My friend Bill can’t give money because neither the Obama Campaign nor the DNC accept contributions from federal lobbyists (even the good ones, like Bill). But I loved reading about how he did help. It’s so inspirational, I might actually get on the bus next time.
Today, I hand the mike to him:
GETTING OUT THE VOTE — ELECTION DAY 2012
By Bill Myhre
We all had different reasons for heading to Richmond that Saturday morning in early November. Different but really the same. After all, we had been friends for over thirty years and by now had spent most of our lives in Washington, D.C. David is a political junkie who had worked in the Carter White House and hadn’t missed volunteering in an election year for decades. Jill is a full time artist, but no stranger to public policy having retired not long before after a career at AARP. Donald was born in the United Kingdom and has lived in DC longer than the rest of us. He has a green card and can’t vote here, but is just as “American” as anyone I know.
For me, it was a commitment more than a decade earlier not to let a federal election go by without volunteering in some way. If nothing else, the 2000 election taught us all that every vote counts and that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. As a practicing lawyer in Washington DC I have found the need to register as a lobbyist and was constrained from writing checks to the campaign, but not from ringing doorbells.
Although Richmond is only a couple of hours from Washington, it is definitely “the South” and it felt different. More conservative to be sure. There was little doubt that it was an election year, and that we were in a swing state. We couldn’t escape the campaign signs or the political ads. The hotel was busy and as we encountered each person in the lobby we couldn’t help but wonder which side they were on. As we were checking in the hotel staff was perfectly cordial to our band of aging baby boomers, but they noticeably warmed when they realized which side we were on. Jill soon befriended Doris, a young woman behind the desk who seemed to take particular notice in our well being. Like most of the hotels in town, the staff was largely African American. We had arrived early and the rooms were not yet ready so we checked our bags and headed off to find the Obama headquarters a few blocks away.
It was a dreary store front affair, and frankly not as busy as we would have expected given the election was only four days away. It felt a little ominous, but it just reinforced why we were there. A guy who looked to be in his twenties named Adam seemed to be in charge and he quickly dispatched us to an address on East Franklin Street. The neighborhood was close in, mostly 19th century townhouses, one of which our hosts, Erin and Andy, had purchased a few years earlier. They bought it from a “trust fund kid” who had gutted the house and installed a high-end commercial stove, but hadn’t gotten to the heating system or most of the basic wiring before the money ran out. Erin, an artist herself, had transformed the space into a gallery of local art that would have been unrecognizable to the original occupants.
We were met at the door by a young man who introduced himself as “Twin” (spelled “Tuyen”) and who looked to be all of sixteen. We quickly learned that he was the precinct coordinator. He was born in Viet Nam, and came to Oakland, California with his parents when he was two months old. He graduated from college in San Francisco and had volunteered with the Obama campaign several months earlier. They sent him to Richmond, where he had been staying with a volunteer “host mom” and working long days out of Andy and Erin’s townhouse. Helping out was an attractive young woman with a pronounced British accent. Turns out she was visiting from London. Having appreciated the importance of national health care to Great Britain she decided to spend her annual “holiday” in the States working to be sure her American friends didn’t lose Obamacare. She just called up the campaign to volunteer when she arrived and they sent her to Richmond.
So, that is how we all came together on a sunny autumn weekend in Virginia. We collected our precinct work sheets, google map print outs, and headed to a lower middle class neighborhood to get out the vote. Tuyen, Erin and Andy had worked closely with the campaign to map out every corner of the precinct. We were armed with carefully prepared folders listing every Democrat there who had voted in 2008, but not in 2010. They were counting on the regular voters to come out, but it was those that hadn’t voted last time that needed encouragement. And that is what we were there to do. The print-outs identified each targeted Democratic voter by name, age and sex, so we would have a good idea who we were looking for. We started by asking for the named individual, identifying ourselves as working for President Obama and asking if they planned to vote on Tuesday. That was quickly followed by questioning to see if they were supporting the President, and also Tim Kaine, the popular former Democratic Virginia governor running against George Allen, a former Republican Governor who famously (and fatally to his Senate campaign) referred to a young American-born Democratic campaign worker of South Asian descent as “Macaca” six years earlier. We finished our visit by being sure each voter knew the location of the polling station and with an offer to provide a ride to the polls if they needed one.
The first few calls felt awkward, the rest followed easily as we realized how welcome our visit was to these some-time voters. Jill closed each interchange with an engaging smile, and a reminder about just how important it was for everyone to vote in this election. David simply said that he would see them on Tuesday, reinforcing with each person that someone was counting on them to be at the polling station on election day. Looking far too much like Mitt Romney, I faced more of a challenge, but I soon learned to relocate my Obama button to the top collar of my jacket so when they looked through the blinds to see who was there, that they would actually open the door. Many were not home, working on the weekends, and at odd hours were part of their routine. But for those that were, the greetings were almost uniformly positive. In three days of canvassing, I met only one person who was not voting for the President.
When we returned to the hotel later in the day to collect our luggage and get settled, we were pleasantly surprised by unexpected room upgrades, including a corner suite with a living room and commanding view of the city. It appeared that Doris had continued to look out after us.
The host at the hotel restaurant was a handsome young black man named Lavon Johnson. He broke into a broad smile seeing my Obama button, and later took me aside to ask if he could vote on Sunday. I told him that there was no early voting in Virginia, but spent a few minutes explaining the new more stringent voter identification requirements to be sure he had the right ID, and asked if he knew where his polling station was located. He confirmed that he had registered, and said he would check on the voting place. I asked when he planned to vote and he said after work. Then following David’s example, I told him that I would see him at the polls on Tuesday, knowing full well that there were many precincts in the area and the odds that I would be working at his polling station were slim indeed. Lavon seemed grateful for the advice. He greeted us every morning with a smile, never seeming to miss an opportunity to talk with us during the rest of our stay at the hotel.
We spent Sunday and Monday in the “projects” … public housing located on the flood plain, well below the white neighborhoods on the cliff overlooking the river. The housing was relatively new, vinyl-clad frame construction, mostly garden apartments, separated by wide expanses of meadow, that looked almost idyllic in the late fall sunlight. I couldn’t help but notice that in virtually every apartment the blinds were drawn, shutting out the sunlight, the pastoral view, and the world of Richmond, Virginia. Here the faces were tougher and the reception a little more distant. It was not uncommon for a man answering the door to tell us that he “couldn’t vote” a response that only left us wondering what felony he had committed. We didn’t ask.
By Sunday, Stan, an old friend of David’s joined us in the canvassing. He had driven down from Alexandria with his wife and two sons to help in the effort. It was not until we stopped at his mother-in-law’s house later in our stay that we noticed pictures of Stan, his family, and the President on the fireplace mantel. Turns out Stan went to Harvard law school with Barack, and spent many hours on the basketball court with a fellow student he never dreamed would become President.
I don’t know that I will ever forget the Americans I met that weekend. Mostly working class, moms and dads, some married, some not, children, grandparents, assorted relatives, mostly African American, but others as well, single moms, single dads, boyfriends staying at home with the kids, young men caring for aging parents, preachers, carpenters, students anxious to vote for the first time and everything in between. At one door I was greeted by a friendly middle- aged man in a dress shirt, boxer shorts and dress shoes. When I told him why I was there he explained that he was just changing after returning from Obama headquarters where he and his wife, Brenda, had spent Sunday afternoon calling prospective voters as they returned from church. He introduced himself as “Butch” and then called to Brenda to come to the door to meet “Bill from the White House.” He gave me his cell phone number, suggesting that I share it with anyone in the neighborhood who needed a ride to the polls on Tuesday.
We deliberately chose neighborhood restaurants during our visit, hoping to get to know the Virginians we were trying to convince to at least maintain their purple status among the swing states. The attractive woman who waited on our table at an early stop opened up once she learned why we were there. She had been a waitress for 15 years, a white mom originally from Cincinnati, struggling to raise a disabled child on her own who worried about the fate of Obamacare.
One night we went to a funky Italian restaurant highly recommended by Erin. Although we got there early, the place was crowded with neighbors and, we learned later, a fair number of diners from the wealthier Richmond suburbs. The traditional Italian fare, mixed with unusual fresh fish entrees, was scrawled on a huge chalkboard behind the bar. There were no printed menus, and even the wine “cellar” was a help-yourself rack at the back of the restaurant.
Upon learning why we were in town, the waitress behind the bar turned the conversation to the election, volunteering that in her family it was the women (her mother and two sisters) who supported the President pitted against her father, who didn’t. Her parents had met in the Israeli Army, and the family had spent the summer in Israel, where she was surprised at how many of her father’s friends shared his views.
The wait was at least an hour, but the time passed quickly in the friendly and crowded atmosphere. You could not help but talk to your fellow patrons as every conversation was overheard. One attractive woman, well-dressed in a totally black outfit with a matching feathered jacket, started her conversation with us about the veal scallopini which was “to die for” yet finished up with a warning, passed along from her defense-contractor husband, that his firm was letting their workers off early on election night, because they had it on good authority that if Obama were not to win, that “they” would be rioting in the streets of Richmond. We needed no explanation that by “they” she meant the folks in whose neighborhoods we had spent the afternoon.
Sunday concluded with an 8 pm conference call among the lawyers who had volunteered to participate in the campaign’s “Voter Advocacy” program. We had already spent a couple of hours at a training session at American University’s law school a few weeks earlier. We each had a thick booklet that included the recently enacted voter ID laws, the guidance for poll workers published by the Virginia Board of Elections, and various flow charts and diagrams intended to provide some order to a confusing labyrinth of requirements and procedures regarding the voter ID requirements, the process for provisional voting and a host of other possible issues that could come up on election day.
The much –vaunted Obama ground game was in full evidence with these organizers. For each of the targeted precincts there were two “advocates” consisting of a Virginia lawyer inside the polling place, and a co-advocate located outside the polling place who was not required to be a member of the Virginia bar, or a lawyer for that matter. We received e-mails with our precinct assignments, a unique identifying number for each of us, and the cell phones, e-mail addresses and contact information for our fellow advocate at each polling place, as well as a central “boiler room” number should other questions arise. The outside advocates were each equipped with an easel and large sign, subtly marked with the Obama symbol, offering help with voter ID questions and provisional ballots. These came to be known as the “Lime-aide Stands” named for the green envelopes that signified provisional ballots, and that were illustrated in full color on the sign. We each had similarly marked Voter Advocacy buttons.
That night we reviewed the statute and regulations, assembled advocacy notebooks and reviewed likely questions, all in order to be ready to report for duty at our respective precincts early Tuesday morning. We later learned that there were some 1500 volunteer lawyers in Virginia on the conference call, each prepared to be sure that everyone in the Commonwealth who was qualified and wanted to vote, could vote.
Tuesday morning came early. In order to get to our respective precincts by 5:30 am, we had to be out of the hotel and at the neighborhood diner by 4:30 am. We were there, alright, joined by a number of other Democrats and assorted police officers finishing up their night shifts. We couldn’t figure out where the Republicans were, as this seemed to be the only place downtown that was serving breakfast at that hour. The waitresses were particularly friendly and wished us well on the day ahead fully appreciating why we were up so early.
It was colder than expected and almost totally dark when I arrived at the Randolph Community Center on Grayland Avenue, the designated voting place for Precinct 504. The line had already formed down the block. I set up my sign, pinned on my Obama Voter Advocacy button (still looking a little too much like Mitt Romney, I made sure that it was high enough on the collar to be clearly visible) and started to work the crowd.
As I walked up and down the long line of voters it became apparent that almost everyone had heard of the stringent voter ID requirements and had come prepared. It was almost as if they were determined not to let anyone take away their vote. One woman told me that she had brought with her “my birth certificate, my driver’s license, my voter registration, my utility bills and my death certificate…I just hope I don’t have to use the last one!” This is not to say that there wasn’t any confusion about the requirements. Throughout the day voters had questions about exactly what was needed, whether an address was required on the ID, whether an out-of-state driver’s license would work, and what other photo ID was acceptable.
My Inside Advocate partner was Bindy, a young Indian woman attorney at a prominent Richmond law firm. We had e-mailed each other the night before and planned to meet before the polls opened. This was her first time working on election day, but she was well read, had studied the manual, was enthusiastic and sharp. I somehow knew this was going to be a good team. We introduced ourselves to the election officials and then headed to our respective posts. It wasn’t long before she texted me the description of a young man who was not allowed to vote and given a provisional ballot, due to a discrepancy in his address and voting place. I intercepted him as he was leaving, and was able to take down a brief summary of his case and asked him to authorize the Virginia Democratic Party to represent him with respect to the missing information that was required to be submitted to the election board by Friday. At regular intervals throughout the day we reported back to the campaign on the number of provisional ballots that we had, together with contact information and voter authorizations, so that if Virginia turned out to be “another Florida” this year, they would be fully prepared.
It was an impressive organization that, from everything I could tell, worked like clockwork throughout the day. If I didn’t text in my reports on provisional ballots, or the length of the lines, headquarters would call me. They appeared to be on top of every development. I learned later that the Republicans’ much-lauded, but untested communications software failed miserably on election day, leaving their supporters, ready to help, but literally without direction, making their contribution all but meaningless. In Ohio the President had four times as many offices to get out the vote. It would seem that Republicans were counting on the burdensome voter ID laws in their states to help make up the difference.
There were many moments that day, talking with folks in line, and observing local candidates, that helped restore some of my faith in the system and to appreciate our democracy, which Winston Churchill had once famously described as “the worst form of government …except for all the others”. It was gratifying to see, at least in one precinct, that the much publicized efforts to suppress voters seemed instead to be energizing them.
Linda was one of the volunteers who was passing out leaflets in support of a local candidate. She was a tall, good looking African American woman in her sixties with an unmistakable sense of humor. She had retired from the local phone company a few years earlier and was no stranger to the folks at the Randolph Community Center. She seemed to devote much of her time to watching out for her neighborhood and by noon I was feeling a little like part of her community. It was a cold day, with temperatures in the forties, and I hadn’t thought to bring gloves or a hat, a fact that did not escape her attention. She encouraged me to go to the Dollar Store, a few blocks away, to get something warmer to wear. I had my sign, easel, and voter materials all set up, and told her I really couldn’t leave my post, but that I would be fine.
The time passed more quickly in the afternoon, with a number of provisional ballot questions that caused me to delve into my notebook and call headquarters for advice, including making arrangements to get one voter to come back to the polling station to vote provisionally, after having been rejected the first time. Just as the sun was disappearing and the temperature continued to drop, Linda showed up with a dark gray knit cap from the Dollar Store. She wouldn’t let me pay for it, but did make sure that I put it on. Not only did it warm my ears, but it took care of any remaining physical resemblance I might have had to Mitt Romney.
We had a pretty steady stream of voters throughout the day, and unlike some of the other precincts, there were no long lines at closing time. By 6:00 pm it was totally dark, and colder than it had been thirteen hours earlier. The day was finally beginning to take its toll on my aging frame, and I found an excuse to go inside to sit down and warm up. I got engaged in conversation with the gruff, heavy set substitute history teacher who was the door keeper. He took his policing role seriously ensuring that cell phones were turned off in the polling place, and that no one got out of line. He was also watching the clock scrupulously and as 7 pm neared, he was standing by ready to lock the door. Just as he was about to declare the polls closed, he held the door open for one last voter. As it turned out, it was Lavon Johnson, the host at the restaurant in our hotel. He seemed not at all surprised that I was at the door, after all I had told him that I would see him at the polls on election day.