Iowa: How the vote was won
The view from the front line
USA '08 It's 5am on election day. I awake late from a short, fitful nap. I decided I would need all the symbols of authority I could muster, so I put on my best suit, a heavily starched white shirt, an Armani tie and, spoiling the whole look, running shoes. Another PEO, an eccentric sculptor, gave me a decorative badge he fashioned from military ribbons and regalia. It represents our state flag with a hawk against a field of red, white and blue. I pin it to my lapel and dash to the precinct.
At my last dispatch, at dawn on November 4, an unprecedented 55 per cent of our county had voted early. The election is already more than half over. Election Day rules are now in effect and everything is done on paper, the same way it has been done for decades. Everything is in place.
I arrive at 6am - missing the 5:30am opening rituals - and there is already one man waiting for the polls to open at 7. We are in a gymnasium, on a basketball court. Our tables are lined up along one wall, the voting booths along another. My desk is in a far corner. The ballot box (an optical scanner) is at one end of the room under a basketball hoop, a table with four poll watchers is under the other hoop. They are poring over computer printouts and highlighting something with yellow markers. The big game is about to start.
I finally managed to cast my own vote: the M100 Optical Scanner beeps and my vote is recorded. But by 9am, it is obvious that for many voters it is not going to be so easy.
Keeping the wheels turning
I need to explain some background. Iowa has a history of close and contentious elections, so they permit poll-watchers to observe election officials, to prevent fraud by conducting elections in a completely open environment. Poll watchers from either party can challenge any voter that they feel has been fraudulently granted a ballot. But partisan politicians have abused that system for their own ends.
In 2004, Iowa was closely divided and the GOP mounted a massive campaign to suppress the vote in heavily Democratic counties. Voters were purged from the registration rolls en masse and turned away from the polls. This is known as "voter caging". Partisan poll-watchers challenged voters' registrations on election day, forcing them to vote on a provisional ballot, then go to the auditor's office to fight for their ballot to be counted. Dozens of frivolous challenges clogged the system and slowed voting, causing voters to give up and go home without voting.
But in 2004, Democrats took over the state legislature and changed the voting laws to thwart these tactics. Purged voters can now re-register instantly on election day, and PEOs like me were granted new power to deny frivolous challenges. If the poll watchers try their old tactics like claims that next 20 voters in line are under 18, they can be ejected from the precinct by the police. They have been neutralized, but we PEOs must now watch the watchers, and enforce the law.
But election day rules may be a double-edged sword. The system may become clogged with newly-registered voters, especially in high-turnover student housing areas (like my precinct). Anyone can register if they show a photo ID and proof of residence. If their driver's license does not bear their current address, they can present a document like a utility bill or paycheck stub with their name and address. These election day registrations (EDRs) take a lot of time to process. Nobody knows how many EDRs will show up. I have volunteered to man the special circumstances desk, the "hot seat", where all these problems will land.
Voters start arriving at 7am and most are processed with no problems. Some show voter registration cards, but they are not in the blue book. They have registered well in advance and received their proof of registration card from the auditor's office, but inexplicably they are no longer registered. I have to process dozens of them as EDRs. I am so crushed with work I cannot investigate what caused the problems, but I can re-register them on the spot if they have proper ID. I suspect that I am in the center of a massive voter purge; the Republicans have sprung their trap and I have to fight to restore the voting rights of innocent citizens who were deviously struck from the registration list. A line is forming at my desk. Oh no. I steal glances at the poll watchers sitting on the other side of the room, I see them smirking and giggling at what is happening.
Voting is relatively light, but I am working like a demon, processing paperwork for three or four EDRs at a time. When the desk is crowded with people filling out forms, I work the line, handing out forms and explaining procedures so they will be ready when they reach the desk. The main desk is having problems getting voters back and forth to my desk, so I am relocated to center court. Everything is now revolving around me. By 9am I have processed dozens of EDRs.
That causes a new problem. The Republican headquarters sees the early statistics online and objects. They claim our precinct has a disproportionate number of EDRs. They think a massive, coordinated fraud is occurring - that the whole precinct is conspiring to give ballots to unqualified voters. So they send two more poll watchers to watch me specifically. They take seats directly to the left and right of me. They watch my every move, waiting to catch me committing fraud or making errors, hoping they can challenge a voter and deny them a ballot.
But I am applying the law scrupulously and fairly. I turn away a few EDRs due to inadequate ID, I recommend they run home and return with more documentation. The precinct is small so most of them return in minutes and go on to vote. A few are indignant over the extra hassles, but I assure them we must apply the law correctly in order to ensure that everyone's vote will count.
The poll watchers observe me closely for six hours. They cannot believe what they are seeing. There is a line of EDRs at my desk, it never ends, but I am working at an incredible pace. I have studied these procedures in the back office for over a week and nobody is waiting in line more than 15 minutes. This is not a massive fraud, it is just one person - me - furiously working the system as it was designed.
The poll watchers are not supposed to talk to me, but they begin to chat and I am surprised to discover they admire what I am doing. One of them says he has never seen someone work so hard. He asks me what I am doing after the election, I tell him I am going back to freelance writing, in other words unemployment. He then surprises me with an offer of a clerical job at his business. I am not sure if I want to work for an agent of the GOP's voter suppression army, and I am definitely fed up with clerical work, so I respond noncommittally. But inside, I am laughing - he has admitted defeat. By 3pm the poll-watchers give up and leave the precinct.
Late in the evening, only four EDRs have not yet returned with more documentation. At 8:55pm, one final EDR returns, the last voter of the day, and we all burst into applause!
I regret not being able to save every voter, but those I could not save sacrificed their votes on behalf of the others. If I did not turn away EDRs as required by law, if I had stretched the rules, the poll-watchers could have shut me down and stopped me from re-enfranchising all the others. At the end of the day, I have rescued about 25 per cent of all votes cast in my precinct by re-registering them as EDRs.
Everyone has worked to exhaustion, but there is no time to lose, we must close the polls and report the results before we can leave. The sooner we finish, the sooner we go home. But we are all overtired and this is all taking far too long. It is 10:30pm before the final task begins: recording the write-in votes. I have been loafing so I am assigned this onerous task, since nobody wants to do it.
I am prohibited by law from disclosing what I saw on the ballots, other than the write-in names (which are a public record). I hope what I saw is merely representative of a small fraction of lunatic voters who are crazy enough to use write-in votes. I record four Ron Paul votes and several prank votes including Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. These write-in votes will be dutifully reported to the public in a table, as a number in a column labeled "WI". indistinguishable from one another.
Called for Obama
As we completed the final tasks, I noticed the gymnasium janitors are waiting to lock up the building, and they are watching the election returns on TV in the next room. I can hear speeches and the distant voices of Obama and McCain, but I can't make out what they are saying. I go in to watch the TV. Statistics stream across the screen but I am unable to make sense of any of it. The janitor tells me that Iowa was called for Obama at 9pm when the polls closed. Obama is so heavily favored in Iowa that the TV pundits report his victory without waiting for the results. But while we still labored to count the votes, Obama has been declared the President-Elect. It is a landslide.
I have told this story not to boast of my own actions, as I can scarcely believe an amateur like me is allowed to be of service. I wrote this to honor the voters, elected officials and their deputies, and the system that allows anyone to get involved and maintain our rights to vote. Of myself I have done nothing - I have merely acted as the laws decreed. Many other PEOs have done what I have done, and more. In 2012, another dedicated PEO will take my place. Now the election is over and I have been cut loose. I turned in my Precinct Elections Official badge, I no longer serve any purpose to the State of Iowa. My job is done. ®