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Sunday, February 26, 2017


"This is my ballot."

by Tom Sullivan

During early voting here in 2008, this happened.

A young African-American woman approached one of our poll greetsrs outside the Board of Elections station downtown. The woman was nervous, almost trembling. This was her first vote, an important vote. She had lots of questions.

The greeter explained the voting process several times. Finally, the young woman practiced on a sample ballot before lining up inside to vote.

When she finished, she rushed back out onto the sidewalk and blurted, “You won’t believe what happened to me in there.”

An older white woman in line saw her sample ballot and snatched it and the pen from her hands. Telling the young voter she didn’t have to vote just for Democrats, the older woman filled in the “straight Republican” oval. (This was before GOP-led legislature eliminated straight-ticket voting in NC.)

The young woman pulled it back and said, “This is my ballot. I’m going to vote the way I want. You have your own ballot. You can vote the way you want.”

My wife took the younger woman by the shoulders and said, “I am so proud of you.” They hugged with tears in their eyes.

We are sometimes so cynical. We get so caught up in candidates and factions and policy fights we sometimes lose touch with what voting means to people. People bled and died to enforce that young woman's right to a voice in governing this country. As the story shows, there are still plenty of people out there not happy about sharing power with her or anyone else who looks different from them.

Yesterday's turnout was epic. As the Democratic National Committee went through the interminable process of electing new officers (Tom Perez won the chair's slot), Democrats here held annual precinct organizing meetings — usually pretty boring stuff. We had planned for large. What we got was huge. At our "cluster" meetup, 250 people showed up for meetings of eight precincts. The mayor was there and a city councilman, plus the district attorney and a superior court judge. And a lot of younger voters. When I asked how many were attending for the first time, almost half in the grade school auditorium put up their hands. As I wrote last Sunday, something (or someone) has brought people off their couches.

Many have voted for years. Others have not. Now they want to know how all this works.

One man wanted to know when we craft policy at the local level. Organizing strategy and election mechanics, yes. We don't really set policy. Voters elect candidates who do that. But it's funny, once they count on you to get them elected they are a lot more receptive to policy suggestions for some reason. I wrote about what that work looks like in North Carolina during the DNC platform fight last summer:

There is a massive logistical effort behind putting on elections, a lot of it volunteers and party-organized. Most voters are accustomed only to seeing the 4 or 5 retirees who work the polling station in their neighborhood on Election Day. Three election judges (a Republican Judge, a Democratic Judge, and a Chief Judge) plus an assistant or two. These people get paid (poorly) for the day, but that's not why they do it. They are putting in a 14-hour day because they believe what they are doing matters, that their community matters, and that democracy is important.

The handful of people you see every Election Day don't appear out of thin air. Precinct leaders from each party recruit them (plus multiple backups) in the odd-numbered years here and provide a list of their names to the county Board of Elections. I spend six weekends every other summer compiling the list for local Democrats. It's a chore and a half. Four or 5 people per precinct, plus backups. In my county there are 80 precincts. In North Carolina alone there are 2,709 precincts.
That's virtually an army division mobilized to put on a general election. In a single state.

But it's the small, human stories that make the work worth the effort. My wife got choked up last night talking about another of those "moments" outside the polling station.

She and a partner saw a sullen-looking, African-American teenager round the corner. He didn't seem happy to be there.

"Are you coming to vote?" they asked.

He looked down and said nothing. They explained the ballot gently and mentioned candidates they knew personally. By his age, it would have to be his first time. Barack Obama was running for reelection. It was 2012.

A well-dressed couple approached from another direction. His parents. Attorneys maybe. The three went in to vote together.

When the young man came out, he carried himself differently. The sullenness was gone.

"Did you get voted?" the team asked.

"Yeah!" he said, and broke into a wide grin.

"Feels good, doesn't it?"

"Yeah!" he said.

Broad grins all around.