The Vote Was Protected in Cleveland

Election '04

After a long and uncertain night, the morning of Nov. 3 brought with it no immediate winner in the presidential election, although that scenario has changed quickly.

Despite assertions of victory by the Bush administration throughout the day's early hours, the Kerry camp had initially refused to concede until late votes from the pivotal state of Ohio were considered – the state board of elections says there are currently 178,000 provisional ballots yet to be counted.

Kerry, however, called President Bush to congratulate him shortly before noon and will give a gracious concession speech at 2 p.m. EST. At press time, CNN data showed that with all of the precincts reporting, Bush was leading in Ohio by more than 136,000 votes.

Things appeared decidedly different just a short 24 hours ago in Cleveland, Ohio – a Democratic stronghold which party officials knew would have to sway heavily toward Kerry in order to counter strong Republican turnout in Columbus and rural Ohio. According to local newspaper reports, Democrats had registered 140,000 new voters in Cuyahoga County – essentially Cleveland and the surrounding areas – in the months leading up to the election.

And virtually as soon as the polls opened, Cleveland locals began braving a cold, steady rain and growing lines to cast their vote, even as word circulated of an expected wave of Republican vote challengers who'd been granted access to the polls by an early morning decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. (The court had voted to overturn a decision meted out on Nov. 1 which banned all challengers from polling places).

Some 1,500 poll monitors volunteering for Election Protection, many of them law students and lawyers from the northeast, also fanned out across Cuyahoga County – to insure that challengers were behaving themselves and voters voices' would be heard. According to Lynne Algrant, a private school teacher and volunteer for the national non-partisan group, Election Protection, the poll monitors were sent to 167 different poll locations, in areas organizers identified has having a high concentration of new voters and where the rate of spoiled ballots had been particularly high in the past.

In Brooklyn Acres, a working-class, white area and long heavily Democratic, people – many of them old and handicapped – began showing up before the polls even opened at 6:30 a.m.

"I wouldn't miss this for the world," said one 85 year-old woman who wheeled her walker through the puddles and up to the polling location, a rental office for a housing complex. "I've been voting since I was 18, and I'm sure not going to stop, especially not in this election."

Across town, at Superior Elementary School in East Cleveland, an impoverished and predominantly African American city which sits adjacent to Cleveland but is still within Cuyahoga County, lines were long and emotions high.

"People here don't have nothing," said 37-year old Kim Yeager of the area, which some locals say is more dangerous than Baghdad. "So everyone is voting around here. This is the biggest turnout I've ever seen. Even the drug dealers off the street are voting. They get it too."

Later in the day, students from Shaw High School who'd been doling out voting rights information during the weeks leading up to the election showed up at Superior too. "This is very important. Many lives are at stake because of this election and so people need to vote," said eleventh-grader Antoinette Williams.

As the day progressed, it became clear that aside from some long lines – up to three hours at some locations – a few broken voting machines and a smattering of misinformed poll workers, there were none of the systemic and potentially ruinous problems some election officials had been bracing for.

Perhaps much of the reason why the situation at the polls seemed relatively calm was due to the constant and visible presence of poll monitors and legal teams who advised voters on their rights and kept a wary eye on election workers. Aside from the numerous Election Protection volunteers, a two-person team of election observers from the international group Fair Election drove to polling places and spoke with voters and poll workers as well.

"Aside from the long lines, everything has been really smooth. Nobody has been complaining much," said Irene Baghoomians of Australia.

That's not to say there were no problems.

A number of polling places, especially in the Shaker Heights suburb, had tremendous lines because certain precincts were understaffed and did not appear to have enough voting booths.

One incredulous man brought with him to the polls, a registration card his 15-year-old son had been sent in the mail.

"I want to know how they thought he was old enough to vote," the man exclaimed. Twenty-six-year-old Michael Slivka, said he'd received two voter registration cards in the mail, neither of which spelled his name correctly, and was concerned that his vote would be discounted.

All the while, calm and attentive poll monitors took down names and numbers and tried to allay the concerns of uneasy voters. "I think there were logistical problems – three hour waits, problems with provisional ballots but I think us being out there shining a light on the polls discouraged a lot of frivolous challenges which might have taken place," said Laila Hlass, a second year law student at Columbia University and spokeswoman for Impact2004, a consortium of law students from Columbia and Fordham University who'd trekked from New York to volunteer for Election Protection.

Interestingly, a team of lawyers from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent, bi-partisan agency under the Office of the General Counsel, was also on hand, traversing the city listening to concerns of minority voters.

One Civil Rights Commission lawyer who asked that his name not be used told AlterNet: "The biggest problems we found were at Woodbury Elementary School in Shaker Heights where there weren't enough machines and one group, which was all African American, was having to wait three hours to vote."

As the skies blackened and wind and rain whipped across the city, Doris Quinones, executive director of the Bronx Tourism Council who'd traveled with her husband from New York the day before, and Nancy Cribbs, attorney for Cleveland State University, huddled outside Louis Munoz Marin Middle School in the Tremont area of Cleveland, giving advice to Spanish speaking voters.

"I'm a lifelong voter, and I was very concerned about what might happen in the polls," said Cribbs.

At 7:27, three minutes before the polls closed, Elvin (last name not given) screeched his cherry red Ford pick-up to a stop in front of the school.

"My truck broke down, but I had to get here to vote!" Elvin yelled as he raced into the school. Poll monitors joked that Elvin had the fate of the world in the back of his truck.

Meanwhile as final polling locations shut its doors different state officials reflected on the day's events:

ACLU Ohio spokesman John Durkalski said he was concerned about the long lines throughout the state and the group would be waiting and reviewing complaints before taking any legal action.

"It got difficult at 1 a.m. [when we found out about Sixth Circuit's decision] to get the challengers out for the next day, but I think things went fairly smooth," Cuyahoga County Republican Party Chairman Jim Trakas on the mysterious Republican challengers who never materialized.

"We've had a record turnout," said state Democratic Party spokesman Dan Trevas. But, as night slipped into morning, it became increasingly clear that the record turnout was not going to be enough. Exhausted law students en route back to New York, awoke from a restless sleep to a National Public Radio broadcast recounting the latest results, among them Ohio, on the bus's intercom system.

Some groaned. Others shook their heads. Still others stumbled out into the morning in an exhausted daze, unable to absorb what they had heard and what would happen now.

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