For four years, I have seethed about the state of election procedures in Florida in 2000 where thousands of people were denied the right to vote, thousands of votes were damaged because of faulty machines or ballot design, and thousands of other votes were just plain lost.
A month or so ago, living here in my comfortable community where tolerance is a virtue, no one was going to challenge anyone’s right to vote, and we trust our voting machines and workers, I found myself wondering if there was anything I could do to help people who were less fortunate. Through People for the American Way, I learned about the Election Protection Program, a non-partisan effort to protect voters from discrimination. Nearly 40 Civil Rights organizations, were joining together to sponsor an effort to help people whose right to vote might be challenged. States being targeted were the swing states -- Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. My friend Friedrike Merck and I decided to participate in the effort together, and we signed up to go to Jacksonville, Florida. The prospect was a bit scary, and I told my friends that if they saw someone who looked like me being arrested in Florida on the evening news, it probably would be me.
I flew down on Sunday. On the bus from the long-term parking lot at Islip were two white men going to West Palm Beach to participate in the Election Protection Program. Our black driver told us that he was going to work as a poll watcher at a local fire house on Tuesday.
My first impression of Jacksonville was the downtown, which was gleaming in the autumn sunlight with a number of tall buildings and wide avenues wrapped by a river with bridges. The center of the city, where we were staying, looked prosperous.
I spent the evening with family friends who clued me in on some of the characteristics of this very Southern city just south of the Georgia border. There are the traditional white and black areas, separate and distinct, and a fairly new area called Arlington which is diverse in economic class, race, and age. My friend is a social worker, his neighbor a black cop, and the other neighbor a retired couple. The neighborhood is full of children. It was just like any Northeast middle class neighborhood with which I am familiar.
Monday morning I met up with Friedrike and we headed to the Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church on Myrtle Avenue near downtown Jacksonville. The Church is a vital part of the black community. It holds about 300 people and is, itself, in need of repairs from what seems to be a recurring leaky roof. But, it has, in addition to the nave, a community room downstairs and an adjacent building with a computer training room, and what is probably a day care center. It was obviously a place of great joy and hope with the Reverend Harris at its helm.The organizers made use of all of the facilities for the days before the election and Election Day.
Friedrike, who had arrived a few days before and was deep in the logistic efforts had a job to do, so I donned my Election Protection tee-shirt and joined the training for canvassing. The job entailed going door to door, ringing door bells and encouraging people to go to the polls and to assure them that there were people on hand at the polling precincts to help them if they needed it to vote.
Honestly, I was frightened to be dropped off by the van in what appeared to be a deserted black neighborhood that I was to canvass with my partner Pat. It was like no place I have ever walked in before. It felt more like the Caribbean than the United States.
Of course, like every other residential community at noon on a Monday, it was fairly empty of people: they were mostly at school or work. The houses were small on quarter acre lots and many seemed flimsy, run-down and scruffy. With a few exceptions, landscaping was non-existent. Lawns were few and far between. Most yards were filled with weeds, the kind that thrive in sand. Trees and bushes were typical of a pine barren. I only saw only one house that was a burned hulk. The streets had not been paved in years, there were often no sidewalks, and driveways that did exist were dirt. Yards and houses were set off from the road by crumbling curbs. At the edge of the neighborhood was a railroad track that people walked or drove across with little protection from oncoming trains.
Pat and I soon were knocking on doors, she on one side of the street, I on the other. Our technique was to assume that someone was at home at every house. The houses had been built with no door bells, but some had radio signal bells that you can buy in any hardware store. If there was no bell, we knocked.
In the majority of cases, there seemed to be nobody at home, but sometimes when I thought that was the case, suddenly the door was opened, often by a woman in her 70s or 80s. I introduced myself, “My name is Patricia and I am with the Election Protection Program. I am here to encourage you to vote and to assure you that there will be people at the poll to help you if you have any trouble.” The first few people I met told me that they had voted early. “They took us to the early voting place in buses,” I was told. Early voting in the city had been available at four libraries and the County Election Board for several weeks.
We met a man who was washing his car, and we reminded him that he could still vote early that afternoon before he went off to work. He agreed that that was a good idea and that he would do so.
With one exception, where I was dismissed abruptly rather than rudely we were greeted kindly. People generally seemed grateful that two white strangers cared whether they voted. We left our literature tucked into door handles and mailboxes, and our van driver placed Election Protection signs at every corner.
Eventually a number of people came out of their houses to inquire as to who we were and why we were there. They were friendly, dignified and often quite jovial.
Those six blocks were my introduction to the black community of Jacksonville.
After a pulled chicken and corn-on-the-cob supper served in the Church’s courtyard, about 300 volunteers from all over the country -- from California to Maine -- in black Election Protection tee-shirts gathered in the nave, standing room only, for our training. It began with a prayer and the Reverend Harris’s exhortation as to why he and his community were grateful that so many had come to help insure fair and honest voting. He told us that in the year 2000, 27,000 votes from black Jacksonville had literally been lost between the precincts and the Duval County Election Board downtown, a matter of a few miles. This was nothing new, he told us. This sort of thing had been going on for as long as the black community could remember. He was followed by two more local ministers who were equally effective in their oratory. The audience was in rapture. Finally, in good humor, the speaker was abruptly asked to stop for we had training to accomplish.
Earlier in the day, the Election Board had announced that no challenges would be judged, but that anyone challenged would be offered a Provisional ballot, but if they refused the Provisional ballot and left without casting it, they would not be allowed back in the polling place. Election Protection lawyers had confronted the Election Board that afternoon, and the County had backed down. People challenged would be able to get the assistance the Election Protection legal advisors and answer any challenge.
We were warned, however, that there would be new tricks and no one knew what they would be.
The Election Protection Program was to provide two monitors and two legal advisors to each of 49 precincts. This was 200 people who had to be at the polling places by 6:45 am on Election Day. They needed to be transported in vans with chairs, phones and supplies. And, it had become Friedrike’s job to organize the travel logistics for all 14 vans and six cars to move the monitors to the polls. There were seven teams, and I was appointed Captain of the Red Team, with seven precincts to manage.
After training, Friedrike still had much to do. I helped, and we finished what we could just after midnight.
Five hours later, with about three hours sleep, we were back at Headquarters. The next two hours were absolute chaos. Nothing went according to plan. But, by 7 am, it was done.
The rest of the day, I answered calls from my precincts on my cell phone, negotiated for meals for them, and moved some monitors around. My biggest frustration was that neither of my two drivers were ever there when I needed them. But, for an organization that had never worked together before, and had never practiced, things went extraordinarily well.
One small incident that afternoon intrigued me. I was in the lawyers’ area making 100 copies of the Voter’s Bill of Rights for one of my precincts where I couldn’t help but overhear a local minister’s telephone conversation. He had caught my eye, I had smiled, and he had winked at me. He said, “The ‘hood,’ you know has never gone away. The clothe themselves differently, with their fancy glasses and suits, but it’s still the ‘hood.’ He was talking about the Klu Klux Klan.
Two hours before the polls closed, Friedrike announced that we were going to go monitor in a white neighborhood. With the help of a local Jacksonville resident, an older black man with a real knowledge of the city, we were sent to a polling place in what a young local woman who came with us called a “yuppie” neighborhood. Polling places in Jacksonville are either in churches or schools. This was a magnificent Episcopal Church built around a cloistered garden with the church on one side, parish hall on the other, and classrooms along the back. The green grass strip between the sidewalk and the street was about eight feet wide and six inches high and felt like a sponge to walk on. The streets were wide and well lit. This was a neighborhood in which I felt completely at home. Everyone who passed us was white.
We set our signs 50 feet from the entrance to the polling place entrance and stood there with our literature and friendly smiles.
Few people came by, but one was a young woman talking on her cell phone. Friedrike said something to her about help in voting, and she suddenly turned and said, “I do need help.”
“My driver’s license says I live in this neighborhood, but I don’t anymore. I’ve moved. Where am I supposed to vote?”
I told her what I had learned in my training, “You must vote in the precinct where you actually live. You go there and sign an affidavit that you have moved. Then you vote there.” She asked, “How can I find out where that is?” I told her to go inside and ask the clerk where her precinct was. She came back out a few minutes later, thanked us and told us she was off to the right precinct.
We wished her good luck. Thirty minutes later, the polls closed, we pulled up our signs, and returned to headquarters to make sure that all of our poll monitors returned safely. They did with big smiles on their faces. Most had stayed at their posts for 12 hours.
Voting in Jacksonville on November 2, 2004 in the 49 black precincts that the Voter Protection Program monitored went exceedingly smoothly. There were very few challenges, and most problems were ironed out at the polling place.
It was, we were told, the smoothest election in black Jacksonville’s history, and I am convinced that this was so because the Voter Protection Program was there -- the eyes of the nation in the 300 people who had come to this southern city in Northern Florida to bear witness. The black people of Jacksonville this time were not at the mercy of the County Republican machine.
Now that the nation has voted and the results are in, I hope that someone will count the voters and the votes in every precinct in every swing state to see if there is any disparity. The equivalent of stuffing ballot boxes is the next place for polling place mischief. The battle for clean elections in this country has just begun.
I plan to return to Jacksonville in 2008. I hope others from Shelter Island will join me. I had a wonderful time and found it spiritually uplifting. You can too the next time we elect a President.