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My 30 or so hours spent in Ohio on election eve and election day as an attorney observer were filled with tension, tedium, frustration, comic intervention, hilarity and finally exhilaration and joy. It was anything but dull.
This journey began when I sent $100 and my contact information to the Barack Obama campaign in early February. After receiving hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from the campaign, one item caught my attention. I was offered the opportunity to be a “Counselor for Change.” This meant serving as a lawyer observer at the polls on election day in Ohio. The journey was enticing because I would be joined by the legendary John and Jean Rosenberg of Prestonsburg, Kentucky, veterans of the civil rights movement who worked for the Department of Justice in the early sixties. John actually filed the first voting rights act lawsuit against the governor of Mississippi, the day after President Johnson signed the law in 1965.
Our instructions were to join four hundred other lawyers at a synagogue in Columbus on election eve for poll observer training. Being in the same room with hundreds of other lawyers is an environment I consider to be roughly equivalent to torture. While I am a lawyer, and have been for more than 27 years, the truth is I can’t stand lawyers, especially lawyers huddled together. What do they talk about? Themselves, of course and the fact they have never lost a case, legal struggle, etc.,. When they finish describing their great legal ability, they talk about themselves, their cars and homes.
This gathering of lawyers was remarkably different. There was a palpable tension in the air and a laser-like focus on the task at hand: policing the polls on Election Day. Many of the lawyers were from other places. Rather than talk about themselves, there were intense discussions as to the intricacies of Ohio election law, and a general belief that the election would be stolen if we weren’t careful. There was also a serious, subdued atmosphere. This was Ohio of course, where four years earlier John Kerry lost the election.
Fittingly, the last speaker at the training introduced to us as Cam Kerry. He did not identify himself as or mention that he was the somewhat shorter brother of John Kerry. Instead he painfully reminisced about what had happened in Ohio four years earlier. While it has been four years, it was clear that to him, it still felt like the pain was inflicted four minutes ago.
I was assigned to Zanesville, Ohio, to be an outside poll watcher. (John and Jean were sent to Columbus). Zanesville is located about an hour east of Columbus. Zanesville is economically distressed, and had just been visited by Joe Biden a few hours before I arrived on election eve. The primary job of an outside attorney poll watcher is to monitor the anticipated long line and offer paper ballots to those who might have to wait too long and leave out of frustration.
I was at my post at 5:45 a.m. to find no line, but a steady stream of voters. Nothing was happening, so at about 11:00 a.m., I called the Obama campaign and asked for another assignment. The line was never long, and I felt I could be more useful elsewhere. Just as I ended the cell phone call, the adventure began.
All day I had observed a heavy set young woman hanging around in the parking lot handing out some type of pamphlet. Suddenly appearing on the scene were five or six young workers, wearing coordinated light blue t-shirts, who were also handing out pamphlets. The light blue t-shirters were a gay rights advocacy group, whose material was to promote a bill in the state legislature. I found their presence to make no sense. Unlike in the other states, there was no gay rights initiative on the Ohio ballot in this election cycle.
Predictably the Board of Election officials came out to chase these folks away, apparently for violating the 100-foot electioneering rule. I then spent the next ten minutes trying to referee what I thought was a humorous but intense argument about whether any or all of these folks were within the 100-foot boundary. Is the boundary measured from the polling place door? The flags outside? Or perhaps the machines inside the building?
Finally someone, and I’m not sure who, said, “They’re calling the Sheriff.” In that moment, summoning all of my lawyer’s skills, I announced that I had located the 100-foot line and urged all to stay behind. No one was happy. Everyone was mad. I must confess I thought all of the histrionics were comical. Minutes later, my cell phone began ringing and ringing. Our argument, boundary dispute, etc. had made its way up the levels of the Obama campaign. I abruptly ended the constant calls by declaring that I had resolved the situation, which was true to a degree.
Then the McCain people arrived. Two well-dressed women started handing out McCain stuff, behind the lines. Suddenly emerging from the McCain car was an older gentleman who was visibly and very angry. Then another car pulled up filled with new voters.
The angry McCain gentleman approached the voters from the front of the car. Big mistake. If he had looked at the rear of the car, he would have noticed the dozen or so left-leaning bumper stickers, and the hand written proclamation, “IMPEACH BUSH.” It didn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that these folks were there to vote for Obama. The angry McCain pamphleteer was oblivious to the political messages.
I would like to say that I used my lawyer listening skills and could relate the substance of the parking lot conversation/confrontation, but I can’t. The reason I can’t so relate is that I was convulsed with laughter at the political spectacle I was watching. The rest of the afternoon passed with the warring factions glaring at each other behind my improvised 100-foot barrier line.
Driving home to Kentucky that night, I could not escape the palpable tension and passion that I had observed in Ohio. After initial deep gloom I experienced when it was announced that Obama had lost Kentucky (badly), my mood was instantly transformed with the joyful exhilaration when Wolf Blitzer announced that Ohio had gone for Obama. From that moment my cell phone started ringing. My wife told me that at a Kentucky election party, someone had credited me with the Ohio victory.
There is exactly zero amount of truth to such a pronouncement. To even suggest it, is an insult to the patriotic, unselfish, determined and colorful folks I had observed working for Obama in Ohio. My reward was to have a front row seat to a very small slice of American history in the parking lot of that Zanesville, Ohio, precinct. As the Master Card commercial says, the value of my seat was “priceless.”
Ned Pillersdorf is an attorney in Prestonsburg, Kentucky.