I’m still reeling. Not just from the historic election results, but from working a fifteen-hour day yesterday at the polls. From 5 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. when we certified the last of the election results and got the huge and bulky envelopes ready for the chief to take with him, we worked tirelessly (well, perhaps at the end, tiredly) voting over two thousand people in the small third ward in the gym at Glen Maury Park, in Staunton, Virginia.
When we opened the doors at 6 a.m., after setting up the tables, turning on the machines, putting up the signs, running through the procedures, and getting everything ready, people were lined up at the door. The voters did not stop for even a minute, until it slowed to a trickle around 6 p.m. Still the people continued to come until the polls closed at seven. At the end of the evening, out of 2900 hundred registered voters, nearly 2100 hundred of them had come to the polls. Unprecedented. In the last election, the turnout was 25%.
I knew something was happening when many of them were first time voters, and not all of them were young. Those I congratulated heartily. But a good many were middle aged and some were much older. The voters were black, white, Asian and Hispanic. Middle class, poor, well-to-do. Businessmen, housewives, nurses and hospital workers, teachers and construction workers. Many wore the uniforms of their jobs.
I had to instruct at least one in four in how to use the machines. For six solid hours I was on my feet running back and forth between two machines. People brought three and four children to show them how democracy works. Others carried babies or led very elderly people; there were even several people from a group home. Several people I knew from town showed up. I had no idea that it was their precinct. People stood in the rain for hours. One woman, 92, who had seen 13 presidential elections, asked me to take her photo in front of the voting booth.
They carried their voter registration cards like badges of honor, slipping them out of the envelopes in which they had been mailed as though they were their first credit cards: white, pristine, handling them carefully.
If my small “red” town, in what has been a “red” state for 44 years could be a microcosm of the United States, then change was coming.
I had volunteered for this duty after working for months for the Obama campaign and listening to the chargers of voter “fraud” coming from the mouthpieces of the McCain campaign and being curious, after voting so many years myself, as to just what it took to work the polls. What was needed, in my state at least, to both man the polls, be trained as a poll worker, and to vet those who would come to vote?
For the first time ever, a plainclothes policeman was at each precinct in Virginia in case of problems. The Democratic Party had lawyers at each polling place, too. There were numbers to call in case of issues; we had pages and pages of “what ifs,” and the chief of the workers was well versed on what to do if a voter’s name was not on the rolls, his address had changed, he had no valid ID, etc. The rules were explicit.
But except for some complaints about the wait, the day went smoothly. People were kind, polite, and even funny at times. They were good-humored, they thanked us for our service. They had their identification out and ready and did not balk when we asked them to repeat their name and address as we looked it up in the book. They were grateful for our instruction on the machines and thanked us again. It was an extremely rewarding experience.
By the time I headed out to the Democratic Party at a nearby hotel I was so beyond my exhaustion quotient I was actually looking forward to what I hoped was a celebration. On the way, National Public Radio informed me that Kay Hagen had defeated Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina and that was my first inkling that Barack Obama might be able to pull this thing off.
It is gratifying that the work I have done campaigning for the past four months for Barack Obama has paid off. I have also been writing about the possibility of such a candidate since July and been covering his candidacy in person.
But I did not do it for that reason. I did it because I believed in this candidacy, in a candidacy where hope triumphs over fear, where intelligence triumphs over pandering to the lowest common denominator, and where the whole world, not just the United States, has a stake in our leadership. This is also a candidacy where the common man gets more consideration than he has gotten in a long time.
Obama’s election is far from just a referendum on how far we have come on race in this country. Black people alone could not have elected this man. They represent just 13.4% of the population according to 2006 numbers, and clearly when you look at the crowd at any Obama rally, or the volunteers at an Obama function, a huge proportion of them are white. Even the entire Hispanic population of 15% swinging toward Obama (which did not happen) would not explain the victory. Obama put together a coalition which represented a mix of the entire country — including, according to MSNBC last night, 35% of the Cuban population in Florida, which has traditionally always voted Republican. He also moved many moderate Republicans to his side and a huge number of Independents.
It is historic, however, that forty years after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and as Representative John Lewis noted on NPR last night, just 47 years after Obama himself was born — when whites and blacks could not even sit together on the same bus — we now have our first black President of the United States. Once again, the United States of America has done something good and first: even the most cynical of us should be able to admit we have shown ourselves and the world what is really possible.
It really is morning in America.