throughout the long day. As we popped mini Mint Three Musketeers bars and sipped lots and lots of coffee, I heard plenty of references to the debacle in Florida. I heard excitement about a certain someone's Get Out the Vote effort. (No mentioning of candidates within the polling place, as that would be electioneering.) And I nodded in sincere agreement as one of the precinct judges said, "I don't care what party you're from. Everyone has a right to vote."

The one useful purpose I served was checking names off of a Get Out the Vote list and entering them in a database so that the Obama campaign didn't waste its resources calling people who had already voted. Which perhaps did not require a law degree and a thick handbook of North Carolina election law, but which made me part of an astoundingly well run operation.

When the last of those names had been entered into the database at 4:30, I called one of the organizers and decided that finally -- after over 10 hours at the polls -- I would play the pregnancy card. "This is a model precinct," I informed her. "Is there any reason for me to stick around? Or can I go put my feet up now?"

She told me about the long lines they expected during the last couple of hours of voting, when people got off work, and about the necessity of keeping them from leaving the line without voting. She told me it was more important than ever to have someone there until the bitter end. In other words, she was clear that my work was not done.

So I told the other Obama poll watcher -- who had been there since 12:30 with little more to do than I, except that she had a blackberry and therefore had an easier time entering already-voteds into the database -- to call me if the long lines did indeed materialize. And I ran off to buy milk and juice for my son.

The call never came, but as the time for closing of the polls rolled around, I couldn't resist running back to "my" precinct. I brought The Boy with me so he could get at least a little brush with the historic day.

At 7:35, the place was deserted.

"No long lines?" I asked the other poll watcher.

Turns out, about 100 people had voted in the three hours since I had taken my I'm-pregnant-and-need-to-put-my-feet-up break. No long lines, no Obama workers frenziedly trying to entertain people as they waited, no fights to keep the polls open until every last person in line at 7:30 got to vote.

Still, we got to see the intial machine count for the precinct -- 261 for Obama, 157 for McCain -- and to think about how many of those people were first-time voters or voters whom I had seen enter the polls with a certain amount of well-earned suspicion in their eyes or voters who hadn't shown up on the rolls but whose vote the chief judge secured with phone call after phone call to the County Board of Elections.

It took almost two more days for the North Carolina vote to become official. In the meantime, I heard about Kay Hagen's victory over Elizabeth Dole on the drive back home and learned the next morning that my son will grow up in a state that has just elected its first woman Governor.

And then, yesterday, that email from one of the poll-watching organizers. There had been, he wrote, far fewer problems than they had anticipated. He invoked a North Carolina of his grandparents in a town I haven't heard of.

And I just smiled and savored the victory and thought yet again that those people expecting disenfranchised voters and intimidation and scenes out of a pre-civil-rights South just don't get what Asheville is all about.


snowflake765 said...

I guess if you wanted drama and life threatening events you needed to come to CA for Prop 8 :-) Good for you for helping with the polls. It does make for a long day. I was working on a get out the vote effort as well and did some of the list checking to eliminate calling voters. This election was historic indeed.

JJ said...

Oops, didn't realize I was signed in as Maunia. She didn't really work the polls :-)