The Polling Place Grinch:
Election Day, 2008
by Jo Freeman
This was an historic election but it wasn't my usual election day. I didn't open my polling place at 6:00 a.m., or palmcard the early voters outside of the 100 foot no-electioneering boundary, or go door-to-door in the evening to remind those who had not yet voted to do so, or close the poll at 9:00 p.m. and take the results to a campaign headquarters where we would all count the returns and watch for the results.
Nor did I catch a bus to Pennsylvania as I had done in 2004. There were so many of us outsiders in the Philadelphia area that year that we tripped all over each other trying to knock on doors. I don't think I spoke to one person who was registered to vote but had not yet voted. I knew it would be worse this year.
I started this election day as an ordinary voter. I soon became an angry one.
Before I went to my polling place at Ditmus Jr. High in a borough of New York City, I listened to some radio chatter about posting photos of this historic election on the web. Good idea, I thought to myself, though I wasn't sure I wanted to post anything. This is an historic election. I should at least photograph my small slice of it, I said to myself. I dug out one of my lesser used digital cameras from the basement and put it into my pocket.
I've photographed polling places in the past, but not systematically. Indeed, only in 2006 I had taken photos inside the Ditmus gym where a dozen or so of New York City's ancient mechanical voting machines stood waiting for their levers to be pulled. Because I had worked that poll for so many years as a Democratic Party precinct captain, I knew the chief poll co-ordinator and most of the inspectors who processed each voter in front of their machines. When they ran into problems, they still asked me for advice.
As I rounded the corner a little after 7:00 a.m. I could see a long line of voters outside on the sidewalk. In almost 25 years I'd sometimes seen a line inside the gym, but never on the sidewalk. I took two shots of people waiting to enter Ditmus in front of a sign saying "Vote Here" written in four languages (the others were Spanish, Chinese and Korean).
I didn't want to wait in line forever just to take photographs, but I didn't want to bump the line to vote. I'll just go in and shoot, I thought to myself, and come back to vote later when it's less crowded. The people waiting in line needed to vote before going to work; I didn't.
Just inside the building door were three young people with clipboards. They were from the Asian American Legal Defense Fund doing a survey. I spoke to them later and found out that they were only surveying Asians, and only those who were willing to take the time to be questioned. It wasn't an exit poll, or even a random sample survey.
At the door from the hallway to the gym a monitor was directing people to the voting machine for their election district (E.D.). I squeezed pass without anyone questioning me. Once inside I saw that there were long lines in front of four or five machines. The rest had few or none. That left some empty space from which I could take a few photos. I took my camera out of my pocket and started to line up a shot of voters waiting in line which would also show the signs in back of the machines indicating that they were waiting to vote.
Immediately someone wearing a poll co-ordinator's nametag whom I didn't recognize came over to tell me that I couldn't take any photographs. I vote here, I explained to her, and I've taken photos here in past elections. She said I had to have written permission to take photos. Why? I said, very surprised. She couldn't tell me why, only that I couldn't take photos without permission. "Where's Ida?" I asked. Ida had been the chief poll co-ordinator most of the years I worked there. This co-ordinator said she didn't know her. I looked at the co-ordinators' table and saw no one I recognized.
We argued some more about whether I could take photos. I said this was public space and as someone who voted here I had a legitimate right to be in this space. In that public space I could take photos just as I could take notes or make a drawing of what I saw. The poll co-ordinator said she was taught in her class that no one could take photos without permission and an ID. She couldn't tell me from whom to get permission or what kind of ID I needed.
She finally called the resident cop to come over, probably hoping he would expel me. The officer said that I could take photos only if I were a member of the media. As a free-lance writer, I have a press card, but I hadn't brought it with me. I told the police officer that it was at home, and he told me to go get it. I knew I wasn't at that polling place as media, but if it would appease the cop...
Fortunately I live close by so was back in ten minutes. The cop examined my press card and told the co-ordinator it was OK. They both returned to their posts and once again I framed a shot.
My flash wouldn't fire. I looked at two photos on the review screen and realized that without a flash, I wouldn't get anything. I tried fiddling with the various buttons, but couldn't figure out what was wrong. Of course, I hadn't brought my manual with me. I went home again, found the manual, and identified my mistake. That problem solved, I hoped, I returned to Ditmus. Before I left home, I took my press card out of my coat pocket and put my camera manual in it. The line outside of Ditmus was gone by now, but there were still lines inside so I still had something to shoot that was different than the photos I took in 2006.
Just as I raised my camera, one of the inspectors sitting behind a table in front of a voting machine yelled at me, NO PHOTOGRAPHS. I went over and explained that I had already been cleared by the police officer. "They told us in our class that no one could take photographs" he insisted in a very loud voice so everyone could hear. Now it was my turn to ask the police officer for help. He told the guy that I was OK, then told me that I should wear my press card around my neck so it was visible to everyone. When I said I had left it at home — again — he told me to go get it.
The fourth time I entered that gym I had my press card hanging around my neck, my camera manual in my pocket and my camera in my hand. I showed my press pass — again — to the cop, and again tried to shoot a line of people from an open space. Within a couple minutes a second co-ordinator came up and told me that I couldn't take photographs. We went back to the police officer, but she would not accept his declaration that I was OK. She insisted on examining my press card closely, obviously looking for something she could find fault with. I told her that if she had a problem to phone the 44th A.D. district leader — the party official who picks the co-ordinators and who is my personal friend from years of Democratic Party work.
The cop said I could have fifteen minutes and then I had to leave. Fine, I said. I wasn't doing a big shoot. I just wanted a few commemorative photos of this historic day. I decided to go to the opposite side of the gym, which would put several dozen people between me and the co-ordinators and the cop and the loud-mouthed inspector.
On the other side of the gym I found friendly inspectors who must not have taken the same class; no one told me I couldn't take photographs. I introduced myself to some who had no line in front of their table and weren't checking any voters. One asked me to take her photo posed next to the machine. I took one of her alone and then one of her at the table with the other E.D. inspectors. She gave me her e-mail address so I could send the photos to her. One young man at the table asked me what newspaper I was shooting for and I had to explain that I really wasn't there as press. He was disappointed.
At my own E.D.'s machine I finally found inspectors who knew me from years of voting there. I had taken their photos in 2006 and they were pleased that I wanted to do so again. There was no line in front of their table, though there was for the E.D next to them. A photo of inspectors without a line wasn't quite what I was looking for but I took the shot.
I got a few more shots before co-ordinator #2 found me. She hadn't phoned the district leader. She had phoned the Board of Elections. She told me they said that there was a specific letter issued by the Board that I had to show in order to be able to take photographs. If I didn't have one, I would have to go to the Board of Elections and get it. In all my years of working the polls I had never heard of such a thing. I knew this election was about change. But this wasn't what I had in mind. I wasn't going to take the subway to the B of E and spend the day trying to get a letter, which I would probably be denied, assuming I could find the right person to ask. Besides, I had a few photos of this historic election. So I left.
When I got home I looked up the NYC Board of Elections' webpage. I scoured it for something about photographs. I found nothing. Whatever was taught in the poll workers class wasn't made readily available to the public. I didn't go back to Ditmus to argue, though I did go back one more time.
In all the craziness of that morning I forgot to vote.
When I returned to Ditmus a couple hours later — for the fifth time that day — I didn't wear a press pass or show a camera. No one bothered me. There was one person ahead of me at my E.D. voting machine. It took less than one minute to flip all the Democratic levers and vote.
In the afternoon I took the bus to DC, where I arrived a little before 6:00 p.m. I had invitations to several election day parties; how many could I get to?
My first stop was CATO, the libertarian think tank, conveniently located a few blocks from where the bus let me out. They are Republicans, but conflicted ones. Their main principles are individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace. As a lefty liberal, I agree with two of these. A lot of Republicans don't. Like me, CATO's founder was at Berkeley in the Sixties, but he was a Goldwater supporter in 1964 and I was not.
CATO held a nice reception on the entry floor of the building it owns, with pretty good reception food (i.e. good for you as well as tasty) and a talk by a CATO VP, Gene Healy. He has a new book on The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power. The room was full of people, mostly men, wearing suits, and a handful of people who looked like they didn't belong. Those are the ones I talked to.
I got there a little before 6:00 p.m., ate enough to fill the hole in my stomach, and listened to Healy explain why a McCain win would probably not have been any better for the country (from CATO's perspective) than Obama. He tried to look at the bright side, hypothesizing that Obama would fail abysmally, thus paving the way for a return to limited government. He even said a couple things that I agreed with, but my hands were full holding food and I didn't take notes.
I skipped most of the other invites on my list and ended up at the AFL-CIO HQ, where I watched the returns come in on a number of TVs and jumbo screens. In the parking lot in front of the building was a large bus with "The Bush Legacy" written on it. The bus was a rolling propaganda museum. Inside were displays of all the ways in which George W. Bush has harmed the country. Partially funded by unions, this bus drove all over the country inviting people to come in and see its message. It tends to park in front of the offices of Republican incumbents who have supported Bush. The bus particularly likes to run into (not literally) McCain's Straight Talk Express. It makes the local press when that happens.
Inside the AFL, the security staff was passing out buttons: "Union Voter for OBAMA AFL-CIO." At one end of the long entry hall was a country and western band. At the other was a large screen with CNN. In between were smaller TVs with other stations giving the returns, food and drink. Slightly off the beaten path was an Obama wall — a display of union posters declaring support for Obama.
The AFL offered pretty bad (i.e. bad for you — high fat, high calorie) reception food to a few hundred people; I had expected standing room only. People were diverse in appearance, casually dressed, with more women than I saw at CATO. Indeed, the suits at CATO would have looked like they didn't belong. Instead of ties, unionists sported Obama buttons and t-shirts.
We watched, we cheered, we drank and we noshed; There was no speaker. Cheers were especially loud when one of the TV commentators marked a blue zone in blue collar counties — the ones that voted for Hillary in the primaries but whom many feared would not vote for Obama in November. The AFL had targeted those places and others like them. It was a big contributor to Obama's campaign and expects to take a big credit for the win.
In another room the AFL phone bank was being dismantled. The chairs and phones were still there from which people had phoned all over to turn out the vote, but the callers were gone. AFL staffers were taking down the displays. All over for this election. Now the real job begins.