Voting in the Rain

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

EAST CLEVELAND, OHIO—On Election Day in Ohio, a group of church-going people concerned with basic moral values and their nation's well-being have assembled in the basement of their house of worship to try and help elect a president. There is Gladys Alexander, 75, a slim elderly woman with her gray hair tucked under a beige hat, who has spent the past week knocking on her neighbors' doors and urging them to get out to vote. On Election Day morning, in the pouring rain, she was out before dawn greeting voters at the polls. Now she is back at Concord Baptist Church, a stately brick building surrounded by two-story homes and tall oaks, laughing with excitement and ready for further marching orders. "I never saw the polling places like that before in all my days," she says. "All the lines! It made me so proud." Just what was it that she hoped to accomplish, she is asked. "I want to live to see change in my country. I want to elect someone who is going to pay attention to communities like this one. Someone I can trust." Her face wrinkles in a frown. "And I am looking to get that guy, the one who is in there now, out."

If George W. Bush's election victory was won by masses of conservative, God-fearing voters in Ohio's rural and suburban communities, John Kerry's close bid came as a result of equally devout citizens like Alexander. Against even steeper odds, albeit in what would ultimately be a losing cause, they gave Bush strategist Karl Rove a tough run for his money throughout that dreary, rain-drenched Tuesday.

Alexander and her neighbors toil not in suburban affluence or small-town comfort, but in the ghettos of East Cleveland, a three-square-mile municipality with 27,000 residents adjoining Cleveland proper. Once the summer resort of John D. Rockefeller, East Cleveland's chief claim to fame today may be that it is even poorer than its far larger next-door neighbor, which in September was dubbed the poorest big city in America.

The little city of East Cleveland could match any measurement of urban misery. Last month it was forced to lay off 13 of its 49 police officers. This left just two patrol cars to prowl its violence-prone streets. Last year, the city laid off most of its paramedics. Street lights on many blocks are unlit; the city can't afford the utility bill. But that's nothing new. The city has been under a state-declared fiscal emergency since 1988. After 16 years, the term emergency hardly fits. It has become a way of life.

The root causes are no mystery: Industry shut down or left town in the wake of white flight in the 1960s, which left the city 97 percent African American. There have been self-imposed wounds as well. This year the former mayor was convicted of 22 counts of racketeering, including taking bribes from vendors. Before his conviction, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor was one of many city officials who weren't even paying their property taxes, the city's main source of revenue. More than 30 percent of the city's properties are tax delinquent.

In most elections, the city musters less than a third of its 16,000 registered voters. But this Election Day, the message in the streets is that the stakes are far higher. A group of local ministers has recruited organizers to help turn out the vote. Groups like America Coming Together, the unaffiliated but avowedly anti-Bush voter-mobilization project, have been roving the streets of East Cleveland and the adjoining neighborhoods of Cleveland's east side, registering voters, as have the activist group ACORN and the Service Employees International Union. The political-action arm of the government workers' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has agreed to pick up the cost of the get-out-the-vote effort at Concord Baptist.

In the church basement, Alexander sits across from Raymond Jackson, 48, an auto worker who had waited 25 minutes to vote at a senior citizens' center near his home. "I can tell you that never happened before," he laughs. His job starts at 2 p.m., but he has offered to drive through the neighborhoods to help "flush" voters to the polls.

Jackson grew up in nearby Hough, a Cleveland ghetto racked by deadly riots in 1966. "I remember the tanks going down the street," he says. Twenty years ago, in what was then a step up the ladder, he moved to East Cleveland. He said he had watched the neighborhood slide downhill around him. "At one point, East Cleveland was a good place to live. Now it's just a depressed community. It has no business base. The biggest problem is the school system. The solution would be to have Cleveland take it over, but they don't want us. They've got their own problems."

Jackson commutes 30 miles to his job at a DaimlerChrysler auto parts warehouse, where he is an official of the United Auto Workers. "It all starts with a job—if you've got one you can make it." He speaks with pride of his daughter, who obtained a master's degree in communications from Cleveland State University. "She's got the degree, but she can't get a job. I tell her she may just have to move somewhere else." His union affiliation and a sense of futility about his community have brought him to the church on Election Day. "I always vote Democratic, though I did vote for [Republican U.S. senator George] Voinovich. But I'm for Kerry. This country is going in the wrong direction."

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.

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."

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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