Reverend Jesse Jackson greets voters waiting in line at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland on the final day of early voting Monday, November 5, 2012. About 1.6 million people have already voted early in Ohio.
"You don’t have to know how to sing, you just have to be a man.”
It’s early Sunday afternoon, and Pastor Paul Hobson Sadler Sr., wearing an iridescent black vestment and owlish glasses, is bringing the two-hour service at Mount Zion Congregational Church to a close, eliciting chuckles as he makes the hard sell for a men’s choir rehearsal on Tuesday night. The worship space of Mount Zion, with plush red seats and words of scripture projected onto the front walls of the altar, dates to the 1960s, but the institution has been a fixture in the University Circle neighborhood of Cleveland for 140 years, surviving a bombing during the 1950s back when, as one member of the almost all-black congregation told me, “they didn’t want us here.”
While most people attending the service file out the front door to their cars, a handful head to the back parking lot. Waiting there with the Mount Zion van, a navy-blue behemoth, is Ernest Malone, who works construction during the week and is wearing a sharp fedora with a feather stuck in the brim. Malone is ready to drive any and all to the Cuyahoga Board of Elections in downtown Cleveland, where it’s the last day of weekend early voting in Ohio, the state that, as most Americans with a pair of ears should know by now, might determine the next president of the United States.
At last count, 236,000 votes had been cast in Cuyahoga County—about 35 percent of the 2008 turnout there. Early voting in the state has been a hot-button issue, and Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, has garnered national attention for his attempts to limit it. Earlier this fall, Husted tried to appeal a Sixth Circuit Court decision to reinstate early-voting weekend hours, all the way up to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. But fears among Democrats that Husted has implemented obstructive measures were compounded this weekend, after he handed down an emergency directive on Friday. The new directive transfers the burden of filling out ID information on provisional ballots from poll workers, who had traditionally been responsible for it, to voters. If a voter does not enter the information correctly, his or her ballot will not be counted. A motion has been filed to fight the decision. Concern that Ohio could be too close to call on Tuesday night has grown over the last few days, raising the question of whether provisional ballots—which will not begin to be counted until November 17—might take on an even more important role.
Charles Scott, 63, is a firm supporter of President Barack Obama, as is everyone in the van, (Cuyahoga County gave Obama 68.5 percent of its votes in 2008). A former retail salesman, now a passionate watcher of MSNBC—“My girl is Rachel [Maddow]”—Scott seems to relish the national attention that Ohio is getting, though he’s worried that the state isn’t going to swing for Obama, and he says this election cycle is unlike any he’s ever seen.
“Romney starts telling tales about how Jeep was going to move all those production facilities to China,” he says, referring to a TV ad run by the Romney campaign over the last week that has been condemned by Chrysler, the maker of Jeep, as patently false. “I’ve never—old as I am—seen a politician lie as much. Just lie outright. Everybody varies the truth—you may stretch it from A to B, but he stretches it from A to Z.”
It’s a long ride to the Board of Elections—Malone needs to drop off a couple of people who aren’t voting—but this gives the riders plenty of time to talk politics. There’s lots of ground to cover as we wend our way through the streets of Cleveland, past rows of small, tidy houses, abandoned lots filled with gravel and cracked cement, and greenhouses bearing the fruits of a burgeoning urban-farming movement in the inner city. Nineteen-year-old Gena Taylor, who works at Panera Bread and goes to a local community college, is mostly silent. It’s her first election, and when stymied by the question of what issue she should vote on, she’s prompted by the older men in the van, like Clifford Johnson Jr., 55, a dining-room supervisor at the Ritz Carlton downtown, to say the economy. Johnson, who voted last week, jumps out of the van in the Buckeye area of the city’s east side, where he lives, shouting “Obama!” as a parting farewell.
At Mount Zion this morning, Pastor Sadler made a point of mentioning the close margins of the infamous Florida recount during the 2000 presidential election and urged his congregation to get out and vote. “After that fiasco with the chads—anything is possible,” says Eric Cook, 45, who does heating and cooling maintenance and came to church after working six days straight. He’s wearing a quilted leather jacket and jeans and holding a Bible on his lap.
Not everyone is entirely happy with what Obama has done while in office—Scott is disturbed by the president’s use of drones overseas, while Cook, pointing to the Solyndra fiasco, thinks that some stimulus projects could have been better supervised. But the consensus is that things have gotten marginally better, economically speaking, in Cleveland. Malone, a union carpenter, says the difference is clear.
“Four years ago we were struggling. Everybody was hoping that they could work six months out of the year and be halfway OK," Malone says. "In the last two years, we’ve pretty much emptied out the [union] hall with guys working.”
When the van finally pulls up to the Board of Elections—the only spot for early voting in Cuyahoga County—it’s almost as if we’ve driven into the middle of an early-winter street festival. The intersection of Euclid Avenue and East 30th Street has been taken over by traffic cops, lawyers who are running for judge or prosecutor and out schmoozing in their weekend casuals, kids selling candy bars for a dollar. Catty-corner to the Board of Elections sits First Methodist Church, where Obama campaign volunteers are flipping hot dogs and burgers to hand out to a line of voters that stretches over three city blocks in the 40-degree weather. There is not a Romney sign to be seen. Later, R&B star John Legend, suited up in his finest Sunday popped-collar pea coat, will sing from the steps of the church, then shake hands with the voters in line. It’s a two-hour wait to get inside to the ballot boxes. But that doesn’t put off Scott, Cook, and Taylor.
“This is all right," Cook says, smiling at the scene. “I like this.”
They step to the back of the line, watching as cars honk, people chitchat, and Ohio gets one day closer to November 6.