We are all experiencing many challenges during this time. The pandemic has created its own obstacles to getting things done. But luckily for us in the Northeast, voter suppression is not often one of them. Most of us could be reasonably assured, we could walk into our polling station or drop a ballot in the box and trust it would be counted. However, as I learned about the mounting obstacles in the way of voters around the country, especially NC, it became increasingly clear that I wanted to be there in person, on the ground, helping voters directly at their doors! So, I was not going to let any obstacles of the pandemic, distance and my personal safety to get in the way. I was off to NC!
Let me set the scene in North Carolina, we were to be part of voter protection team specifically to cure ballots. This simply means helping voters who have already voted, but whose ballot was rejected for whatever reason, to get their vote to count. We knocked on the doors and then there was a Voter Protection Hotline for voters and for our support also. With every voter I met, I experienced first-hand, the myriad voter suppression tactics being used.
These NC voters had been receiving months of messaging about voter fraud. Each threat and accusation was contributing to building a wall of mistrust. Voters begin to believe they might be doing something wrong, just by exercising their right to vote.
The bricks were being laid in the wall:
Don’t vote by mail…..this can lead to cheating (Brick!)
Your signature needs to match (Brick!)
You need a witness on your envelope (Another brick!)
One of the first doors I knocked on, was the door of Constance. She would not fully open the door and was reluctant to engage. I was there to talk with her husband, James. whom I learned was hospitalized. His vote had been rejected and she was giving up on his vote to be counted. Too many bricks were already laid in the wall, the obstacles were becoming too large. Can you imagine….Constance was already so concerned for her husband’s health and then overwhelmed with how to get his vote to be counted. She could not even visit with James due to COVID. There was that wall again.
I stayed at the door and listened and began to work on building a ladder higher than her wall of mistrust and disillusionment. I could see her mistrust extending to the hospital staff: “they won’t deliver the form, if they did, they would not return it. I won’t see the form again. So, as we spoke, she slowly began to open the door, the trust was growing…… She would deliver this required form for signature and we built in safeguards…she would wait in the lobby, James would be expecting the form, etc.
However, the plan had become complicated enough that I thought to call the Voter Protection hotline. Glad I did, as learned there was yet another obstacle of a potential felony of hospital staff transporting a document related to voting.They suggested a 3 way call with the voter and the board of elections. I just knew this would be one too many obstacles to put in their way. We came up with a way involving several envelopes, etc. We agreed to a plan and I would follow up with a call.
So, 2 texts, 2 visits and 3 calls later, Form was signed. Vote was counted! Success!!
This next tale is a quick story of celebration and a positive outcome for a voter.
As part of our NC voter protection team, we signed up to be outside poll workers on election day. The story begins with more obstacles and this time my own….consisting of my fears of the threat of violence at the polls and potential direct danger to us. We knew that guns would not be allowed to be carried openly at a school, so that brought some comfort.
We came prepared for the potential of long lines bearing bags of snacks, crayons and coloring books, ponchos for any rain, balls and bubbles. We did encounter voter suppression tactics, both large and small, throughout the day, by the two curbside voter workers. Our role was to observe and document and call into our boiler room hotline to troubleshoot on issues. While being required to stay back 50 feet we would identify ourselves to voters as a support and let them know to touch base on their way out with any issues they had with voting.
As it was getting darker, it became clear how poorly lit the sidewalk and even darker the entrance was to the polling station. There were no lights that came on to provide safe passage. The outside workers had removed all the signs in the street and parking lot earlier and were attempting to close the polls 25 minutes early before the 7:30 closing time. We intervened and asserted the legal closing time and reluctantly, they replaced the entrance sign so there was a small indication on how to enter the building.
7: 14. Enter: Jamila, a young and spry voter, who let us know she was a first time voter as she headed in. We cheered her on and she disappeared inside. After a few minutes, Jamila comes back out and is clearly very disgruntled and shares she was not allowed to vote and was treated poorly. She was heading to her car to leave, giving up on voting for her first time.
Time-check: it is 7:22, 8 minutes until polls close. Darkness further setting in. We invite her to share details as we might be able to help
She needs verification of her new address…..”Okay” we say, “We can do this”. What do have in the car?
7 minutes: Jamila is searching through her bag…..nothing
“You can do it. You’ll find something….”
6 minutes: Now pulling papers out of the glove compartment…..nothing
5 minutes: Sorting through papers on the floor..
4 minutes: “Grab the whole pile form the bag, bring it all in”.
3 minutes: “You can ask for a provisional ballot. Get a receipt. We’ll be here. We are waiting for you. You’ve got this.”
2 minutes: Jamila runs in the door, papers falling to the ground behind her.
1 minute: Doors are shut. Jamila is inside. There is no inside poll observer assigned to this school so we don’t know what’s going on inside.
Darker still, waiting, wondering, hoping.
Another voter exits and says “It doesn’t look good in there”.
We wait….20 minutes later, Jamila appears from the darkness, once she sees we are waiting for her, her expression changes to a big smile lighting up her face. She’s waiving a piece of paper….her receipt for voting a provisional ballot and she’s not clear of what just happened. We are cheering and celebrating this victory of having voted. She too, then joins in the revelry!
At this time, i was also having my own internal celebration, that we had made it to the end of the election day with no violence or danger, no militia, It became clear that I had gained strength and grit from her and all the others in NC, their strong showing of determination!
As Jamila drove away ( her car full of all the extra snacks, toys, ponchos and flowers) and a huge smile!