PermaLinkWhat I Did On Election Day, and How It Felt At 11 PM
08:21:16 PM

I don't think I had ever really, truly experienced pandemonium before. I had seen it on TV, but never actually been in the middle of it.


I have experienced and reacted to many wonderful things in my life, and of course a few stand alone without any possible comparison to anything else. The best of those moments have been shared with family, of course, but last night I shared such a moment with a few hundred people, most of whom I had only known for a few days, weeks, or months.


It felt good. It was, for a moment or two, totally overwhelming. It felt like a huge weight was lifted off my back. At first I didn't understand why. It took a while to figure it out.


Late last night, I promised "more later", with the intention of telling the story of my day. Here it is. It's a bit long.


My day began at 4:55 AM, after about 3.5 hours of sleep. That's more than a lot of the people I spent the day with had gotten. Some had not slept at all.


I was due at the Ward 9 polling place here in Nashua at 5:30 AM. It's only a mile from my house, so there was no rush. I met up with the party's ward captain, who gave me a letter of credentials that allowed me to be a poll-checker. Officially, I was a "challenger" -- entitled to stand behind the clerks who checked voters against registration rolls. The presence of challengers from both major parties is intended to safeguard the electoral process. It also provides an opportunity to collect information. Some people feel that this is some sort of infringement on their privacy at the polls, as challengers are able to see party affiliation information information that is printed in the registration books, and are also able to observe who has voted and who has not. Whatever the merits of their objections, challengers are allowed by law to be there and are required only to observe the reasonable rules established by the Moderator at the polling place. Only two people complained within my earshot, and one only complained that she felt we were standing too close to the clerks -- and we never heard anything about it from the Moderator so I presume we were ok.


I will not go into a lot of detail here about what was done with the information that we collected. All I'll say is that we had a system for getting that information into the campaign's central servers, and that it was a good thing we had a backup system in place and people equipped to use that backup! Although it is possible that the failure of the primary system might have been caused by some sort of deliberate mischief, I tend to doubt it even though there is local precedent for some pretty serious mischief.


Turnout was very, very heavy. I've been told that 84% of registered voters in Nashua cast their votes -- and I can attest to the fact that at least 400, and perhaps as many as 500 new registrations were taken during the day in Ward 9 alone. Yes, we do allow same-day voter registration here in New Hampshire. That suggests that our voter registration rolls increased by 6 to 8% on election day.


Anyhow, the heavy turnout was definitely heavily weighted to the morning shift. The line was unrelenting for the first several hours. We got off to a bit of a rough start because the attorney assigned to our ward, who was responsible for introducing our team to the election Moderator, got lost in the fog and arrived only a few minutes before the polls opened. Then, when we went inside, we realized that our binders with voter registration lists were not properly organized, and I was still organizing mine when the first voters were allowed in.


For much of the first 45 minutes, I was playing catchup trying to get the book organized, and also trying to figure out how best to do my job without getting in anyone's way -- including my GOP counterpart standing next to me. After we did the first hand-off to our runner, however, at which point I was given a properly organized book, I had the routine down pretty well. I kept at it, with only one brief break, until the first scheduled shift change.


I was supposed to work all three shifts at the polls: as a poll-checker in the morning, as a runner across the mid-day, and as a checker in the late afternoon until an hour before the polls closed. Due to the failure of the primary system for posting data, and the fact that I was not equipped to use the backup, I instead left the polling site during the mid-day shift and went to the large warehouse building that was serving as our campaign's staging point for canvassers. I went there to work as a driver. I've done a lot of driving shifts for the campagin over the past two months.


Being a local with 25 years living in Nashua makes me pretty useful as a driver for canvassers who came up on buses, or for voters who needed a ride to the polls. Having a GPS helped, too. The buses, however, never arrived yesterday. They've been coming up regularly, some sponsored by the Democratic student groups at univiertities, some sponsored by Senator Kerry's campaign, and some sponsored by unions. We had been expecting 11 bus-loads on election day, and our local organizers were perplexed when they didn't arrive, but we later surmised that the buses had to have been diverted elsewhere -- probably to the other congressional district in the state. Our numbers in polls and early returns were looking very good, and the House race in the other district was much closer than it was in ours, so it was a sensible decision -- though I kind of wonder why they didn't call to ask that we send our drivers over as well.


Anyhow, I ended up only driving one trip, to take a canvasser to our main campaign office after she had finished her route. She was a delightful woman, in her upper 70s, who had walked a long canvassing route in the morning, and wanted to go to the headquarters to do more work for the rest of the day. We had a short but very interesting talk during the eight minute drive.


That's one of the things I'm going to remember most about this whole experience as a campaign volunteer for the last few months. I've met such a wide variety of people, young and very young, old and very old, and pretty much everywhere in-between... and they have been such an interesting bunch! I am definitely not, despite appearances when I'm in my professional circle of comfort, a particularly social person -- but sharing a common dedication to a cause is a pretty good start on getting to know someone. And maybe, after many years, I've finally really come out of my shell.


I returned to the polls for my next poll-watching shift beginning at 3 PM, and things went very smoothly through the afternoon. Turnout was steady, but nowhere near the rush level we had seen in the morning. By 5 PM I guessed from the check-marks in the books that turnout was probably over 70%. There was a bit of an up-tick in the lines after 5 PM, but not as much as I expected. The only reason I took a brief break during this shift was that the temperature in the room had gone up considerably, and I needed to go outside to cool off -- and hang out with the placard-waving "visibility team" and raid their supply of water bottles


Shortly before 6 PM, our ward captain brought word that the "higher ups" had decided to suspend our poll-watching at 6 PM instead of going until 7. We were asked to return to the staging site for a new assignment, which turned out to be going to the downtown office a mile away to canvass using one of the "re-visit" sheets, which listed addresses where canvassers had not made any contact during the day, and where the resident had not yet been recorded as having voted. I have not done any door-to-door canvassing during the campaign because I don't want a repeat of the peroneal tendonitis that I got while pounding the pavement for John Kerry in 2004, but I agreed to drive a woman -- a new citizen, born in Moscow and now Massachusetts resident who works in New Hamsphire, but who doesn't know the area very well, who decided on the spur of the moment to stop in and volunteer. It turned out that our route covered a street at the very edge of the city that very few residents would even know exists, but it happened to have been one of the streets that I had canvassed for Kerry! So what the heck... there were only a few "re-visit" addresses on the street, so I did walk and knock on doors with my assigned partner after all.


After we completed the route, I dropped my co-canvasser off at the downtown HQ, and I went home to grab something to eat and change clothes. Then it was off to the Nashua Democratic Party victory celebration at a local hotel.


The room was crowded with campaign organizers, volunteers, and various local elected officials. CNN was on a big screen. New Hampshire was called by CNN shortly after I got into the room, setting off a big cheer. They also called our Senate and Governor races very early. The bar line was very, very long. Pennsylvania was the first "big" call, and what ensued was more of a roar than a cheer. We got word that both our Democratic candidates for the House had won. Ohio was called around 9:30, and there was another roar. We amused ourselves by wondering whether Arizona and Missouri might actually turn blue, and by cheering the news on various Senate races -- especially Kay Hagan's defeat of Elizabeth Dole, and by cheering for local candidates whose victorious returns had come in.


I can't remember when Colorado was called, but by 10:30 the Obama-Biden ticket was sitting at 207 electoral votes according to CNN's projections. California plus pretty much anything would be enough to reach the required threshold of 270, and everyone in the room (except for perhaps a few who drank too much, too early) knew it. Most knew that CNN (and all the other networks) would make their formal call at 11 PM, when the California polls closed. Virginia and Florida would be gravy. Indiana and North Carolina, if we won them, would be extra gravy. The only question was how big the margin would be. I told people that the two things I cared about most at that point was whether Obama would break 350, and whether the returns in the Georgia Senate would shift against Chambliss. And, oh yeah, it would be cool if Al Franken could hold on for the win in Minnesota. Still, I wasn't celebrating yet, and neither was anyone else.


CNN did a hokey little countdown just before 11, and inside of 5 seconds before the hour I saw that the bottom of the screen updated from showing 207 electoral votes for Obama-Biden to 220, which told me that Virgina had been called and I shouted something like "We got Virginia! Where's California", and then the full-screen announcement came on. CNN was projecting Obama-Biden with at least 297 electora votes, and this is where the aforementioned pandemonium broke out.


I know that my arms shot upward. I know that I made a sound. I don't think it consisted of any acutal words, but I'm sure it was quite a loud sound, though I never heard it over the explosion all around me. I'm not sure if my feet left the floor, or not. I do know that I very briefly doubled over and put my hands to my face. I know that my hands were not quite dry when I pulled them away to look up at the screen. I tried to see what states CNN had actually called, but the scene had switched to the crowd in Chicago. My attention switched back to the scene around me, and as I joined into the chant of "Yes we did! Yes we did!..." that broke out, I also started exchanging high-fives, emphatic handshakes and hugs with the people around me. I saw others who doubled over momentarily with their hands to their face, too, and I saw tears and smiles.


I sought out the field organizers that I worked with. I don't intend to, but I sometimes refer to them as "the kids" because they are so young. They've never seemed to mind. They truly are great kids, and they did great work on this campaign. We hugged, and rounds of "Thank you", "No. Thank you", "No. Thank you" ensued.


What was this all about? Why the raw emotion over a Presidential election?


Well... there are lots of reasons. Part of it was the fact that we had been holding it in. Everyone who was following the electoral math, and that was probably most of us, knew at the point that Ohio was called that it was all but hopeless for Senator McCain. He would need a clean sweep of all the "battleground" states from that point on in order to win, and it wasn't going to happen, but nobody was ready to jump the gun on the celebration. For some reason, despite the fact that they have no official standing whatsoever, it seems that CNN and the networks do play a gatekeeper role on whether you are allowed to celebrate victory. So, after holding in the celebration for 90 minutes, knowing full well that the race was already over, there was a lot to spill out.


But that doesn't quite do it as an explanation. That emotion was held in for a while doesn't explain the fact that it was there in the first place. I'm sure everyone had their own reasons for having invested so much emotion in this campaign. I can only really speak for my own. My kids, and "the kids" are the biggest parts of it for me.


It should be obvious why I mention my kids. Many of those of you who favored John McCain did so for your kids benefit, too. We've come to opposite conclusions, but our motivation is the same. There's something for me in this election with respect to my kids, however, that goes beyond what motivates most other people. I have a daughter who, Like Barack Obama, is bi-racial. In the last 18 years, I've had a great deal more awareness of racial issues than I ever had before, and I have seen sure signs that racial divisions are becoming far less relevant in society, and especially so for kids. The same seems to be true of some, but not all, cultural divisions. Still, I have developed a heightened awareness of the fact that divisions are still there, that there are people who exploit them shamelessly, and that there are many barriers yet to be broken. As this campaign progressed, I could not ignore the fact that supporters of the McCain campaign, abetted or tolerated by people within the campaign, were more than willing to exploit racial and cultural divisions. Committing as much time as possible to supporting Barack Obama therefore became a very personal matter for me. From my perspective, Barack Obama looks more like the future that I envision my children experiencing than John McCain does, and elements of his campaign tried to exploit and increase racial and cultural misunderstandings, which is the exact opposite of what is best for my kids, and for the country.


And finally, there are "the kids" in the campaign. Way back in the early 80s, when I was a kid close to the age that the young field organizers who put all their energy into this campaign are now, a wave of apathy swept through the youth of America, especially through the youth who were pre-disposed to be sympathetic to the Democratic party. Although far from being apathetic myself, I had plenty of opportunities to become involved in political campaigns back then, but I never did it. Now I see a wave of kids getting involved, and I don't want to see it go to waste. It's good for democracy, and good for the country. As I was making my way out of the party last night, I stopped ot talk to one of the field organizers, and I told her that, in a sense, I saw her and the other organizers as reversing a failure of my own generation -- one I saw happening long ago, but didn't try to counter myself. I felt like I had a responsbility to help assure that these kids didn't fall into disillusionment and apathy, and I took on the mission of working hard for the campaign in order to help avoid that.


So, that's why there was a flood of emotion at 11 PM last night. Yes, we support Barack because we believe in his abilities and we believe that his positions are the right ones, but for me it definitely wasn't just the success of the campaign or the incredible milestone of Barack Obama's achievement that built up inside and released at 11 PM. There was personal investment for me, in doing what was right for my kids, and in helping "the kids" undo the apathy that my own generation was guilty of creating. The intensity of that investment poured out when it was finally over. From the outpouring that I saw, I'm sure plenty of other people had one or two strong reasons of their own for feeling deeply personal investment in the campaign, too.

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Comments :v

1. Kevin Pettitt11/06/2008 11:26:34 AM
Homepage: http://www.lotusguru.com


Nice post Richard. Thanks for sharing, and for all the hard work "gettin' it did"




2. Eric Leventhal Arthen11/10/2008 01:10:22 PM


Good post, Rich, both the details about campaign work on election day and your clear description of why it matters to you. That resonates for me too.

-Eric
'83




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