Thursday, October 9, 2008

Columbus and the Discovery of America

An army moves on its stomach.

Which means that if you are embarking on a forced march for democracy, you better make sure you eat a full breakfast.

Which is how I found myself at the Bob Evans restaurant just off Highway 315 in Columbus, Ohio last Thursday. Surrounded by a dozen women from Oregon (and one of their brothers-in-law from San Francisco), eating a hearty, or rather a heart attacky, meal at 7:30 am local time.

I have no idea what that glowing yellowish sauce on the scramble is supposed to be — and I ate it. Bernaise sauce? Melted cheese? John McCain's plan for securely storing nuclear waste?

Perhaps we can just put it to a vote. Because voting is what it's all about. That's why my cohort and I were in Ohio, enjoying a whirlwind fakation to register voters.

First stop: The Safe House for Democracy, a
nondescript residence in which somewhere between 10 and 15 young, white Marshall and Rhodes Scholars are holed up, playing hooky from Oxford in order to urge Ohioans to vote from home.

And they do not mean the kind of voting most Americans do from home.

The safe house for democracy is sparsely furnished - the bathroom features a dozen bottles of assorted cheap shampoo but not a single towel. Still, they have the essentials. A bank of laptops for entering new voter registration data. A basement full of iPhones, charging up so they can be used to verify voter registration information in the field. And, in the living room, a huge TV, atop of which sits the entire boxed set of The West Wing.

It takes our group a while to arrive, coming as we are in an array of rental cars, nearly all of which make a wrong turn that lands us somewhere in West Virginia. When we are fully assembled, our hosts introduce a young African American minister, who prays for our success, much to the discomfort of the predominantly godless Oregonians.

Though I for one am delighted when he announces that we are anointed. Take that, Sarah Palin!

Unfortunately for Madeleine, one of our group, the ministration becomes manifest when the preacher hugs her hello, leaving her anointed with a rather generous dose of his aftershave.

Madeleine and I end up teamed together for the morning shift of voter reg. A befreckled, red-haired resident of the Safe House for Democracy assigns us each to a commercial strip in the section of Columbus with the lowest voter registration. My position involves rotating between a market, a bus stop, and a convenience store, trying to talk harried shoppers into pausing a moment to do their civic duty.

There's a guy there, calls himself John, always wears a Cincinatti Reds cap the organizer tells me. I'm pretty sure he's a drug dealer. So stay clear of his turf. But tell him Opie sent you, that's what he calls me, and he'll send his customers to you once they're done with him.

Technically, this group is non-partisan. But Opie's information seems to indicate a certain party leaning. After all, aren't the Republicans always saying the free market economy is the engine of democracy?

When Madeliene drops me at the convenience store, I'm sorry to discover John isn't there. Because it seems I am not very good at this. For the longest while, I don't register anyone. Then the old white guy who owns the drive through cigarette/beer/soda store takes pity on me and forces the guy who works for him to register to vote.

When I look down at the completed form, his signature fit perfectly within the box marked do not go outside the lines, I feel a rush of emotion. It's hard to describe, but it goes something like I have left my family and my business, paid my expenses out of pocket and travelled 2500 miles, just to engage in low-level employment harassment.

It really does bring a tear to the eye.

But soon I get my groove on. I realize that if someone is already registered but will talk to you for a while, shooting the breeze, they give you cred with the next person who comes along, who may need to be registered. Over the next two hours, I get 10 people registered and get another 4 signed up for absentee ballots. I register an African American man who is 67 years old and has never voted. A black woman about my own age brings me over to her car so I can register her mom, who is pushing 70. When I ask for her Ohio state driver's license number, the mom rifles through her purse until she finds all her IDs, which are paper-clipped together. These consist of: aforementioned driver's license, JC Penney Card, and license to carry a concealed weapon.

I'm glad I waited for the daughter to come out of the mini-mart rather than wandering over and knocking on the car window myself.

Madeleine picks me up and we head to a local bbq joint for a late lunch.
I order greens, hoping I can pick the pork out, but realize almost immediately what a Sisyphean task it would be.

I opt instead for macaroni and cheese, a dish that was familiar to me not only because I am the macaroni maniac but also because it appeared to be coated in the same eerie yellow substance as my breakfast.

I treat myself to dessert, some strawberry ice cream, and while I am eating it, Madeleine and I register two more voters. That, my friends, is precisely what Dolley Madison had in mind when she founded this great nation of ours.

We turn our completed reg forms in at the Safe House for Democracy, then head to Faith Vote Columbus, where we receive a new set of ugly t-shirts (I'm not sure it's the law in Ohio that one has to wear an ugly t-shirt while registering voters, but it sure is the custom) and are deployed for a door-to-door hunt for unregistered voters.

It's weird to knock on someone's door and ask them to vote, especially since I notoriously never answer my door when a stranger knocks. But now I am the stranger, and people not only answer, they invite me in, letting me sit in their living room and play with their children while I fill out their reg forms. We've been told to keep track of how many Voter Contacts we have - meaning any conversations, even if the person is already registered or doesn't want to register - as well as how many folks we register.

As we move from rundown single-family homes to a row of housing project attached townhouses, we notice many of the folks who answer our knocks are red-eyed and a bit unfocused. I make a special column for tallying these contacts, entitled Voter Contact High.

Everyone we talk to is incredibly nice to us. When I finish registering one young African American man, he says, Thank you, Miss Lady. Much to his amusement, I warmly reply, You're welcome, Mister Sir.

We return to our highway-adjacent motel and wind down from the long day with the tragic-comedy that is the Vice Presidential debate - although unfortunately the woman we see does not have any of the talent or timing of Tina Fey.

The next morning, we are deployed from the Safe House for Democracy to new locations. I am sent with fellow volunteer Cherise to the Community Opportunity Center, a County office that "provides career development opportunities and support services."

It is located in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

This is a golden place for registering voters, because everyone is stuck waiting on line for eons and eons. Some Rhodes scholar has lent me an iPhone, so I am checking the County records to make sure everyone's voting information is correct, and if it isn't Cherise re-registers them. All is going great until two dudes from a rival voter reg org show up.

I call Opie, who tells me he knows this group. They are paid to register voters, and they have a high error rate on their forms, which means that they actually contribute to disenfranchising voters, whose registrations will be voided by the Board of Elections. Watching the two dudes, I see the problem. They are aggressive when they approach people. They are sloppy in their work filling out forms. They do not even have ugly t-shirts. How can they possibly be any good at what we are, after 30 hours, so finely honed to do?

Cherise, who is an attorney, immediately tackles the problem. She puts on her best dumb pretty girl character and starts flirting. This distracts the dudes long enough for me to register a few more voters. She keeps it up until the dudes make a run for the border. Because of course there is a Taco Bell in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

Cherise snaps back into her normal brilliant self, and we register on. And on and on. This is a big election, folks tell us.

Ohio needs a casino
, one woman says.

Let the consumer decide, another quotes — referring not to the decision to gamble money away at the casino but to the decision to gamble your entire financial solvency away at the payday lenders.

During a lull at the Opportunity Center, I stroll along the strip mall to a community health center. Are you registered to vote? I ask a large man who is waiting with his moms.

I can't vote he tells me. I'm a felon. I tell him, felons can vote in Ohio, as long as they are not incarcerated. Which you do not appear to be. Though the waiting room of the health clinic does seem like some sort of prison.

As I get him registered, I realize that the next day is his birthday. Happy Birthday I tell him, please to have given him the gift of civic participation. They never told us we could vote he says, looking down at the completed form. I smile and tell him to spread the word to anyone else he knows in the same position, and then I move on.

This is one of the most gratifying moments of the trip. I hear other volunteers say the same thing, I got a felon! we proclaim with joy at the end of a shift.

If you didn't know what we're here doing, you'd think we were some sort of lynch mob.

But we're not. Though I suppose we are practicing our own leftist version of vigilante justice.

[to be continued in my next blog entry. . . because we are only on day 2 of the 5 day trip!]


mommycrat said...

Oh macaronimaniac,

It was so good to fight the good fight with you. Here's to glowing yellow sauce!


Anonymous said...

love this column, i am so proud of you!!

M said...


bono said...

when the felon said, "they never told us we could vote," i teared up. granted, that doesn't take much, but it is something. seriously, you are cool.