Kathleen Lewis stood in front of Raleigh Fire Station No. 2 on Tuesday morning, smiling at those who came to vote--some were old friends, many were new faces. Lewis, a Democratic precinct chair, was taking a break from her role inside as an official observer. "There's been no intimidation," she said.
This polling place, 01-21, was one of 20 identified by the Raleigh NAACP as a priority for poll monitors from the Election Protection campaign put together by a coalition of national organizations. It's in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in South Raleigh with a high proportion of registered Democrats, yet historically low turnout.
Not today, though. By the time this polling place opened, the line was almost two blocks long, observers said. Another volunteer said that by 11 a.m., 600 people had voted--that's 200 more than turned out on Election Day 2000. "There are a lot of first-time voters," Lewis said. "This election really has energized people, maybe because of the media, but I think mostly because of the grassroots politicking we've been doing. They want to see the country change."
Change, alas, did not come. But the turnout numbers in these 20 precincts show that get-out-the-vote efforts had a profound impact on bringing low-income, minority voters into the political process.
In the months leading up to Tuesday, there was concern that voters in districts like this one were at risk of being disenfranchised or intimidated. Standing behind the 50-foot line alongside Democratic canvassers (there were no Republican canvassers), Election Protection volunteers wore black T-shirts with the words "You have the right to vote." They passed out a guide to North Carolina voters' rights that included the hotline number used to field calls from voters across the country with everything from registration problems to outright intimidation.
Democratic volunteer Debbie Goldberg rode around South Raleigh all day Tuesday with attorney Jonathan Schroer, responding to concerned poll monitors from her cell phone. Goldberg is a precinct co-chair in her North Raleigh neighborhood, but she's spent the past several weeks doing GOTV drives in these predominantly black and Latino, Democratic neighborhoods.
"They've been neglected," she says. "We're talking about low-income minority voters, many of whom have never voted before, or have lots of questions. They feel very disempowered and they're very grateful when we reach out to them." She said she started organizing her own poll-watching effort when she became concerned that there was not enough official Democratic party presence at these precincts. Today she's coordinating some 85 volunteers at 12 Raleigh precincts. "I've never done this before," she said. "I'm only stepping forward because no one else was doing the job."
Tuesday morning, Goldberg responded to a call from a Democratic canvasser at precinct 01-50, the Mt. Calvary Church on Sanderford Road, who complained that a man who would not identify himself told canvassers they were not allowed to stand near the polling place. Goldberg and Schroer drove up, spoke with canvassers and went inside to speak to the man. He was Bill Carroway, an official Republican precinct observer.
"He's a big, white man in a suit, and that's what they've sent all over South Raleigh," Goldberg said. "It looks like a deliberate campaign on behalf of the Republican Party to recruit big, official-looking white men to come into black neighborhoods. Wherever they were, we had trouble, and wherever they weren't we had no trouble."
Carroway had apparently misunderstood which door was the entrance to the polling place and had thought canvassers were violating the 50-foot rule. When two Election Protection volunteers wearing black T-shirts went inside to introduce themselves to officials, as they were trained to do, Carroway told them to get out. "He said, 'You can't be here!'" said Edie Mas, an Election Protection volunteer from Vermont. "I don't think he's been bothering voters, though." Mas said that when her husband and fellow volunteer Ted Webster went inside the church later to use the bathroom, Carroway told him again to leave. Goldberg and Schroer said they spoke to the judge and made sure there was an official Democratic observer in the precinct.
Carroway said all was going well at the precinct. "They've followed the rules here," he said of the volunteers and canvassers. "As long as they stay behind that sign, they can do whatever they want. Nobody's been complaining." He confirmed that he had told the Election Protection volunteers to get out. "They're not supposed to be in there. They don't have an official capacity. That guy, he's from Vermont. Look at his license plate. I guess they think in North Carolina we need help running fair elections. I don't think so."
Later in the afternoon, Goldberg got another troubling call: Voters at 01-20, the Roberts Park Community Center on Martin Street, were complaining that the official Republican precinct observer was looking over the shoulders of voters as they voted. She and Schroer called the party officials who sent Carl Dean, head of the Wake Dems' African American Caucus, to the precinct. All three came to the center and spoke with witnesses, and Dean and Schroer went inside to investigate and concluded there was a serious problem, Goldberg said. Dean declined to comment.
Overall, problems were few in North Carolina, and campaign volunteers acted quickly. One problem that did arise, which may have been related to long lines, was instances of election officials posting signs telling voters they had a limit of five minutes to fill out their ballots, said local Election Protection media liaison Shannah Smith. "I have reports of poll monitors standing there looking at their watches," she said. By law, voters may take as much time as they need.