I volunteered with Video the Vote in 2006. This was a volunteer project to monitor the election, and be ready with video cameras to document any irregularities. You can see a story about it on CNN here, including an interview with me.
Overall, it was a really interesting day. I'm glad to say that I observed no serious voting irregularities. Indeed, it was inspirational to see a large number of competent, intelligent and dedicated poll-workers going about their business in churches, schools, a college, and other public buildings. It was also really interesting spending the better part of a day going around with a purpose in a part of my hometown that I rarely see. The basic activity was to visit different polling places, chat with people to see if all was going smoothly, and be on-call in case a report of a problem came into one of the many voting rights hotlines.
On voting day, we volunteers were pre-positioned near areas where the organizers thought problems would be the most likely. Generally speaking, this means the less economically advantaged areas. My "beat" was Compton, home of NWA and high-school race riots. I looked up the demographic statistics from 2005: 60% Black, 40% Hispanic, and median income just south of $23K.
Demographically speaking, the L.A. area has been changing. There was a large influx of Blacks to L.A. in the 30's and especially the 40's, largely from the American South. Many were fleeing overt racism, up to and including Jim Crowe laws and lynchings. When they came to L.A. (many working in the defense industries), they encountered a more subtle, but equally present racism, including explicit segregation and racial profiling. A fun way to learn more about Black post-war L.A. is the mystery novels of Walter Mosley. To our shame, today I still hear of people being pulled over for the notorious non-crime of DWB ("Driving while Black") in certain neighborhoods, and the Rodney King incident and the ensuing riots speak for themselves.
Over the past decade or so, the economy in the South has been doing very well - Atlanta is fairly booming these days, whereas L.A. is largely stagnant, with depressed wages for working-class people and high home prices. This has resulted in a pretty sizeable net migration of Blacks out of Southern California to places like Atlanta, where many people have extended family. You can see this change in the music industry too: Think Parliament Funkadelic or Snoop Dogg vs. Ludacris.
At the same time, there has been substantial Hispanic migration to Southern California. With this has come more political power, with district after district in South-Central, Inglewood and Compton shifting from majority Black to majority Hispanic. Think mayor Tom Bradley vs. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Driving around to different voting locations, this demographic trend was really evident. Pollworkers tend to be somewhat older people who are more firmly established in a community. In the polling places I visited, 100% of the pollworkers were Black, whereas a substantial percentage of the voters were Hispanic.
I also had a hand sign for a Hispanic gang flashed at me three times over the course of the day. I, of course, just smiled and said "hello." One such guy in the passenger side of a lowered Chevy asked me for directions or something - I didn't really hear him. He then asked if I knew where I was, to which I said "Compton!". Then he asked if I knew how to get to Beverly Hills, and I pretended to not understand him as the light was turning green. I smiled, he laughed and we both drove on.
At the third polling place I visited, there was a slight hiccup: The vote-counting machine wasn't working, and they didn't quite follow the proper procedure. I should point out that in L.A. County, they don't use machines at the polling place to actually count votes. When you vote, you fill in bubbles on a sheet of paper using a special pen, in what they call the "InkaVote" system. It's a lot like the old punchcard ballots, except it's supposed to fix the "hanging chad" problem. This year, they introduced ballot scanning machines at the polling places, as an experiment. In the future they might use this for the actual count, but in this election they were only used to detect over-votes, which is where you vote for too many people for the same seat.
Because this was experimental, putting one's ballot through the scanning machine was entirely optional: there's a slot in the box where you can deposit your ballot directly. In the polling place I visited, they couldn't get the machine to work, but they over-reacted. Instead of having people cast a normal ballot and just put it in the "manual" slot, they had people vote what's called a "provisional ballot." That's not quite right, because with a provisional ballot the registrar later verifies the legitimacy of the ballot, which introduces delay and a chance of the vote not being counted.
It was clear that this was an honest mistake, and someone from the county came in and got the machine going after seven provisional ballots had been cast, so I didn't point out the error - I didn't want to challenge the authority of the supervisor, since I was just there to observe and document. I did ask if anyone would care to speak on-camera about the confusion. One of the pollworkers piped up with "I'll tell 'em the machine is broken!" Based on that, I got my first video report for Video the Vote.
I also did call into a hotline to make sure what the right procedure was. They notified the registrar, and I actually got a call back from the county about half an hour later. I assume they did tell the supervisor in the polling place that the proper procedure was to vote a normal ballot, and not a provisional one, so in the end the right thing happened.
At the next polling place I visited, I ran into another Video the Vote volunteer. After talking a bit, we found out that we both had lived in Boulogne-Billancourt, which is a suburb just west of Paris. She grew up there, and went to elementary school about two hundred meters from where my apartment would later be. In '92, when I was living there after having graduated from UC Berkeley, she was going to UC Berkeley for undergrad. Small world! Compton is a pretty unlikely place to run into someone like this.
My next call came in, rudely interrupting me while I was having a lovely chat with an older gentleman who was the poll supervisor in a church. It seemed that there was an incident with a missing polling place.
When I got there, it was clear after about 20 seconds that the real problem was the over-reaction of a fellow volunteer, who I'll call R. She was actually with a Santa Monica-based group that was doing poll monitoring without video cameras. We had an arrangement where VTV people would be called in if there was something worth videoing.
There were two voters who claimed that their assigned polling place wasn't there, so they found this other polling place. If you go to the wrong polling place, you're always allowed to cast a provisional ballot, which is what they did. They were a little upset at their missing polling place, but it didn't seem like an overly big deal. R. was very energetic, and excitedly complained about a "lack of cooperation" from the supervisor of the polling place. That struck me as odd, since I had earlier visited this place, and everyone was very nice to me and entirely cooperative. R. seemed to be intent to get documentation (including video documentation) of the great wrong that had been committed, but by the time I got there the actual voters had cast their provisional ballots, and weren't terribly interested in being Internet movie stars.
We went to the address the two voters had been given, and as soon as I got there I recognized it as the first polling place I had gone to at 7 AM, when it opened. It was there. Thing is, it was a church whose entrance was around the back, with a storefront on the actual street, and I guess the voters didn't take a moment to walk around looking for the door with the American flags on it. In other words, it was a simple misunderstanding, and the back-up system of voting provisionally at another polling place worked perfectly.
I went back to the polling place where R. had gotten everybody upset, and spent a good 45 minutes talking to everybody to smooth things over - the last thing we want is to antagonize pollworkers! It turns out that R. had been quite insistent on wanting to take pictures of the polling place (and had been denied) - this is a BIG no-no that was a part of our training - if you run around taking pictures of people voting, that can in itself be a form of voter intimidation! This particularly polling place was at a YWCA, and they have very strong rules about taking pictures on their premises, which is totally legitimate. Poor lady! They volunteer their office to let people vote, and they get someone stomping in and making demands against their policy. Sigh.
I did fill out a report, and talked to some of the VTV people. Hopefully there will be improvements next time around to avoid this kind of thing. However, people do get passionate about voting, so I guess a certain amount of misunderstanding is inevitable.
My next non-event happened as it was getting toward lunchtime. A pollworker in South-Central called into a hotline, saying that there was a "threatening security guard" intimidating people in front of the polling place. Compton is about 15/20 minutes southeast of South-Central, so it took a bit to get there. By then, he was no longer there, and the pollworker said he had been told that the guy worked at a local school, and had been there for years. So, no harm no foul: just a false alarm.
I went back to Compton and got some BBQ beef rip tips at the place next to the YWCA I had been eyeing. Just as I was getting ready to start eating, the phone rang again, with a report of the security guard being back. He was "flashing his handcuffs" and "brandishing his badge." It was beginning to sound a little ridiculous, but since nothing much was happening in Compton, I figured "What the heck?" I drove back to South-Central, and parked across the street from the polling place with my camera at the ready. I felt like Jim Rockford on a stakeout, though I found myself wishing I had a slightly less messy lunch.
I did see the threatening security guard. Did I say threatening? I meant to say "unassuming" - a slight, bald guy in his fifties standing around and chatting with two crosswalk guards is what I saw. He did stroll over in front of the polling place, but I was never even tempted to take a picture. After all, it was just a guy who was obviously a little bored, stretching his legs. The pollworker guy called me from in front of the polling place (from where I could see him), and asked if I had gotten "evidence". I pretty much said "of what?", and the pollworker guy got a little angry at me for not taking pictures.
I figured that since I was there anyway, I'd ask around, so I talked to the crossing guards. Yep, this guy worked at a magnet school a couple of doors down, and he had been there for years, Yep, he walks around, but they've never seen him do anything threatening. However, there was a guy who did bother them: this kooky pollworker who seemed to get all bent out of shape by this security guard.
Just to close the loop, I knocked on the door of the school, and the security guard answered. We pretty much had a laugh at the whole thing. Yeah, he had a badge on his belt, and he did have handcuffs in his pocket, which I assume is standard issue for an LAUSD school security guard. It turns out that the parking lot for the school is around the other side of the poll entrance, so he did walk by the polling entrance as part of his normal beat. He also usually stands near there to greet the parents as they come to pick up their kids.
To tell you the truth, I felt pretty good about the whole thing. It was kind of fun talking to they guy, and spending 30 minutes learning the life of a school security guard in South-Central.
After that I headed back toward Compton, and I got a call about another event. Traffic got bad, so by the time I got there my colleague from Boulogne-Billancourt had been there, and it all got resolved. It had something to do with the correct procedure if the scanning machine actually does detect an overvote.
She asked if it was a good idea to stay around Compton after dark - it was about 4:30 by then. I hadn't thought about that, but she had a point. If we had been uncovering massive voter fraud and hour-long lines it might have been a different matter, but we encountered a pretty smoothly functioning system with at most a couple of people in line. She also had talked to a pollworker about a little bit of resentment at our presence. It's kind of natural, maybe: We were mostly all white, coming in to a poor neighborhood. It's also not the safest place to be after dark (though I must say I never felt threatened in any way the whole time I was there).
Anyway, we decided to call it a day. I'm a bit saddened that this was our conclusion, because it again demonstrates how much race and socioeconomic level still matter. I also think that this is instructive: Video the Vote should really do an affirmative action outreach. It's just like the police, really: An organization is more effective if it better reflects the community it serves. I think an ideal combination would be to pair people up, with at least one of the pair being from the community being served. If we had run into anything truly confrontational, this could have been a help.
After I drove home and voted myself, I got a final call from South of where I live, by where the Toyota headquarters are. It seems that there had been some confusion about the scanning machines again, and a bit of an argument between a voter and the polling place supervisor, so she called in. I offered to come down and video her story.
What happened is that they never got the machine working in this particular polling place. In L.A. County that's not a big deal since the InkaVote system is the real way votes are counted, but with all the controversy about hackable Diebold machines and other voting irregularities, it's understandable that someone would be concerned about this. As far as I can work out, the voter got a little excited and insistent, and the poll supervisor reacted in a rather high-handed and autocratic manner.
At first the poll manager mistook me from someone from the county - I wasn't trying to give that impression, but when you walk around with a clipboard and act like you know what you're doing, people make a lot of assumptions I guess! Anyway, he was really eager to tell his (clearly slanted) side of the story, right up until I figured out the mistake he was making, and explained that "Video the Vote" (which was written on my nametag) was a private poll monitoring organization. At that, he became really defensive and uncooperative. I really believe that his insecurity lead him to bully this particular voter somewhat, though as far as I could tell nothing was formally out of order, and everyone voted OK.
Anyway, this was when I got my second video:
I think she felt listened to, which was good, and I did write up the whole thing in a report. That report should eventually make it to the person who supervises the poll manager in question, so hopefully some good will come of it.
I guess I didn't singlehandedly save democracy, in that I learned about and documented exactly zero significant irregularities. I'm really glad I did volunteer for this, though. Poll monitoring is one of those "just in case" kinds of things, where the best outcome is if nothing happens.
It was also really fun and rewarding buzzing all over town with a clipboard and a video camera, spending the day talking to people. I think this kind of thing is good for community solidarity, and my comments about affirmative action notwithstanding, I think it's really great to get people from one part of town to do something of value in another. There's also a certain inspirational quality to seeing and experiencing democracy in action. Every single pollworker I encountered (except maybe the panicky guy who's afraid of school security guards) was trained, competent, and dedicated, and everyone I met was doing their best to carry out a smooth election. You see people in schools, in churches, and in all kinds of other community buildings. The system isn't perfect and there are glitches, but as long as it's pursued in good faith, the system does work. I'm glad to report that in L.A. county at least, it appears that the system is pursued in good faith.
It's funny - because I was running around all day, I actually had no idea how the elections were turning out. When I got home around 8 PM and turned on the TV, it turned out there was another delightful surprise in store! As a Video the Vote volunteer I very much put myself into a non-partisan frame of mind, but when I got home I was able to return to my "throw the bastards out" political convictions of this particular election. Go Nancy!