Voting in the Rain

In one of the poorest corners of America, voters turned out in droves

Early tallies from the polls show the city is poised to break its prior record. Handwritten posters for each of the city's 16 voting precincts are taped to the walls, noting the number of registered voters, turnout percentage in the 2000 election, and current tallies. At 10 a.m., many precincts are already close to matching their total votes in the last presidential election. Voters are waiting more than an hour in the rain to complete the lengthy and awkward punch-card ballots.

Jonathan Lange, a community organizer from Baltimore, arrived in East Cleveland in early October with about a dozen other activists. Joined by local residents, they knocked on the doors of some 5,000 households, along the way recruiting about 250 local volunteers like Alexander and Jackson. "We offer a simple message," says Lange. "As long as you don't vote, there is no reason for people to pay attention to you."

Raw politics is also driving the turnout. For both Democrats and Republicans, Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, East Cleveland, and surrounding communities, is a decisive battleground within a battleground, a place where the national election could well be decided. For Democrats, the task is to make the metropolitan area, along with cities such as Akron and Toledo, produce enough votes to offset Republican majorities elsewhere in the state, pushing Ohio's 20 electoral votes into Kerry's column.

Peggy Allen, 63, casts her first vote.
photo by Lynn Ischay
Peggy Allen, 63, casts her first vote.

Republicans have been pushing in the opposite direction. There are few Bush votes in the east-side wards and East Cleveland; many precincts logged Bush votes in the single digits in 2000. Instead, the GOP's job is to limit the turnout. To that end, Republican operatives have publicly declared that thousands of 140,000 new county voters are bogus, a claim disputed by both local newspapers and voter registration groups. To fend off potential fraud, Republicans vowed to place an army of some 3,600 challengers in "vulnerable" polling places. A federal judge ruled against the GOP, saying that such challengers posed a threat of intimidation. Even the state's Republican secretary of state, an African American named J. Kenneth Blackwell, said he would bar the challengers. Only a last-minute decision by an appeals court allowed each party to place a single challenger in each polling place.

There has already been one violent skirmish over the issue. A few days before the election, representatives of ACORN tried to deliver a letter of complaint to the offices of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party on Superior Avenue. A tussle erupted, with both sides claiming assault by the other.

Afterward, the doors to the Republican offices were kept locked against another potential enemy invasion, with a pair of volunteers assigned to stand guard. On the day before the election, the offices were a series of chaotic, smoke-filled rooms. A Republican operative from New York, a veteran of the GOP shutdown of the Miami-Dade vote recount in 2000, said that the challengers would aggressively confront suspected fraud. There would be "flying squads" of Bush supporters keeping watch at polls where Democrats were expected to have people vote two or three times. And there was another tactic sure to dampen Democratic enthusiasm, he said. "Rain."

On Election Day, however, the vaunted GOP juggernaut never emerges. At the Superior School on Garfield Road on East Cleveland's south side, a pair of white Republicans stand warily across the street from the polling place, huddled under a single umbrella, watching, but not approaching, the scores of voters streaming into the polling place. Inside the school's gymnasium-turned-polling place, the GOP is absent as well.

Democrats are standing up and down the block, occasionally straying well inside the legal 100-foot distance from the polling place. Closer in is a ring of nonpartisan election advisers, most of them white, wearing disposable plastic ponchos over black vests proclaiming the right to vote. Most have been recruited by Election Protection, the coalition created by People for the American Way and other groups, in response to the Florida fiascos in 2000.

As it turns out, bureaucratic snafus at the local election board are a bigger obstacle than Republican mischief. Many people are told they must vote by provisional ballots, which are subject to later challenge and won't be counted, under state law, until 11 days after the election. Demetrius McKissick, 43, a laboratory worker wearing green scrubs, comes out of the polling place and stands smoldering with anger in the rain. "They say they have me listed as deceased. I said, 'Well you can see I'm right here.' I've been through this three times in past elections and they never get it straight."

Patrick Griffin, 22, an organizer from Baltimore who is working with the group at Concord Baptist, pulls a cell phone from under his poncho and calls a hotline number for the Board of Elections. Patiently, he relays McKissick's date of birth and polling information. After hanging up, he tells McKissick that he should be able to vote, but at another precinct. McKissick shakes his head. "That's not right. But I'll be voting today, don't worry. You can count on that."

Griffin jots the board's number down for the Election Protection lawyers, the rain smearing the blue ink as quickly as he writes. The lines have diminished but a steady stream of voters keeps filing inside. April Youngblood, 39, skips out of the polling place, announcing that this is the first time she has ever voted. "I never wanted to before," she explains. "I was four years old in Alabama and I saw my grandfather lynched because he tried to vote. I always was afraid that voting would hurt someone."

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