Election Protection on the Streets of Cleveland

They’re not kidding when they say the ads are inescapable in Ohio. Even the simple act of filling up the gas tank meant risking exposure to campaign messaging on Election Day; on the small screen at a pump in Cleveland, a Romney campaign ad about the skyrocketing cost of gas over the past four years played, a perfect example of the political micro-targeting that has become pro forma in the state. Mention the ads and people shudder; these 30-second soundbites are the modern day political equivalent of the Bubonic plague, festering with untruths and decimating what little Mr. Smith Goes to Washington innocence Ohioans might have had about the political process. 

Despite the detritus on the airways, Election Day in the country's most-watched state started off beautifully. The weather driving through Cleveland on November 6 did, as one voice on the radio said, “just make you feel good about life." In the inner-ring suburbs of Cleveland’s East Side, early-morning voters toting coffee thermoses and the occasional toddler funneled in and out of polling places—at 7 a.m., the street outside of Woodbury Elementary in Shaker Heights, canopied by stately, aged elms, was packed with cars and rife with signage pointing towards the voting location. All was calm, all was bright. Picket fence-perfect democracy in action.

A 15-minute drive away from the polls in Shaker is St. Andrew’s Towers, a public housing facility for the elderly and disabled in Cleveland's St. Clair/Superior neighborhood, where the carpets are drab maroon and there’s a sign taped to a wall reminding residents that rent is due on the first of the month. On Election Day, it's a voting site, and Tayebe Shah-Mirany and Joanne Spalding—volunteers for the nonpartisan voter-protection group Election Protection Ohio—are aflutter in the lobby, trying to fix the poorly marked directions to the polling place, located in the basement. When the early-bird voter crowd came, there were no signs at all. The most direct point of access to the building from the parking lot was locked.

“People were wandering the corridors,” Shah-Mirany said, referring to the scene at St. Andrew’s before she and Spalding made signs to put at the front door and the elevator.

While issues like signage might seem minor, they’re the kind of problems voting-rights protection volunteers have been trained to spot and troubleshoot, along with making sure that people understand the many new election regulations that have arrived in the state. In Ohio, provisional ballots have been the issue du jour this election cycle —Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted issued a last-minute directive transferring the burden of filling out ID information on provisional ballots from poll workers—who had traditionally been responsible for that task—to voters.

Neither Shah-Mirany nor Spalding, both attorneys, are native Clevelanders—they grew up childhood friends in a Chicago suburb. Shah-Mirany still lives in the Chicago area, where she's a healthcare lawyer, while Spalding now works for the Sierra Club in the Bay area. The pair drive a white Prius from precinct to precinct—they had six to check in on throughout the day, all on the East Side. These roving teams of Election Protection volunteers are all over the city, organized by the D.C.-based group The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Though the volunteers are not required to be attorneys, many are—the training that took place in a cramped room at the NAACP's Cleveland branch on Monday was rife with legal clarifications, clipped tones, and rectangular glasses. The volunteers came from all over the county; a passel of attorneys from the Boston offices of Bingham-McCutchen were flown in for the Election Day monitoring.

In the basement of St. Andrews, voting seemed to be going smoothly. Cuyahoga County Board of Elections' precinct coordinator, Michelle Stewart, runs a tight ship. By 2 p.m., under 20 provisional ballots have been cast, due in no small part to Stewart's efforts to follow up on behalf of voters. One couple's names don’t appear on the precinct voting list, but they insisted they are registered and have ID to prove they live in the precinct. Stewart, who spends 15 minutes on the phone with the Board of Elections, finally verifies that they are on Cuyahoga County’s official rolls, and the two are allowed to vote with regular ballots instead of provisional ones.


The neighborhood surrounding St. Andrew’s is mostly black, as are the voters showing up to the basement polling place. As a result, the two middle-aged white men who walked into the room and stood in the center of the action next to the provisional ballot table and just across from the regular ballot scanner stand out from the crowd. Under Ohio election law, all official polling-place observers—which includes representatives from individual campaigns and political parties—are required to wear official badges identifying them as such. Neither man wore one, and refused to identify themselves directly by this reporter.

The next stop for the Election Protection Ohio pair is the Sterling Recreation Center at St. Clair and E. 32nd Street, where kids are playing pickup basketball in the gym next door to the room where three separate precincts vote together. At 3 p.m. the Board of Elections officials say that so far, 25 people have voted with provisional ballots. They tally is more than Mirany-Shah and Spalding like to see, and they conclude that the preponderance of address discrepancies may have resulted from many voters registering while they were living at a nearby homeless shelter.

One of the last stops of the day is Church of Christ, which Spalding jokingly calls their “problem child” precinct. An optical scanner broke here for over an hour in the morning, leaving a long line in its wake; the pair wants to go back and make sure things improved. The church, which has a storefront look about it and no steeple, is located in the Glenville neighborhood just east of Rockefeller Park, which has stately arched bridges and well-kept gardens that speak to the once-prosperous past of this part of the city. The Glenville of 2012 is filled with more than its fair share of dilapidated buildings and chipped paint—the house next to Church of Christ is completely boarded up, though its tiny lawn is littered with festive campaign signs.

Unfortunately, the precinct is living up to its troubled reputation—people are having difficulty finding the entrance (Spalding made signs to put out front, but said at least ten people passed her, asking where to go) and there appear to be an outsized number of provisional ballots being cast at the polling place—30 had been cast there by about 4:30 p.m., according to poll workers. The same problem made many repeat performances—many voters were told the official voting rolls listed them as having requested an absentee ballot, but many dispute having done so. They’re required to vote provisionally in this circumstance under Ohio law. This year, most of the state’s registered voters were mailed an application for absentee ballots, a change from other years, which meant that the state was expecting an increased number of absentee votes.

Despite this possible explanation, Shah-Mirany is unsettled by the recurrence—“I’m starting to get suspicious in this particular area,” she said in reference to the absentee ballot issue.

Damascus Williams, 23, a nurse’s assistant, who was still wearing her heart-pattered scrubs and a blue flower in her henna-dyed tousle of curls when she came to Church of Christ to vote, looked defeated as she emerged from the voting booth after casting a provisional ballot. She insisted that she never requested an absentee ballot, no matter what the official records said. She never votes early, she said. She always just comes right after work to the polling place.

“That just made me mad,” Williams said, before walking out to the parking lot, past a house with a fallen-in porch and rusted chain link fence bedecked with American flags, dejectedly wondering whether her vote would even make its way through the thicket of bureaucracy to be counted. Democracy in action. 

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