By Margaret Aleks – Law student, UC Hastings; Poll monitor, Election Protection
November 3, 2004
San Francisco California
Tell me we’re back in the fifties, the sixties, some other time; but 2004? Please, tell me the country hasn’t gone this far.
Earlier last week, my constitutional law professor begged students to miss his class. Typically, you’re lambasted if you miss his class; now, he was requesting, perhaps recruiting, students to miss his class. He stated he never thought the country would again reach this point: when law students had to help fellow Americans vote. Not since the middle of the last century with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act were law students needed to help others do their civic duty.
And so I went: to Nevada. I never expected Reno, Nevada, in the middle of the desert, would have voting problems. It wasn’t the south; it wasn’t Ohio; it wasn’t Florida. It was Reno, the biggest little city in the world. And so, two buses of law students from the Bay Area traveled to Reno for what we expected to be a relatively calm election.
At six in the morning, we coalesced at the headquarters for Election Protection. Pairing law students with lawyers and English-speakers with Spanish speakers, I met my team for the day, and the four of us went to an elementary school to help individuals vote. Immediately, we learned things may not go as expected: while Election Protection stationed students outside of the poll, the lawyer was to be inside to answer questions of those who either had problems voting or couldn’t vote at all. Brooke, ‘our lawyer,’ stationed herself inside the poll, while Nick, Jason, and I set up camp outside on the grass. Approximately, five minutes later, Brooke joined us. The Poll Manager had booted her, as she was not a registered Nevada voter. Despite her attempts to show him the Nevada statute permitting her presence in the poll; the manager would not allow it. We called the command center.
The commander center brought backup ‘ a Nevada lawyer, just incase its representatives could not persuade the poll workers whose legal authority was a newspaper, rather than a statute, that Brooke’s presence in the poll was legally protected. To no avail, again, the poll worker would not budge. Not wanting to cause a scene to further delay individuals’ chances to vote, Brooke joined us for good on the front lawn.
Voter after voter, we asked whether he/she was able to vote. While most said yes, claiming the electronic machines worked wonderfully, other voters said no, they didn’t vote. We asked them if they filled out a provisional ballot at least. ‘A provisional ballot? What’s that?’
Apparently, the polling monitors weren’t informing (select?) voters of their right, at the very least, to cast a provisional ballot. While these ballots weren’t ideal, for they were only for the federal candidates, voting for SOMETHING was better than voting for nothing. And so, from this point, we either directed voters to their correct precincts or told them to return and demand a provisional ballot. (Of course, not being Nevada registered voters, we couldn’t go inside to help them.) A pattern emerged for those not able to vote and who were also not informed of the provisional ballot system; they either spoke Spanish, identified as a minority, appeared to be lower class, or were young. Spanish-speakers, minorities, lower class individuals, and young voters: for whom do you think their vote would go? Each time this happened, we took their information and called the command center.
This seemingly blatant discrimination proved not to be the only voting irregularity. Throughout the day, police officers made their presence known. Pulling up in squad cars, fully uniformed and armed, cops entered the polling place (they must have been registered Nevada voters). While we, of course, were not, we were unable to discern or investigate what the cops did while inside ‘ maybe they chatted with the polling manager? Maybe they walked the voting line? Who knows ‘ but having cops inside an elementary school (where the students were on vacation) likely constituted some kind of voter incrimination. In response, we called the command center.
Around 5pm, a Nevada court issued a ruling saying that anyone who came to the polls with a voter registration receipt had the right to a ‘real’ ballot, not a provisional one. While this ruling likely helped many voters who thought they registered, only to have their ballots torn by the individuals who ‘registered’ them on the basis of political party affiliation, I wondered how many people had (in the 10 hours the polls had already been open) already either cast provisional ballots or been turned away.
As the day continued, we saved votes, helped voters, and maintained a nonpartisan presence. We weren’t identified with any political party ‘ all we worked toward was the right for every American to cast a vote.
The polls closed; we returned to the headquarters. There I learned of others’ experiences. What I experienced seemed standard fare: voters not being allowed to use (or even informed of) the provisional ballot process. It seemed others had observed the same trend: this group of voters was identified as Spanish-speaking, minority, lower income, or younger. What a surprise’
Other students reported atrocities including INS agents showing up at a polling place. Today, fellow law students requested, ‘Why? Doesn’t everyone who votes have to be a citizen?’ Well, yes; they do. Everyone at a polling place theoretically had a valid right to vote. If they didn’t (and were trying to commit voter fraud), they would have had to cast a provisional ballot anyway. Upon further investigation of the provisional ballot (they’re not secret ballots, like the rest of America is supposedly afforded), their ballot would be discarded. So, why the INS presence? I don’t know. There should have been no one to intimidate. But, to the recently naturalized voter whose family members may not yet be naturalized (or even illegal) or whose country has a history of military officials standing by to coerce their vote to conform to the state-selected candidate (think of Iraq: they used to have ‘democratic’ elections; Saddam Hussein would win by 99.96 percent of the ‘vote’; and yes, that’s an actual statistic from a Political Science textbook), what effect would the INS’s presence have? To those of you for whom this analogy doesn’t work, consider a Criminal Procedure example. Miranda warnings are given so people will not incriminate themselves. Abstractly, who would incriminate herself/himself? But, given the coercive nature of being cuffed and taken into custody and interrogated where the situation is, perhaps 5 cops versus you and you’re possibly deprived of sleep, water, food, access to a bathroom, wouldn’t you maybe ‘voluntarily’ confess about a crime you didn’t commit? The INS presence probably functioned the same way.
Still, others reported being at the polling place of college students. There, it took from 7am (when the polls opened) until 2pm for the polling workers to allow first time student voters to vote. The problem: students’ voter registration card addresses didn’t match the addresses on their photo IDs. Now think about this: is it really that unusual for a college student to have an address at which they live while in school and to have a second address that is their permanent one (i.e. their parents’)? Is that such a novel concept? Well, apparently, even these REGISTERED, first-time voters had problems. And so voters at that precinct, like those at precincts all over the rest of Nevada and the country, waited for over 4 hours to vote.
Finally, before we started our drive back to the oasis that is the Bay Area, an individual threw a rock through the window of one of our buses, shattering it. We should have foreseen it as shattered dreams of Kerry winning (I’m done being non-partisan). But here, for no good reason, some individual felt it necessary to come to the Reno headquarters of Election Protection, New Voters’ Project, the ACLU, and other progressive organizations, to throw a rock through a window. Even the police officer who reported to the scene professed problems with early voting and was thankful for our work. We were trying to ensure democracy and what is the outcome?
While our efforts, unfortunately, didn’t result in Kerry winning the election, I was happy to have ensured that individuals had the right to vote. While it may have not made a difference, and while they may feel more disenfranchised in the future because of the election’s outcome, at least they had the right to vote.
I returned home at 1:30am and checked my e-mail. Eighteen leftist, progressive organizations had emailed me reminders to vote. (This was in addition to those I had already received in the week preceding the election.) Not only did these emails remind me why I’m on the government’s watch list (yes, I have already emailed the White House today, thanks to NARAL action alerts, and I have already spoken with a member at the ACLU’s Northern California office about what I observed in Nevada), but the results of this election reminded me why I’m in law school. Although I’ll be in law school for the next year and a half, I will have 2.5 more years of the Bush administration to fight as a progressive, ‘radical’ liberal, to ensure our civil liberties, and to use the court systems to attempt to achieve whatever version of justice our courts supposedly provide. And then, I will have a lifetime as a lawyer to fight to undo whatever happens in these next four years.
And so, this is the state of our democracy: individuals are turned away, unable to vote. Although I can’t report statistics with any empirical certainty, these individuals who are turned away seem to share demographic characteristics. Further, voters are intimidated at the polls by state and federal officials.
And, a law student questions the conditions under which she will practice law. When we can’t even vote in this democracy and the government usurps our constitutionally granted civil liberties, what consequences will standing up for my First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and Fourteenth Amendment rights (among others) have? As my mom reminded me, the Patriot Act has already taken away many of those rights. And, if someone who esteems ‘moral values’ can throw a rock into the window of a bus in Reno ‘ a fairly white, republican city, predicted to go to Bush by all polls anyway ‘ what other acts in the name of ‘moral values’ will I endure to protect my Constitutional rights?
“cuz if you’re not trying to make something better, as far as i can tell you’re just in the way”
– ani difranco