November 9, 2004
An inner-city Election DayBy Christopher Schweickert
When my legal colleague who was a Milwaukee native started chuckling upon hearing my Election Day poll assignment, I figured that any desire I had for action would not be disappointed. I'd been late signing up as a Lawyer for Bush — such an oxymoron, but there are buttons to prove it! About a week before the election, I got a call asking if I'd go to Wisconsin — a major battleground state. It wasn't a hard decision.
The Wisconsin operation was impressive and sophisticated. There were thousands of organized volunteers, a fraud command central, a team of attorneys set to litigate the appalling 5,900 bogus addresses that had worked their way onto the voter rolls, GOTV poll—checkers with PDA's to turn out the Republican vote, and roving legal teams to put out fires — and it was all coordinated. It sounded great.
We were told that priority one was wholesale, systemic fraud, and that 99% of the people would probably be voting legitimately. Wisconsin has a terrible law under which you can register on Election Day at the poll, essentially by just showing something with your current address on it, and if you don't even have that, you can get an acquaintance to vouch that you live in—precinct.
Wisconsin was being bombarded by both campaigns. The President was visiting the day before the election, and a friend got us ground—floor tickets to the rally. Our workload was light enough to allow us to get out. We got there early to secure a good spot. Some went for front—and—center, ten feet away from where the President would be speaking. I opted for a side spot along the ramp where he'd be walking up. Some worker handed me a 'cheesehead' hat and, feeling a mixture of betrayal of my home state and Kerry—like fakeness, obediently donned it. After a long wait interspersed with a deafening array of speeches and live country western music, the President finally arrived.
There's no way to describe the crowd's scream. I'd heard it once before when I shook Dubya's hand in San Jose a week before he was elected the first time. You take a healthy yell from a sports crowd and then double that. And yes, I did shake the President's hand. He looked pretty chipper, and the one—year—old next to me caught one of those trademark winks.
Our final meeting, on Monday night, was tense but smooth. The city of Milwaukee had strung us along, and we didn't have word on the status of the 5,900 'voters' registered at bogus addresses (some at vacant lots, one at a gyro stand) — or of the 30,000 people who had filled out the forms and thought they had registered, but actually hadn't because of the city's processing delays. They said we would learn tomorrow morning when we showed up at 6:00 A.M. for our final deployment orders.
I didn't learn until the end of Election Day that some defender of democracy had kindly slashed the tires on 20 of our Republican GOTV vans. But the day started out pretty well for us. After what felt like about ten minutes of sleep Monday night, I woke up to Election Day. I mechanically put on my combat uniform — I mean suit and tie — and shouldered my attach� case. Shortly after 5:30 A.M. we were heading out.
So many unbelievable things happened so fast during that long day that I don't know if I took half of it in. At least the Democrats were cordial enough, to start off with. I figured my backup support was coming — as a non—Wisconsin voter, I couldn't make official challenges. That backup never came, but obviously my job was to do what I could with what I had (a young white male face and a Bar card from California, which, in the inner city of Milwaukee did not, I am led to think, count for very much).
The two older ladies manning the voter roll book were moving people through at an excruciatingly slow pace, but they seemed to be following procedures. There was a 2—hour wait by my timing. One lady showed up with a letter from the election commission saying that she was deputized to work there. She started signing people up to vote. She was the first additional worker of many, and the last with a letter.
Bit by bit, the place slowly broke apart. Hordes of Democrat operatives, with election commission officials hot on their heels, started showing up and complaining about the wait. A cheerful Judge Abner Mikva, retired, of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, also showed up along with his wife. I had actually not heard of the distinguished judge's reputation, but judging by the way the Dem law students sucked in their breaths upon hearing that he was on—scene, I had a hint. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton also came by to offer their support to the Dems. I had heard of them.
The regular chief election inspector had called in sick, and nobody was really in charge. Pandemonium reigned, and the Democrats were very insistent that they needed more workers. Judge Mikva approached the deputy chief and told him that he could deputize any citizen to work there. I approached the acting chief, who was looking a little bewildered standing next to the vote—counting machine. I didn't know the law on this point, but I didn't want anything to get rammed down his throat that he didn't want, so I piped up and asked the distinguished Judge what the statutory authority was for that. Much to my surprise (I was expecting a quick argument and summary dismissal of my question), they bit. The two Dem law school operatives — whether from gun—shyness or from being too much in the law student mode for their own good — scurried off to their statute books and started furiously flipping through pages. The judge sat down and began poring over the statutes. They started coming up with shaky support, none of it apposite, and all of it easily distinguished. Other Dem lawyers were making calls on their cell phones. After five or ten minutes of this the kind judge got up from the table. 'Your question is good,' he beamed. 'No one can answer it.' I suppose it was the apex of delight to the post—modern mind. I took it as a compliment. (I'd also learned, independently, that they apparently could do it, but was not anxious to do the opposition's work for them.)
The game went on, and somehow — I have no idea how even informal consensus was reached in that crazy room — it was decided that we needed more tables. Noises of skidding tables and sliding poll—booths added to the clamor. I was beginning to grasp the semblance of order that was beginning to take hold, but an uneasy gaggle of shifty—eyed workers were now manning the tables and registering voters. And the voter roll book was now split in two, by order of an intermediate—level election official on the scene — more lines to watch, more options for fraud, more workers to mess up. Most people were just trying to legitimately vote, although I did see a few people give non—existent addresses and then have to try again once or twice in order to land on something in—precinct.
The Dem law students told me that according to what they were hearing from their people, this was the worst polling place of any in the city. (It was at least good enough to make Sharpton's and Jackson's lists.) Amidst the chaos, the distinguished Judge leaned over to me and chuckled. 'I'll tell you one thing: I can't blame any of this on the Republicans!'
At my friend Jeff's poll, an elderly lady came through the line saying that she hadn't voted in 56 years — not even during the civil rights movement. But this time, the Lord had told her to vote for John Kerry. (A bit ironic, it seems to me.) As I walked down the line at my polling place, a woman called out 'Who're you with?' I started to tell her, but she interrupted, 'I can tell who you're with! You don't even need to tell me who you're with! What are you doing in this neighborhood, anyway?'
By noon they were taking registration cards out to the line for people to sign up, and then occasional ballots started going out the door for disabled people. This made me nervous. At my request, and upon agreement of a deputy DA who had also showed up (and who had also commented that this was the worst poll of the four he had visited), they said that they would take the ballot over to the voter rolls to announce the name, as they were supposed to. I never saw it happen. The ballots went straight to the machine.
By mid—afternoon — which seemed like several days after we had started; fifteen hours is a long time to hang out in a polling place — the system was moving much more smoothly. However, 'the system' was manned by a disturbingly informal network of pretty much anybody who sauntered in and, in the words of a deputy chief inspector, wanted to 'get paaaaaaid!' for working there. One time, an inspector called out for more workers. Two or three people who hadn't even voted yet wandered out of line and began manning the tables.
I had to give up on trying to watch registered voters check in, because people were registering to vote in droves. I focused on the spot where most of the new registrants were showing their ID's, or lack thereof. Most ID's were just fine. Some were most definitely out of the precinct. 'They're swearing that they live there (within the precinct at the address they gave), so it's ok,' was how the worker responded to my concerns that she was blithely registering voters who, for all we could tell from their ID's, lived out—of—precinct.
Welcome relief came just before closing: another Republican volunteer who knew the system well, and did a sharp job flagging irregularities with the absentee ballots.
Out of 1,476 ballots cast, a whopping 117 went for President George W. Bush. About 1,350 went for the other guy. Snoop Dog got one write—in vote too, although not for President.
The deputy chief inspector's response to one of my final questions that evening about sums up the whole day. I asked whether any voters had been turned away from voting at this poll. The answer:
'No. Why would we do that?'
My 15 hours engaging the Democrats in a small way on their own turf was an experience that I hope I don't have to repeat, but I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat for a guy like President Bush. I'm glad that I did it. I was determined that I would not wake up to a cold November Wednesday realizing that I hadn't done my part. I've taken these lessons from my experience.
1. They use chaos more than outright fraud. It is the tactic of the typical fraud defendant. You usually don't catch them lying very often. They'd rather evade and infuriate you by changing positions too fast for you to keep up. You can win, but it generally takes at least a 3—to—1 effort to pin them down.
2. We can play their game. I would say that a safe general rule is that it is desirable to have a better ratio than one young attorney versus a dozen—plus Democrats — that gets somewhat tiring, not to mention annoying too — but we can take what we have and fight with it. We did have at least a small deterrent effect. I'll never forget all the furtive glances from shifty—eyed operatives I got that day.
3. The tyranny of low expectations is a fitting phrase to describe the Democrats' approach to the black voter. It is a wonder to behold them, first—hand, milking this constituency. I had time to talk with the Democratic operatives, and I asked one why blacks are such a particularly reliable voting bloc. The answer was, essentially, because they're expected to. This is cruel. African Americans can do better. Flying home, at my connection in Minneapolis I ran into another Republican who walked door—to—door with a 15—year—old black young lady. All it had taken to start turning her around was a bad experience in school when she had tried to express her religious values.
Christopher Schweickert (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an attorney in Walnut Creek, California.