Thursday, October 30, 2008

An Historic Election

Without a doubt this election is historic in it's scope. For the first time in history, an African-American could be President of the United States. The impact this possibility is having on the African-American community as a whole is hard to overstate, and without a doubt there is great excitement and enthusiasm. Take the example of Donnell Stewart, volunteering for the Obama campaign in Maryland:

Donnell Stewart dragged her 19-year-old son out of the house, again, on a bright Saturday morning for the same reason she had all those other weekend mornings. "We're going Obama- eering," she sang out.

Desmond knew well not to argue. When he moved home last year after he was injured and lost his football scholarship at Hampton University, his mother told him he had to do two things to live under her roof: "You will go to college," she said. "And you will volunteer for Barack Obama."

Nearly every weekend since, they have gotten in the "Obama-bile" -- Stewart's beat-up maroon SUV, plastered with "Got Hope?" decals and other Obama bumper stickers -- and driven hours from their home in Catonsville, Md., to volunteer. The vehicle's transmission conked out last week.

And it's efforts by those like her that are producing a massive turnout among African-American voters this year. But there is also lingering unease and trepidation, over fears that votes will be lost, or won't be counted, or that in some way they will be disappointed just as they were countless times during the long struggle for equality in America: a show of early election enthusiasm, more than 84,200 people have already voted in Duval County [Florida], surpassing the number of early votes cast in the last presidential election. Added to 33,800 absentee ballots collected so far, the numbers show that 22 percent of registered voters cast their ballots as of Oct. 27, county election officials said.

But amid excitement over Mr. Obama’s historic candidacy and the chance that the country might choose an African-American president within a matter of days, there is an unmistakable sense of anxiety among blacks here that something will go wrong, that victory will slip away.

“They’re going to throw out votes,” said Larone Wesley, a 53-year-old black Vietnam veteran. “I can’t say exactly how, but they are going to accomplish that quite naturally. I’m so afraid for my friend Obama. I look at this through the eyes of the ’60s, and I feel there ain’t no way they’re going to let him make it.”

Mr. Wesley refuses to vote early. “I don’t believe the machines work properly in general,” he said, “and they really don’t work properly when they think you’re voting for Obama.”

...suspicions linger that something — faulty machines, misread ballots, mysteriously lost votes — will deny Mr. Obama some of the support that he has.

“I vote in a predominantly minority area,” said Monica Albertie, 27, a health care executive. “I worry about getting there and all of a sudden the electricity doesn’t work. Anything can happen. I know that sounds silly, but these are real concerns. We have a record of getting excited, then being disappointed. You get paranoid. What if the bus system shuts down that day?”

Ms. Albertie said she was “on the fence” about early voting, because “I don’t want my early vote to get lost.”

Her friend Susan Burroughs, who is also a health care executive, said she planned to vote early but felt “queasy.”

“You know, you don’t want to get too excited because it could go in just the opposite direction,” Ms. Burroughs said. “You read the papers here, and you know, there was something wrong with the machine over here, they lost the votes over there, they had to recount votes. That makes a lot of people leery.”

They have history on their side. On top of a century of poll taxes, Jim Crow laws and otherwise stolen elections, faith in voting has been undermined by the contested 2000 election, and reports from the 2004 election about strange vote totals, machines that registered the wrong votes or no votes at all, and repeated efforts by Republicans to have voters stripped off voter rolls in such a way that would harm predominantly Democratic voters. African-American voters in Ohio feel the same:

Political parties and elected officials for weeks have been trading sharp accusations and litigation over voting issues here, often for political advantage. But now, among the people whose ballots are at stake, the question of whether their votes will count has become deeply personal.

During the primary, Tallie was one of those caught in long lines at a recreation center, one of 21 East Cleveland precincts ordered by a federal judge to remain open an extra 90 minutes to replenish ballot supplies. But because the order came through late, only 10 polling places reopened -- and state officials say just five additional votes were cast.

That convinced Tallie to vote early this time, not just to avoid the lines but also to make sure her ballot was in. "I wanted my say," she said.

"Did I register? Three times," joked a supervisor of a demolition crew tearing down an old public housing complex on the east side.

"I signed 73 times, got a cigarette every time I put down my name," said worker Randy Kinney, bringing up one of the much-publicized local voter-registration problems being investigated by the county elections board.

His co-worker Kevin Jackson shook his head. He said he isn't happy that some bad registrations cards were submitted, but his big worry was the lawsuit that challenged new voters whose personal information did not match other state records, sometimes because of slight clerical mistakes.

"I've been thinking I need to go down to the county and make sure it all is good," said Jackson, 40, who changed his registration when he recently moved to neighboring Parma. "I know we're joking about it, but this is serious stuff, and I want to be make sure I get to vote with no trouble."

"Okay, it is serious," Kinney said, relenting, "but here is the fix" -- and he raised his thumb. "Get some of that purple ink they have in Baghdad" to mark who voted.

"Please do not start up with that ink again," Jackson begged.

Though there are may who would prefer not to talk about it (and would prefer not to have anybody else talk about it eithe) none of this can be viewed outside the context of race relations in America. Even though everyone holds some amount of racial bias, it's hard to imagine the extent to which some people cling to old attitudes about race. Here's an example:

Leah Moreland had a much different answer. Moreland sat a few feet away from Hake; the two women are related through marriage. Moreland is supporting McCain.

"I don't want to sound racist, and I'm not racist," Moreland says. "But I feel if we put Obama in the White House, there will be chaos. I feel a lot of black people are going to feel it's payback time. And I made the statement, I said, 'You know, at one time the black man had to step off the sidewalk when a white person came down the sidewalk.' And I feel it's going to be somewhat reversed. I really feel it's going to get somewhat nasty."

Moreland says she doesn't think all black people will "want payback." "I'm not talking about you, and I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the people that are out on the street looking for trouble. Putting a black man in the White House — and if he gets there, he gets there; I'm going to live under his presidency and everything. And I'm still going to be friends with anybody black that wants to be my friend and everything. But I really feel there's going to be a time of adjustment. I really feel it. I hope I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong."

Cal Weary, a 32-year-old drama teacher, says he's worried about white resentment if Obama wins. Weary is a black Republican who voted twice for George W. Bush. This year, he's supporting Obama.

Weary says that if Obama loses the election, there will also be African-Americans who will not accept that result as legitimate.

"I guarantee it," Weary says. "I think even the black people who weren't that involved would have that disenfranchised feeling of, 'We got so close, and now we didn't get it, and now I'm angry about it.'"

Margie Orr, who is black, raised one more fear — a grim one that's been whispered since Obama became a serious contender for the White House.

"You know what I am most afraid of? I am most afraid of the rhetoric that's been going on at the McCain rallies," she says. "I'm afraid for Obama and his family for the things that have been said at those rallies. It's as though they want to bring out the skinheads, the [Ku Klux Klan], so they can kill this man.

And that's really the crux of it. Many African-American voters feel like "they" won't let Obama win, that no matter what whites in power will find a way to take the chance of an historic victory away, whether it's by not counting African-American votes, by keeping African-Americans away from the polls, or simply by killing Obama. Nothing is certain, but an Obama victory would do much to eradicate this way of thinking; finally, there would be proof that an African-American can attain the highest office in the land, an office that has been held solely by white men throughout the history of the nation, and that he will have been put there by the votes of whites, blacks, Asians, by Americans of every shade and color. A victory for Obama is certainly not the panacea for distorted racial attitudes in this country, but it might strikes the strongest blow against these attitudes since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That might not be the goal of most of the voters who have turned out already and will turn out on the fourth, but certainly it is a most desired side effect of this already incredible election season.

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