WT Brown Elementary School: The Election at Ground Level
During most of my tenure as an election observer in the past three weeks, I watched people come to the polls and vote. Every now and again there was someone who needed advice, or some minor irregularity requiring correction. However, yesterday at WT Brown Elementary School in Cumberland County, I got a taste of what happens when the election process breaks down, and people get caught up in the moment during a close election. The school is one of several precincts serving Fort Bragg and surrounding areas. As an outside poll observer, I could help voters find their precinct or advise them if they were unable to vote. However, I could not go into the polling station or communicate with the election officials. My contact was a Boiler Room filled with lawyers at some unknown location.
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At 6:36 am, just minutes after the polls opened I called the Boiler Room to report that voters couldn’t find the polling station. The precinct had been moved from its usual place at the front of the sprawling school to the back, and the board of elections hadn’t posted signs. Voters were wandering all over the school grounds looking for the new entrance. More alarmingly, cars were cruising the parking lots and then driving away in bewilderment. I directed a bit of traffic, but we were losing eligible voters in a tight election. Shortly after my call, an election official came out and put up a few signs; problem solved.
At 6:52 am, I was back on the phone with the Boiler Room. The voting process was like an ant trap. People were going into the polling station, but no one was coming out. Something was not working. The Boiler Room told me to call back if the line got longer than 45 minutes. It was weird: people showed up to vote, but there was no line. Finally people started to trickle out. I interviewed them as they went back to their cars, and a picture emerged. The polling station had one electronic voting machine, and the line was starting to curl inside a large activity room. So I got back on the phone with the Boiler Room and told them we needed more machines. They said they’d call the local election board. The situation didn’t change much in the ensuing hours, but it didn’t get worse. I went off to cover my other assignments at other precincts spread across Cumberland County (by the end of the day I had covered about 150 miles).
When I returned to WT Brown about noon, advocates for various candidates told me that the line was still about 45 minutes, and that many voters were leaving because they had to get back to work. Exiting voters told me the polling station was kind of chaotic and disorganized, and they were voting on paper ballots. I called the Boiler Room and again asked them to get help. Just as I was settling in for a few hours at the school, the Boiler Room called me and asked me to check out a suspected case of voter intimidation at another precinct about 15 miles away. It turned out to be a false alarm brought about by one voter who didn’t understand the voting rules and decided to make all sorts of phone calls (that voter eventually voted).
By the time I got back to WT Brown, it was late afternoon and the parking lot was jammed, not a good sign since all the teachers had left for the day. Voters were telling me the line was 90 minutes, and there was chaos inside the polling station. I got back on the phone with the Boiler Room. They told me they’d call the elections board again. By around 5:00 PM, I was talking to people who were giving up. Soldiers with young families couldn’t stand in line, and the line, they reported, was doubled around the activity room. Yet again, I called the Boiler Room and told them people were leaving without voting. That news got their attention, and they promised to call “Raleigh” and send more people to help me convince voters to stay in line. At 5:30 the Mayor of Spring Lake arrived, having been summoned by some higher power. He went into the polling station to talk to the election officials, and discovered the source of our problem.
Military officials at Fort Bragg had promised soldiers extra time off if they voted (a good thing) and advised them they could vote even if they weren’t registered (a problem). The line was now two hours and full of unregistered voters. When these folks finally got to the head of the line, they were given the bad news. However, by law they had to be offered the right to vote a provisional ballot, which required the election officials to complete extensive paperwork (hence the long delays). These votes would, of course, never count, but the soldiers completed provisional ballots anyway. As it got colder and darker, we were losing more and more voters.
Talking again with the folks in the Boiler Room, we decided that I would remind voters as they approached the polls that they needed to be registered in Cumberland County in order to cast a vote. We figured that this would reduce the wait time and help keep eligible voters at the polls. The reaction was quite interesting and understandable. As I delivered my message, some soldiers accepted the news and my explanation of the law and sadly headed back to their cars. They were mainly African Americans and probably Obama supporters. Other soldiers became irate and accused me of trying to prevent them from voting. The Mayor soothed a few wounds, but a bunch of soldiers just didn’t believe me. They suspected that an Obama lawyer was trying to mess with their right to vote for Governor Romney. A couple of hours later, many of these guys walked by me muttering, “You were right.”
As 7:25 approached, we had babies crying, horns honking due to double parking, and a stream of just-arrived voters returning to their cars. They were telling me that someone in the polling station was telling them it was too late to vote. I grabbed the Mayor by the arm and asked him to walk these folks back up to the poll. Mercifully, at 7:30 the polls closed with everyone inside, and the doors were locked.
Now all I had to do was stay warm and wait until the last vote was cast so I could go into the school and get the count. However, at about 8:00 a series of voters started coming out. When I asked if they’d finally voted, they said no. They’d come to the wrong precinct. These folks should have been given provisional ballots, and those ballots might have mattered, as they were registered voters. Once again, I grabbed the Mayor, and made sure these people got back in line.
The Mayor went off to an election party, and some time after nine, as the last soldier was still filling out a provisional ballot, the Election Judge let me into the precinct to get the count: Obama 310, Romney 302. I called the Boiler Room and drove home. Why did any of this matter, the President lost NC by about 60 votes per precinct.