Tracy Pierce didn’t get to vote. She’d been registered for years but had moved and didn’t know that this affected her voting status. She wasn’t on any voter list that could be found. An election monitor told her to go to another precinct and ask for a provisional ballot. Another voting adviser told her that, not having voted for a few years and not being in the Board of Elections database, she would likely cast a ballot that would eventually be thrown out. So she went home.
In the excitement over election protection in Ohio and the country, Tracy’s is the kind of story that might be seized on as an example of the ways democracy is hobbled. For a time, Ohio’s provisional ballots were imagined as “the hanging chads of 2004”–the thing that might swing the election one way or the other–and voting rights, or efforts to suppress them, were made a belated top issue. Outside every polling place in metropolitan Cleveland’s black and Latino districts, clusters of people stood in the rain all day wearing black-and-white Election Protection vests, or bright yellow NAACP Voter Protection jackets, or white nylon Democratic Party Voting Rights Team jackets. They were there to inform or intervene or, by their numbers, intimidate would-be intimidators, aka “challengers,” whom the Republican Party had announced would be stationed in the polls to demand proof of age, citizenship or residency of voters who appeared suspicious. In the end, the Republican challengers never showed up, at least not in the ways that had been expected in the most heightened fear-forecasts. The early story of the day, as international observers here expressed it, was that civil society had scored a victory over the scandalous grab bag of American elections laws and judicial interpretations and their manipulation by powerful partisan interests.
There were the usual issues at the polls in Ohio, though nothing dramatically systemic, but Tracy Pierce represents something deeper than those. She was disappointed about not voting for what it symbolized. “What will my children think?” she wondered. But as we talked about the candidates, the expectations she had as a black mother in the country’s poorest city and the role of politics in her life, she confided, “To be honest, I don’t think much of Kerry. I just don’t trust that politicians will ever do what they promise…it’s like they expect us to be zombies,” listen to their promises, believing them long enough to be hooked at election time and then forgetting. Meanwhile, life declines. Driving between polling places on Cleveland’s East Side provided a quick refresher on the devastating realities the long campaign never did address. “Maybe I don’t feel so bad that I didn’t get to vote, thinking about it now,” Tracy said finally.
No “civil society” regularly engages the Tracy Pierces, no organized black power, or people power or civil liberties power; and, most significant for November 2, no Democratic Party power. The only real grassroots operation in Ohio in this election for the Democrats–the one that began sixteen months ago and involved disciplined cadres of people talking with their neighbors, co-workers, friends and relatives in an impressively coordinated fashion–was put together by organized labor. Tracy, working two part-time jobs, doesn’t belong to a union; and unions are losing members as jobs slide away.
However many people were mobilized to get out the vote by myriad 527s, those late efforts weren’t a match for a Republican Party that had committees in every county in Ohio and the country, part of a grassroots network that has been scrupulously built for twenty-five years and that, here and elsewhere, motivated its fundamentalist Christian base the way it has all along, with the help of antigay initiatives that institutionalize bigotry. As one local activist told me while watching returns in the early morning hours, “There is no state Democratic Party to speak of here–not in terms of infrastructure” or political clarity (no one but gays wanted to talk to voters about Ohio’s sweeping antigay initiative as an organizing tactic of the right). One hears the same across the country. Voter protection, Internet fundraising and hurry-up mobilizations are no match for party organization and ideology.
The night before the election John Kerry held his last big rally here, with Bruce Springsteen. Johnny Randle, an antiwar Vietnam vet and retired maitre d’ who worked the polls in his inner-city neighborhood, told me he thought the event was “electric.” Earlier that day a young union organizer had been exclaiming in similar terms about Eminem’s video “Mosh.” Remembering that young brother later, while listening to “Promised Land,” “Thunder Road” and “No Surrender” vibrate in the night air, I thought how odd it was that songs that defined alienation for two generations might now be imagined as anthems of a new dawn. They might yet be, but not fronting a husk of a party whose only real energy this election came from outside itself.