Voting in the Rain

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

It is the first time for many in East Cleveland. On Shaw Avenue, lined with battered two-family homes and vacant lots, there is a traffic jam of cars at the entrance to the parking lot of Chambers Elementary School, another polling site. People are still lined up outside the library, which is serving as a polling place for three precincts. A cluster of lawyers and volunteers greets the voters, urging them to come back out and report any problems, especially if they are told they must vote by provisional ballot. Victor Smukler, a volunteer attorney from New York, stands in the gathering dark of the parking lot in the steady rain. "This has been a beautiful sight, all day long," he says.

Trampling feet have turned the ground around the library into a moat of mud and water. Someone has tossed a red carpet over the muck, but it's a sopping mess as well. Inside the library, stacks of books have been piled up to make way for the voting booths and the inspectors' tables. A banner along the wall reads: "You are the author of your own life story."

A pair of young men in full hip-hop regalia—baggy pants and sideways caps—enter the room and ask where to vote. They are greeted by an energetic balding man named James Anderson, an election inspector at this polling place since 1992. Anderson forms a megaphone with his hands and yells out to the crowded room: "Listen up, we have another pair of first-time voters. What do we do for first-time voters?" On cue, the election workers and the observers break into hoots and applause. The two young men look startled and embarrassed. "We're not trying to embarrass you," Anderson assures them. "We're doing this to show how proud we are."

Sandra Allen, 44, is also casting her first ballot. Voting is part of what she calls "getting my life back together," along with landing a new job as a home health care aide and going back to school. She persuaded her ailing, homebound parents, who have also never voted, to register as well. She says she was assured that they would be allowed to vote at home if they can't make it to the polling booth.

That's correct, but amid the huge turnout, tromping through the rain to bring the vote to a pair of homebound elderly isn't something election officials are eager to do. Rob English, a volunteer from Maryland who has spent the day running interference for those experiencing problems, tells Allen to wait. As soon as the polls close, a pair of election inspectors will accompany them to the house, which is a couple of blocks away and take her parents' votes. "Just don't leave," English tells her. "They're hoping you'll just go home."

"I'm not going anywhere," Allen says, planting herself in a chair. "I'll sit right here."

The last voters are pulled in the door at 7:30 p.m. Election inspector Stewart Gibson, an 80-year-old reverend, sighs aloud. "We did more business today than we ever did," he says. The total count for the three precincts at the school is 1,318; fewer than 800 voted here in 2000.

Sandra Allen waits as the polling place is disassembled and waits some more as inspectors pull the punch-card ballots from a lockbox and count them. At 8:30, English and a local attorney, Robert Davis, persuade a young election official, Tonya Butler, to take Allen's parents' votes. Butler collects the big voter-registration book, a pair of punch-card ballots, and two young high school students who are serving as first-time election workers.

Followed by a troupe of observers, they walk out through the parking lot and around the corner, down a windblown, leaf-covered street to Allen's parents' house, with its peeling paint and sagging deck. Inside, her parents are finishing their dinner. Earl Allen, 70, was a tool and dye maker before cataracts took his sight away and diabetes crippled his legs and arms. Across from him, Peggy Allen, 63, sits in a wheelchair explaining that a stroke has left her incapacitated on her right side. Why hasn't she ever voted? "I just never did," she says. Still, she and her husband are certain about their voting preferences. "If you want to vote for George W. Bush, put your marker here," Butler explains. "Unh, unh," interrupts Peggy Allen. "Democrat!" says her husband when his turn come. "I vote Democrat." Victor Smukler, the New York attorney, leads the applause when the two first-time voters are finished. "It makes me feel good," says a delighted-looking Peggy Allen. "Like I did something for the country."

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