The news from Election Day was full of stories of disappointment and victory – depending on your perspective. In a swing state like ours, that is to be expected. About half of people are going to be happy with any particular outcome, and the other half unhappy. After all, we are according to the Gallup Corporation “the swingiest of swing states.” That is, about half of America is more conservative than we are, and about half is more liberal. North Carolina is smack-dab in the middle. I for one am very proud of that.
I think it speaks well of us. We have had a proud tradition of working together to get things done. Despite our differences, we’ve been able to wrestle issues to the ground and have invited everyone who wanted to get their hands dirty into the scuffle. That’s why in the past we have been seen as a beacon of progress in the South leading the way in so many important areas, like voting rights.
I guess that is why this election has me so flustered.
Like so many “politicos,” I showed up at my local party headquarters and volunteered to make calls and drive people to the polls. That is always so exciting for me, because it is such a tangible way to be involved in the democratic process.
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I received my assignment; a name, telephone number and address of a voter who needed a ride to the polls. I pulled out my cell phone to let them know I was on the way. The woman who answered the phone – I will call her Lara – told me she was trying to juggle the naps of her twin 20-month-olds. She had no car but had arranged for someone to stay home with the kids while she voted. I made a date with her to pick her up at 2 p.m. When I arrived, I was greeted by an enthusiastic 30-year-old at the door of a modest apartment in North Raleigh. Lara was ready to vote.
Now, here is the hitch. While Lara lived in North Raleigh, she had just recently moved there from Southeast Raleigh, and that is where she was registered to vote. She said that she had called a week or so ago to try to switch to her polling place closer to home, but the deadline had passed. Lara was also told that if she voted in that precinct her vote would be thrown out.
And so off we went to the polling place at the Chavis Community Center in Southeast Raleigh where she was registered. I looked at my navigation system and it was only nine miles away, less than 20 minutes. As we drove Lara thanked me several times for giving her the opportunity to vote. Without the ride, she said, she could have never gotten there. It turns out that to take a bus there – her only option – would have taken hours, and there was no way she could have arranged for child care for that long. Taking two toddlers on a bus for half a day was out of the question. And so she would have had to forgo her constitutional right to vote.
When we arrived at Chavis Heights the parking lot was buzzing with activity. People were reviewing ballots and talking about candidates, and others were checking the registration of would-be voters.
It turns out many people who showed up were not registered to vote at that precinct. Some were confused by its status as an early voting site and others just had the precinct wrong. Some of them may have been able to go to another precinct, but my guess is most did not.
Transportation, child care, work or family obligations likely prevented them from spending the extra time (in some cases hours) it would have taken to drive to another polling site and wait in line. And so, in ours, this swingiest of swing states, thousands of people in cities large and small who wanted to vote were prevented from casting their ballots.
Sadly in this “historic turnout election” only 44 percent of the registered voters actually made it to the polls – far from a majority of North Carolinians. In fact, if you look at the U.S. Senate race, a mere 14 percent of the state’s population elected our next senator. Now it is true, the turnout is usually low in off years and this year was no different. The same percentage of people voted this time as did in 2010 (the year the Republicans took control of the state legislature.).
But this year an untold number of people who wanted to vote were prevented from doing so because of changes made to our voting laws last year. It turns out that the sweeping “Voter ID” law passed by Republican lawmakers did much more than require a photo ID to vote. It eliminated same-day registration. No more provisional ballots would be counted (i.e. the ballots given to people who show up at the wrong polling place, later verified by elections officials and then counted.). And then of course, the number of early voting days was cut in half.
While record numbers of people voted early this year, poll workers report that many people were turned away from the long lines at early voting sites at the end of the day. Many of those who got in line by the official poll closing time had to stand there for three and a half hours before making it inside to vote. Clearly, we left some votes “on the table.”
As I drove Lara back to her home in North Raleigh we had a spirited conversation about the candidates and issues. And then her phone rang. “Where are you?” I overheard the agitated caller say. Lara’s babysitter was running out of time and patience. “I voted!” Lara said proudly. “We are almost home. Give me another 15 minutes.”
And so I delivered Lara back to her modest North Raleigh apartment having cast her ballot and taken part in democracy. I was struck by her determination. And also by how hard the system had made it on her. I am thankful for the Laras of the world for voting, despite the obstacles put in place to stop them. And I know there are many more who despite their best efforts were turned away.
How sad it is, in 2014 that there are laws on the books that prevent honest, eligible people from participating in democracy. Of course that begs the question; why? My guess is that if we encouraged people of all walks of life to vote, our legislature would look and perform much more like the state it is elected to represent. Smack dab in the middle. Just where we ought to be.