Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Diary of a Poll Watcher--Hickory Hill, Memphis, TN

Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2008

So I volunteered to be a poll watcher for the Shelby County Democratic Party assigned to the precinct voting at the community center in Hickory Hill. A predominantly African American area, Hickory Hill has a very bad reputation as being the scene of many shooting, gang murders and kick-in-the-door burglary home invasions. Around the corner from the Community center is the now empty Hickory Hill Shopping Mall, the most fashionable in town during the 70's. After the white flight of the 90's the area went almost wholly African American with the subsequent decline in property values and destruction of a viable economic base for the Mall.
So I was surprised when I finally found the Community Center. It is a big new building attached to an impressively lavish Junior High School. Such is the largess of our Mayor Willy Herrington and the city council. Not that they do not need or for that matter deserve a nice facility, it is just that I was surprised. It was not what I expected at all.
The discovery of the location of this center was more difficult than I thought it would be as it is located off the road behind the school and a major suburban police hub, the origin of many Blue Crush operations. Blue Crush operations are saturation efforts by the City of Memphis police with raids on known gang operations and crack houses, road blocks to check identifications and search cars if reasonable suspicion exists for contraband or whatever and anything else the city can detect of an off color variety.
So when I finally arrived at the Polling station at 6:45 in the morning, the Poll captain and the Polling judges were already hard at work setting up and getting the art room ready to serve as a voting place. By 7:00 there was already a long line at the door waiting to begin. When we opened there was a rush, a clamor of voices and a clicking of keyboards.
Everything is now Diebold computerized. The voting rolls are now located in a sweet little computerized touch screen contraption about 10 inches square. These have the capacity to contain the entire voting roster for a precinct as well as being able to detect any voter who has registered but who needs to go to the correct polling place to vote elsewhere.
And so it began.
I have never seen such a wild variety of folks, especially such a wild variety of the morbidly obese. Seemingly, every fourth person was gigaplump. Many of these gianormous women had infants in their arms and were very hard pressed to manage the process. Every now and again one of us poll watchers were pressed into service holding a sleeping babe while the mom wrestled with the Diabold monster.

I was one of three white persons in the poll. There was a Poll captain who looked to be a retired woman in her late 60's who was more than competent in her knowledge of how the polls worked and what the regulations were. This, she assured me, was not her first time around this particular block.

There was a young man who looked to be about 35, a runner by the looks of his lithe self. He managed the allocation of people to the machines and handed out the plastic cards used to start the voting machine and terminate the voting process. He also seem to be unusually confident and competent.

Then there was your's truly, an aging college professor on the lamb from teaching for the day. Now I have also been around this particular block several times, so I know what is expected and what is not expected. The job of a Poll watcher is to act as a representative of one of the parties or a state agency to oversee the voting process ensuring that everything goes as expected and that no one is turned away from the process without being sent to the correct voting poll or given the opportunity to vote on a provisional ballot. We were always on the lookout for efforts to suppress the vote by the Repugs, but none showed up until the very last moment. And by then our 539 voters had come and gone.

It was really a pitiful turnout given the enormity of the opportunity to vote for an African American for President and a number of African American office holders seeking re-election and would be office holders. Even the Poll judges were shocked by the poor African American turnout which seemed to be endemic across Memphis. The Obama office was frantic all day about wanting volunteers to come into headquarters to man the phone banks to call voters to get out the vote.

It was amazing to discover how many of the voters were first time voters, who even though they were in their 40's or 50's had never darkened a voting booth in their lives. Many of these had been turned out by Obama's remarkable ground game which registered over a million new voters. The only problem is that this effort continued well into October and the registration forms had often not been entered into the servers located at the Election Commission. So these first time voters were nonplussed when they arrived to vote and were told they were not in the system. This was very unsettling to them, and they frequently tried to bolt. But we had a number of African American poll watcher volunteers from the NAACP who captured them in the hall way and convinced them to continue with the program.

In retrospect, it is important to say that this experience as a poll watcher in this poor black precinct was unsettling. The marks of misery, the marks of woe, as William Blake would have said in his poem, "London," were evident in every face I saw yesterday. There were very few individuals who were dressed for work, or for that matter dressed in anything but the most comfortable house lounging costumes. How some of them were able to squeeze their elephantine selves into these little tight fitting pants and tops was heroic to imagine. One woman looked as if she had four breasts. Then I realized that she was just wearing a bra five or six sizes too small so that her breasts bulged out amazingly. There were an unusual number of young black men, unusual I was told by one of the black judges because in the years that he had done this civic duty he had seldom seen young black men voting. These were for the most part very ordinary guys, though there were exceptions. Several young men looked as if they could be models, as they were exceptionally handsome and knew it. Missing were the tattooed wonders or the muscled gym rats I see every now and again at the Malls. So too were missing black fathers with their wives and children. Mostly it was young women with children. But then presumably these fathers were out working and could not accompany their families to the voting place. Or perhaps they had voted early, who can say?

I did not see any improprieties so I was spared the drama. The only mishap we saw was when a woman invited her adult daughter to help her in the voting booth. Now this can be done, but the Judges have to be notified, and sometimes there is paperwork required, especially if the helper is pressing the buttons for the disabled voter. Unhappily this woman had not notified the judges so they intervened and asked the daughter to step away. The mother was so disconcerted by this that she terminated her voting process by just clicking through the ballot. She did vote. Only later did we learn that she was illiterate or could not see and really needed help. This caused some hard feelings for the voter, but our NAACP representative worked hard to smooth over the situation so all seemed to be copasetic at the end.

The last hour was hectic only in our having to sort out where voters had to go to vote properly. At 6:45 I had to rush a voter over to a different polling place several miles away as she was at the wrong voting place. So I bundled her and her family into my car and careened us to the correct voting place. We got there just as the poll was closing and she and her young son were able to vote for the first time.

So at 7:30 I peddled home to watch the returns with my wife and enjoy a late supper. Though Tennessee went for McCain/Pailn Obama pulled a major upset, for which we are all very proud and pleased. I had been fearful that the dirty tricks of the Repugs might resurface and produce a stolen election yet again. I don't think I could have stood seeing that Palin woman on TV basking in the glory of the Vice Presidency. She is truely a fearful grasping con man, a grifter someone called her.
Were she to be VP I swear she'd see to it that McCain perished just so she could take his chair. I am heartily glad she has been sent back to Alaska with her $150,000 trunk of clothing. Hopefully she will not return anytime soon.

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