Election Day, a documentary from filmmaker Katy Chevigny, opens in Chicago in the pre-dawn darkness and takes us on a journey across the country on November 2, 2004 — the day America went to the polls to elect local, state, and federal officials. The film ends after the polls close, but not before viewers have had a chance to see the diversity of experiences awaiting citizens who choose to exercise this most fundamental right of our democracy, a diversity that is not unlike the very face of America itself.
The film pretty much follows the chronology of the day. The technical and narrative challenges involved (filming in multiple locations over the course of one day, with no chance of a "do-over", and then editing the work of multiple crews into a cohesive whole) are nicely chronicled on the PBS Election Day website.
The stories told are compelling. We meet Jim Fuchs, an earnest Republican poll monitor who keeps an eye on the electoral process in a largely Democratic neighborhood in Chicago. We meet Brenda Holt, monitoring an election in Quincy, Florida, where a close race for county sheriff pits an underdog black candidate against a white opponent in a county where the black population constitutes a majority. We meet the Buzbees, Bob and Traci, from Sapulpa, Oklahoma, factory workers who sacrifice the quality of their home life to meet the financial demands of their son's kidney disease. And then there's Rashida Tlaib, a Muslim woman from Dearborn, Michigan who takes the day off work to mobilize her family and other members of her community to get to the polls. We follow Leon Batts of New York, a convicted felon and former prisoner, who votes for the first time. As Batts is aided by an organization that works to re-enfranchise ex-convicts, we meet "Bossman", a dishwasher and ex-felon in Orlando, Florida who is prevented by Florida law (which largely keeps ex-felons disenfranchised) from voting. Meanwhile, across the country, Jason Drapeaux works to mobilize thousands of Native American voters on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
These are only some of the stories we encounter during this fascinating look at politics played out at its most local — and therefore most personal — level. Chevigny chose to shoot this film in a cinema verite style, which means that the camera tells us the whole story. There is no narrator, no celebrity voice intoning a message, no Michael Moore-caliber personality to interpret events or insinuate themselves into the proceedings. By allowing us to witness events as they unfold and come to our own conclusions, by allowing these citizens to speak in their own voices, Chevigny acknowledges our ability to figure things out for ourselves. The closest we get to a point of view perhaps comes from Shanta Guate, an Australian observer who is reporting on the election for an organization called Fair Election International. While her job is to observe and not insinuate herself into the proceedings, the expressions on her face as she documents polling place chaos speak volumes.
If you are a white voter from a middle-class or affluent voting precinct, you will likely have your eyes opened by Election Day. My own voting experiences over the decades have been simple and straightforward. I have never not known where to go to cast my vote. I have never had my identity or my eligibility challenged. The poll workers I have encountered have been unfailingly competent and polite. Most importantly, I have never had any doubt that the ballot I cast would be counted. Clearly the American voting experience is not the same for everyone, and if Election Day paints an accurate picture, then it is difficult to escape the conclusion that it is the poor and those who belong to racial or ethnic minorities who are most often asked to vote in the face of seemingly huge obstacles.
Perhaps this shouldn't come as a huge surprise in a country in which election laws are made locally and voting procedures are anything but uniform. This means that in some places voters can register and vote on the same day. In others, people must register by a deadline in order to vote. Some people vote by machine, and others cast paper ballots that are stuffed into a locked ballot box. Voters in tiny communities will cast their votes amongst their friends and neighbors, while voters in large urban precincts may be unknown to the poll workers. That the people who must surmount these obstacles persist in doing so, understanding that they do indeed have a stake in the outcome, speaks volumes about our collective faith in the process. For every citizen who refuses to vote because "nothing ever changes", there are countless others who will spend an entire day and then some pursuing the opportunity to exercise their rights and make their voices heard. I challenge anyone to watch this film and entertain second thoughts about voting this November.
Election Day has screened at festivals and elsewhere to much critical acclaim. It will have its national broadcast premiere on July 1 as part of PBS's P.O.V. series. The show will air at 10pm Eastern, but check your local listings.
Katy Chevigny talked about Election Day with BC Radio Live last Wednesday, June 25. You can stream or download the archived show. The film can be purchase from Arts Engine, a non-profit organization dedicated to producing and distributing socially relevant independent media.