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Determined to Vote!

Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

Despite their considerable efforts, the Republicans were not able to buy or steal the election after all. Their defeat was of an almost biblical nature. The people—large swaths of the public who have traditionally supported the Democrats—whose votes they had plotted, schemed, and maneuvered, unto nearly the very last minute, to deny rose up and said they wouldn’t have it. If they had to stand in line well into the night to cast their vote they did it. The long lines were the symbol of the 2012 election—at once awe-inspiring and enraging.

On election night, the Romney camp had at least four planes ready and aides had bags packed to take off as soon as a state’s result appeared narrow enough to warrant a challenge. But they ended up with nowhere to go. The Republicans’ extraordinary effort to block enough votes of Obama supporters to affect the outcome—in order to prevent the president’s reelection—failed. None of Obama’s margins of victory, though not particularly wide in some states, was sufficiently narrow to warrant a challenge. So the nation was spared the nightmare of reliving Florida 2000, a fear that had gripped many until late Tuesday night.

Yet the fact that the Republicans’ effort to manipulate the election’s outcome didn’t succeed doesn’t mean it didn’t cause a lot of damage: to individuals who had to struggle or weren’t able to exercise their right to vote; and to the democratic process itself. Small-minded men, placing their partisan interests over those of the citizenry, concocted schemes to subvert the natural workings of our most solemn and exhilarating exercise as a self-governing nation. By the time of the election, more than thirty states had passed laws requiring voters to present some form of identification, often a government-issued photo ID that they didn’t possess and couldn’t obtain easily, in many cases not at all. The point was to make it more difficult for constituent groups of the Democratic Party—blacks, Hispanics, low-income elderly, and students—to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.

Though most of these new ID laws had been put on hold or weakened by the courts, they nevertheless created a great deal of confusion on election day. Pennsylvania’s voter ID law had been suspended by a state judge on the grounds that it couldn’t be properly administered by the time of the election, yet poll workers were permitted to ask for the IDs anyway, and some of them were under the impression that voters were required to have them. In some parts of the country, confusion was sown deliberately: intimidating billboards suggesting that photo IDs would be required appeared in predominantly black and Hispanic areas.

This was no sneak attack but a national, coordinated enterprise that could not go unnoticed. At first only a few voices were issuing warnings, but as election day neared it was well known that Republicans were conspiring to keep Democrats from casting votes that would be counted. Broadcast networks and newspapers were covering the story; in some states public service announcements on the radio told people how to meet newly imposed requirements—for example, what type of form they needed. On election day, a nationwide coalition of lawyers manned five thousand call centers around the country. Its phone line, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, having been widely advertised, was flooded with about 100,000 calls, mainly from distressed voters saying that they had been told at the polling places that they weren’t eligible to vote, even though they had registered. The voting rights lawyers’ group is conducting an investigation into whether there was a purge of voter rolls in Pennsylvania.

The long lines were a testament to the significance that American citizens attach to the right to vote. But the lines were deliberately caused by limits imposed by Republican officials on the amount of time allowed for voting before election day. In 2008, blacks and Hispanics voted at higher rates than others on weekends in Ohio and Florida, and Obama carried both states. In theory, early voting is supposed to provide voters opportunities to avoid long election-day lines and cast their votes before election day, but the limits on the number of early voting days assured that early voters ended up in long lines on early voting days.

My own selection for pin-up boy of the vote-suppressing camp of 2012 is Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a baby-faced forty-five-year-old who has ambitions to run for governor in 2014. Husted’s wholesome, innocent demeanor makes him all the more menacing. The Ohio legislature reduced the number of weekends for early voting from five to one, and would allow only members of the military to vote on the final weekend. But Husted took further steps to limit the black vote, which was what this was all about. He tried to prevent early voting in urban (for which read black) areas—while expanding the opportunities in areas dominated by whites—but this proposition was hooted down by the citizens of Ohio, hardly a radical state.

After his plan was shot down, Husted simply banned early voting on all three days before the election. While this breathtaking plan would affect all would-be early voters, it was generally understood that working-class blacks would be disproportionately affected. Early voters tend to be lower-income, less-educated voters who on election day might not be allowed to take off enough time to vote during the day and could not endure the long lines in the evening. In fact, possessing the sheer physical ability to last out long lines for hours became a new requirement for exercising the right to vote. Husted simply ignored a court order that got in the way of his mission to make sure that mainly blacks couldn’t cast a vote for president.

A federal court then ordered Husted to restore early voting on those critical three days—but he appealed this decision all the way to the Supreme Court. After the Court refused to hear his case, Husted sharply reduced the hours during which votes could be cast on the three days before the election to sixteen hours altogether, down from twenty-four in 2008. Defiance of a federal court was of little concern to the attorney general of Ohio: he had other priorities. Husted openly described the court’s interference in his efforts “an un-American approach to voting.”

In a last-gasp effort to hold down votes for Obama, at 7:00 PM on the Friday before the election Husted ordered that applications for provisional ballots be filled out by the would-be voter instead of the usual polling officials. If the early voters made a mistake in filling out the rather complicated request form, their ballots would be rejected. Husted had invented his own literacy test.

But on Tuesday, election day, the same federal judge, expressing some exasperation with Husted’s various gambits and what he called the “surreptitious manner” in which this latest one had been sprung upon the state, rejected it—saying that it violated a standing court order, existing Ohio state law, and the United States Constitution. The judge also said this:

For an executive of the state to [flout] state law in arbitrarily reassigning a poll worker’s statutory duty to a voter, with the result being disenfranchisement of the voter, is “fundamentally unfair and constitutionally impermissible.”

Florida, for its part, created a mess by drastically restricting early voting. Florida Republican politicians believed that by expanding the days in 2008 for early voting, the previous governor, Charlie Crist, had allowed Obama to carry the state. So the Republican state legislature cut the number of days for early voting from fourteen to eight and prohibited it altogether on the last Sunday before the election. Sunday had been a special day for blacks, many of whom were transported from church by bus to the polling stations. On the Saturday of the final weekend, even as the lines grew impossibly long—some people waited for as long as eight hours, till past midnight—Republican governor Rick Scott icily rejected entreaties to allow the polls to be open on Sunday. But some local election officials found a way to get around his ruling by handing out absentee ballots on both the Sunday and Monday before election day.

Yet on Sunday, polling places in populous Miami-Dade County were still unprepared for the onslaught of people wanting to vote. One place unprepared for such a crowd shut down for two hours and then reopened as would-be voters banged on the doors demanding that they be allowed to vote. The Miami Herald documented the difficulties numerous voters encountered until they simply gave up, and said that there was no question that voter suppression had taken place. On election night some Florida voters were still standing in line to vote when President Obama gave his victory speech. The last vote was cast at 1:08 AM.

Florida managed to complicate itself into irrelevance in 2012. Though on election night it appeared that Obama would win there, he didn’t need the state’s electoral votes. The vote counting stretched into the week and the result wasn’t announced until the following Saturday; Obama won the state narrowly, giving him an electoral college victory of 332–206, a resounding number that didn’t reflect the struggles to protect his votes in each of the hard-fought states.

The long lines didn’t just happen. Many of the voters who turned out for Obama were angry that their Republican state officials were trying to deny them their opportunity to cast a vote for the candidate they preferred to be president. And particularly in the “battleground states” on which the election turned, the exceptionally sophisticated organization mounted by the Obama campaign was in place to make sure that every registered Democrat was contacted and encouraged or helped to get to the polls. A friend of mine who canvassed in northern Virginia told me that stay-at-home mothers with small children were offered baby-sitters; those who needed them were offered rides to the polling place. Might someone prefer to have an absentee ballot? Persuasion wasn’t part of the assignment; the people on the list had already been identified as potential Obama voters. The point was to make sure they turned out.

At the end of each day of canvassing, my friend turned in the list with notations of whether the person was not home or had special needs. Other canvassers would follow up during the week with those who hadn’t been home on the weekend. It was all very low-key and friendly and helpful—and very thorough. Romney himself is reported to have told staff and supporters the morning after the election that he was taken aback by the degree and effectiveness of the Obama campaign’s organizing effort.

The neighborhoods my canvassing friend was assigned to were middle class, or slightly less well off, and notably diverse: whites, blacks, Hispanics; immigrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, India, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Some were retired military and, contrary to generally received opinion, they were for Obama. In every single household he called on, people of voting age were determined to cast their ballots for Obama and aware of the kind of document required to be taken to the polling place if they wanted to vote. (Virginia had adopted a voter ID law that didn’t require photos and was far more flexible than other states.) In order to avoid a challenge from the Justice Department, the state mailed out a card to every eligible resident. The voters had heard about the new requirement on the news and had talked about it in their neighborhoods or on social occasions. They were also aware of the Republicans’ efforts to block their votes. My friend, who had canvassed every weekend for five weeks, said, “The suppression efforts were so extreme and visible and outrageous that it made people more determined.”

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