Thursday, November 6, 2008

How I spent election day

Below are the election reports I filed yesterday from Memphis polling places for The Commercial Appeal. Brevity and immediacy were the goals for this 16-member team of election reporters, so please don’t criticize my writing (I’ve done that enough already when looking back over my stories, and I even corrected some of my typos before sending). We were asked to cover as much of Shelby county as possible and talk to a wide range of people on various topics related to the elections, both national and local, though the presidential election was no doubt going to be the main topic of conversation.

Anyway, it was a neat (thought certainly not profitable, considering the time I spent preparing) way to be involved in this historic election. I visited 10 polling places in nine hours and talked to about 50 people, then flew to various McDonald’s around town to file my reports via Wifi. As you can see, my assigned polls were in South Memphis, in mostly poor, all-black neighborhoods. I saw three white voters all day, though I did speak to about four white poll watchers and campaign volunteers.

The people I met and spoke with were all gracious, mostly interesting and typically excited to see history made in this country. Honestly, it made me proud to be an American and see the Democratic process at work, and it made me embarrassed that I said before my mission that I would be working in bad neighborhoods. There were parts of this city that I didn’t really even know existed until yesterday, though I’ve lived in the area all of my nearly 42 years. And everywhere I went, I met people just like me—people who were concerned about the economy, healthcare for children, our educational system, our standing in the world, etc.; people who love this country and want what’s best for all its citizens; people who have the same hopes and fears for our country’s children; people who believe in the American dream, probably a little more today than yesterday morning. These people’s skin color happened to be different from mine.

As I read online comments today from boastful Obama supporters and angry McCain backers, I wish that those people posting such hateful, ugly comments could have been with me yesterday to see the faces of hope, faith, love and peace that I saw, from the smiling children leaving school after casting mock election ballots to the 80-something-year-old great-grandmothers who never thought they’d live to see the day that a non-white person was elected to this nation’s highest office. Though I’m an admitted progressive (many would call me liberal), my eyes were opened yesterday as I witnessed ideology transform into reality.

Yes, there are fringe elements on both sides whose anger, hatred and vitriol threaten Americans’ common quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I urge you instead to listen to the voices of reason, such as those of Barack Obama and John McCain, both of whom were gracious and hopeful in urging unity instead of division at this critical time in our nation.

When you come across someone with whom you disagree on an issue large or small, take the time to sit down and discuss the issue and search for common ground. You may discover, as I did yesterday, that our similarities far outnumber our differences. And the end of the day, I truly felt inspired.

My reports:

Winchester Elementary School
3587 Boeingshire St., Memphis
8:50 a.m.: First-time voter LaToya Doss waited 15 minutes to vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. "I'm just ready for a change," said Doss, a student pursuing her GED at Messick. "I'm ready for somebody who's going to help everybody, not just one class of people."

She was also eager to vote for Steve Cohen, a friend of her grandmother's. She said Cohen is good for Memphis and Tennessee.

Holmes Road Church of Christ
1187 E. Holmes Rd., Memphis
9:20 a.m.: Chris Parharm, 19, and his mother, Lorraine Shobowale, 48, arrived at 7 a.m. and waited two hours to cast their ballots.

"Momma was going to make sure he voted," Shobowale said of her son, eligible for the first time to cast a vote for president. Both consider themselves Democrats and voted for Barack Obama, but Shobowale said she doesn't adhere strictly to party lines.

In the Senate race, she voted for Lamar Alexander "because I feel like he's a fair person" who's done a good job, said Shobowale, a manager for Pizza Hut.

She watched all thee presidential debates and said, "McCain seemed kind of cold; not in tune with everyday people. I wanted to hear how he was going to stabilize grocery prices, gas prices. I didn't hear that from him."

Parharm, a cook for Pizza Hut, said he only watched a little of the debates because he's been working so much lately. Like his mother, he was more impressed by Obama than McCain during the campaign.

"We need somebody who can help the people," Parharm said.

Holmes Road Church of Christ
1187 E. Holmes Road, Memphis
9:30 a.m.: After voting this morning in Mississippi, Mary Rowland of Southaven came to her church in Memphis to serve coffee to voters waiting in line.

"We just wanted to make the line a little easier for people," she said. Rowland, 78, is retired after working more than 40 years for BellSouth.

Rowland said the line at her polling place was much longer than usual, but still she finished at 7:30 after arriving at 6:45. The polls opened at 7.

She considers herself an independent who votes for a person, not a party. Rowland cast her ballot for John McCain.

"I think he's the more experienced man," she said.

Lanier Middle School
817 Brownlee Road, Memphis
10:20 a.m: Retired nurse Helen J. Woods, 67, tried to early vote several times at different locations but the lines were so long that she decided to wait until Election Day.

"I was prepared to stay no matter how long it took today," she said. As it turned out, she had no need for her tennis shoes and newspaper, waiting only 20 minutes to vote.

Woods voted the entire Democratic ticket and will be eagerly watching the returns tonight.

"All the races were important, but the presidential race was the most important," she said.

Lanier Middle School
817 Brownlee Road, Memphis
10:30 a.m.: Mamie Taylor, 58, is not one for early voting. "I like to do it the day of," said the retired IRS accountant, who voted strictly Democrat.

Health care and health insurance were primary concerns for Taylor this election, and she believes Barack Obama will improve coverage for all Americans.

Taylor, whose daughter had spina bifida and died in 2002 at age 30, was bothered to see Sarah Palin's infant son Trig, who has Down Syndrome, on the campaign trail and at political events, including the Republican National Convention. The vice presidency is such a big responsibility, Taylor said, that she wonders how Palin could manage both that job and her young family.

"Your first priority should be your family, especially with a special needs child," Taylor said.

Lanier Middle School
817 Brownlee Road, Memphis
10:45 a.m.: Archie Muhammad, 62, is a poll watcher for the Shelby County Democratic party and said things have gone smoothly at Lanier this morning. He and campaign volunteers Milton Garrett, 58, and Kyo, 21, stood in the parking lot and welcomed voters, who were typically in and out of the polling station within 30 minutes.

"Whichever way it goes, it's history," said Muhammad, who is retired from FedEx. "Everything's going smooth; I hope it stays that way."

Kyo, who no longer uses her birth name, was working on behalf of Better Ballot of Memphis and is a big proponent of Charter Amendment 5, which would allow instant runoff voting in Memphis City Elections.

Garrett, a delivery driver and volunteer for the Obama campaign, said he's been politically active since he was 17. He wore an Obama T-shirt and handed out fliers from the Tennessee Democratic party.

"The crowd hasn't been that heavy; it's been a steady flow," he said.

Norris Road Church of Christ
1055 Norris Road, Memphis
11:55 a.m.: Poll workers and volunteers took advantage of a lull in voting action to enjoy a lunchtime snack. Tennessee Democratic party poll watcher Mennie Person said 130 people voted between 7 and 10:30 a.m., "which is good for this location because it's new." She said voting was steady early but slowed down around 10 a.m., and voting as this location was typically taking about 10-20 minutes.

Jhamel Ivory, 19, taking part in his first presidential election, cast his ballot earlier in the morning but brought a couple of friends, brothers Taurus and Roy Simpson, to help them fulfill their civic duty. Ivory, a cashier, voted the Democratic ticket, including Barack Obama for president, Bob Tuke for U.S. Senate and Steve Cohen for House of Representatives. He plans to stay up late and watch the election returns and will "thank the Lord if Obama wins." Asked if he knew any of the candidates personally, Ivory said, "Obama; I've met him in my dreams."

Carver High School
1591 Pennsylvania St., Memphis
12:50 p.m.: Rev. A.R. Moten, 45, and Michael Hughes, 42, are "tailgating for Obama." The campaign volunteers are set up just outside the parking lot of their alma mater, Carver High, with music streaming from a minivan; an extension cord coming from a home across the street to power the television set; and a grill loaded with charcoal and ready to be fired up. They'll soon be cooking hot dogs and chicken while watching election coverage on TV.

"We're going to feed anybody who wants to come by," said Moten. The community minister and activist said voting has been slow at Carver his morning but he's encouraged by news that turnout is high elsewhere in the city. In addition to supporting Barack Obama, Moten is also campaigning for Barbara Cooper for State Representative.

"She's done great things, and she's really dedicated to this community," Moten said of Cooper. Moten cited issues related to senior citizens, veterans and education as major reasons for his support of Obama. He said that there is an electricity in Memphis and other cities he's visited recently.

"When people talk about voting in this election, they smile," he said.

Carver High School
1591 Pennsylvania St., Memphis
1:10 p.m.: A "crushed" foot and crutches couldn't keep Tequila Nelson, 23, from voting today. The unemployed Democrat brought her three children, all ages 3 and under, to Carver and will spend the evening "glued to the TV" watching election coverage.

TV reports this morning have left Nelson and her boyfriend, Quinton White, worried about fraud, but she remains hopeful that Barack Obama will win the presidency.

"We're going to have a party if Obama wins, just us and the kids at home," White said.

Cummings Elementary School
1037 Cummings St., Memphis
2:15 p.m.: Poll workers said voting has been steady all day but let up a little just as school ended for Cummings' students, most of whom wore "I voted" stickers on their shirts. At peak time there was about a 30-minute wait, and poll officials expect things to pick up again around 5 p.m. when people get off work.

Michael Ragland, 49, said he hasn't voted in a while, but "this seemed so important so I decided to come on in." Ragland, who works in housekeeping at The Med, said concern about the economy was his main reason for voting, and he cast his ballot for Barack Obama.

"I'm trying to save my retirement," Ragland said.

Ford Road Elementary School
3336 Ford Road, Memphis
3:20 p.m.: Campaign volunteers Glenda Gladney and Luevena Rogers were smiling on the job. "It's been going great," said Rogers, 70. "Everybody's respectable, nice, happy. This is the happiest election I've ever been involved in, and I've been doing this a long time."

Rogers and Gladney, both Democrats, said it was busy in the morning before slowing down around 1 p.m. They expect things to pick up again around 4:30 when people get off work.

Sandra Hubbard, 46, voted for Steve Cohen for Congress. "I think he's doing a good job," she said. "He's been around a long time and he understands what people go through."

Hubbard, a paper inspector and packer, said she voted for Barack Obama because it's time for a change in leadership of the country.

"Everything has hit rock bottom for everybody," she said.

Manor Lake Elementary School
4900 Horn Lake Road, Memphis
4:10 p.m.: Republican poll watcher Mark White, 58, said turnout has been steady but not too heavy at Manor Lake. It was busy when the polls opened but there's been little or no wait this afternoon, the retired businessman said.

"They're doing a good job," White said of the poll workers.

Outside, Lester Waldon passed out a pamphlet for "Yes on Five," the charter amendment that calls for instant runoff voting. The 40-year-old Democratic campaign volunteer--typically a night person--arrived at the polling station at 7 a.m. and said he was growing tired but expects to get a second wind.

"I can't wait to get home tonight and watch" the election returns, said Waldon, an Obama supporter. "It's going to be an interesting night, maybe a long night."

New Nonconnah Missionary Baptist Church
4701 Tulane Road, Memphis
4:30 p.m.: Joyce Jones voted for charter amendments that she hopes will positively affect local elections. "A lot of things need to be changed here in Memphis from the top on down," said the 49-year-old forklift driver for AT&T. She describes herself as an independent.

"I vote for whoever's best for the job," said White, who plans to be asleep when the election results roll in. She wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to be at work at 6 a.m.

"I'll find out tomorrow who won," she said.

Both White and her daughter-in-law, Dorothy White, walked out of the polling station about 15 minutes after walking in, and both voted for Barack Obama. Dorothy, 23, is a student at the Benjamin Hooks Job Corps Center and is worried after watching news reports about voting controversies in Florida and Arkansas.

"I just want a fair election," Dorothy White said.

Pine Hill Community Center
973 Alice Ave., Memphis
5:30 p.m.: Laura Morris can't remember if the first vote she ever cast for president was for Dwight Eisenhower or Harry Truman. "I registered at 21 and I've been voting every since," the 81-year-old retired nurse said.

Morris, a Democrat who voted for Barack Obama, sat in a chair in the lobby of the community center and watched as about 25 others waited to vote. She was most impressed by the youth turnout.

"I'm amazed," Morris said. "It's wonderful to see all these young people voting."

Outside, Zola Hayes handed out campaign literature on behalf of Tennessee House District incumbent Lois DeBerry. Hayes, a 66-year-old homemaker and frequent volunteer, has been a tireless supporter of DeBerry over the years and said the state Congresswoman "really represents her constituents."

Hayes arrived at Pine Hill at 6:45 a.m. and said the polling station was very busy in the morning before people went to work, then remained steady for the rest of the day. After a long day, Hayes said she was eager to see the election results.

"I'm ready to go home and see what happens," she said. "I'm excited and hopeful" that Barack Obama will win the presidency.

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