Voting Tolls

For local election monitors, misinformation, malfunctions and late-arriving voting lists plagued the day's work.

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Joe Leonard stops in the middle of the hallway and raises a ringing cell phone to his ear. "What's your two o'clock count?" he says, nodding, then -- without looking at any notes -- he explains to the person at the other end that their precinct at Southern University has already tripled its turnout from 2000.

That's the kind of data you carry around in your head if you're the nationwide field director for Unity 04, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. But instead of spending Election Day in one of the vaunted battleground states, this young, number-crunching wizard has chosen to be here in New Orleans.

"Because of the large African American voting bloc -- African Americans who VOTE -- Louisiana is a state of significance," he says.

In the weeks leading up to Nov. 2, grassroots registration drives delivered 10,000 new names to voting rolls in Orleans Parish alone. Other parishes increased their numbers as well. "There are more African Americans registered in this state than ever," says Leonard.

On the heels of Florida in 2000 and Sept. 18 in New Orleans, every part of the Nov. 2 election received more scrutiny than ever, mostly due to the efforts of the Louisiana Election Protection Coalition. The locally based group -- part of the National Election Protection Program, an organization devoted to safeguarding minority voting rights -- marshaled more than 300 volunteers to monitor local polls and amassed a volunteer team of attorneys.

Leonard is familiar with Louisiana's activist-lawyer tradition -- he's writing his dissertation at Howard University about the work of CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) in Louisiana during the early 1960s. But right now, it's the present that compels him. Upstairs at the Urban League office on Canal Street, he opens a door to let the sounds of a ReBirth Brass Band CD float up from the group's volunteer area below. Politics in Louisiana has everything, he says -- the energy of a party combined with dead-serious grassroots organizing and a passion that extends down to the little kids who wave campaign signs at intersections.

Which is why, he says, "I tell people, 'If you want to see how elections are run, come to New Orleans.'"

THE NAME "TREMICA HENRY" didn't make it into the big book of voters at Joseph A. Craig Elementary School. Henry glances at the clock -- 9 a.m. -- and steps back. Donna Johnson, the commissioner in charge, is pulling open the maroon curtains for the second of two voting booths.

"It's fixed," Johnson says to the next voter in line, then walks over to Henry with a smile.

Johnson explains that Henry can vote on a provisional paper ballot, which only allows her to vote in today's presidential, congressional and senatorial races. Or she can wait to be approved by the registrar of voters and then vote on the machines as usual.

Henry opts for the second choice, because she wants to vote for school board and sheriff. So Johnson walks over to the precinct's beige, government-issue telephone and punches the registrar's phone number. Nothing but busy signals. She re-dials and puts her hand over the receiver as she talks to Henry.

"I've only gotten through once today," she says, waving the perspiration from her forehead. Despite the 85-degree day, the school's air conditioning seems to be off.

Henry stands next to her voting commissioner, her arms folded across her chest. She and her husband, Tyron Henry, had filed a change-of-address at the same time, she says, and his name made it into this book for the Sixth Ward's 4th Precinct. Hers didn't even make it onto the precinct's supplemental list of voters. Those lists, created by the registrar of voter's office after the big precinct books are printed, left the voting-machine warehouse in eastern New Orleans just before 7 a.m. and arrived at Craig school a few hours later, via an Orleans Parish sheriff's deputy.

"THIS IS SO SAD -- they know we're coming out to vote today," says Tremica. She and her husband are suspicious about unreliable machines all across New Orleans, Louisiana's Democratic stronghold. "First-time voters are going to be so frustrated," says Tyron, fanning himself. "They're going to come here and see this and not come back."

Across the hallway from where the Henrys stand waiting, commissioners for a neighboring Sixth Ward precinct are sitting idle. Their sole machine has been down all morning. As it turns out, one button is supposed to be pushed for regular voting and another button for provisional voting. Most reported machine malfunctions stem from confusion between these two buttons.

The provisional buttons are new. The commissioner shrugs her shoulders. "We're not used to this," she says.

One phone call to the Election Protection Coalition confirms that the Craig school commissioner is in good company. The group had, as of 9:30 a.m., received more than 45 reports of machine malfunctions, says Alaina Beverly, a coalition lawyer from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).

"Right now, New Orleans is leading the nation in broken machines," Beverly says.

THE SMOOTH ELECTION PROCEEDINGS that would be reported statewide following Nov. 2 were nowhere in evidence at the basement polling place located in a home at 3915 Louisiana Avenue Pkwy. Callers had reported to New Orleans ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) that both voting machines at the site were not functioning at 7:42 a.m. and still not working at 8:25 a.m. At 8:40 a.m., a voter succeeded in casting a vote on the one working machine, but asked an Election Protection volunteer whether her vote would register. "I don't know how the machine was fixed if nobody came out to fix it," the volunteer says.

By 10:20 a.m., Arleen Robertson had been on the scene for nearly three hours. A longtime resident from across the street, Robertson had been recruited as an Election Protection volunteer after her own attempt to vote at 7 a.m. was thwarted by the non-working machines. Wearing a white-on-black T-shirt proclaiming "YOU have the right to VOTE" and the toll-free Election Protection hotline number, she stands on the sidewalk and takes down the names and phone numbers of those who leave without voting.

By 10:30 a.m., her list covers two-and-a-half legal-sized pages. Two technicians have come and gone, and both machines are now working. But Robertson worries that several people on her list won't come back.

At 10:53 a.m., a sniffling Loreal Hamilton emerges from inside the basement polling place and heads for her car. "I came at 7:15 and came again at 10:05, and I finally voted at 10:50," says Hamilton. On each of her previous trips, Hamilton says, she'd been told that the machines weren't working. Sometime before 10 a.m., commissioners apparently began dealing with the broken machines by handing out Federal Provisional Ballots -- not the proper procedure, according to Election Protection lawyers. On Hamilton's second trip, the machines were still broken and there weren't even any more provisional ballots.

At 10:50 a.m., Hamilton casts her ballot by voting machine without incident. "But this was a hassle," she says, her eyes rheumy with what she thinks is the flu.

"EVERY STATE REALLY NEEDS TO have it together for this one," Louisiana secretary of state spokesman Scott Madere told Gambit Weekly in late October. "If you're the problem state in 2004, it's going to be a black eye -- and we don't want people to see us as a problem state. We have good elections."

Tuesday morning, Beth Butler is ready to disagree. "This is a disaster," she says breathlessly from the Elysian Fields office where she has been fielding phone calls since dawn. As Louisiana organizer for ACORN, Butler has helped deploy an army of coalition members to 150 polling places across the city. Three hours later, she is still trying to pause for a cup of coffee. Her phone is ringing ceaselessly, bringing news of machines that won't work, commissioners who won't allow those without photo IDs to vote using affidavits, commissioners who insist on giving registered voters with proper ID a provisional ballot.

"Bobby Wilson is telling commissioners that voters have to have photo IDs, and that's wrong," says Ron Wilson, the attorney who organized the group of Election Protection lawyers at his downtown office. Bobby Wilson, No. 2 man to Orleans Parish Registrar Louis Keller, was evidently in charge of the registrar's office early, when the attorneys were still able to get through by phone. By about 10 a.m., however, phone calls had become futile. "All we get is busy, busy, busy," says attorney Alaina Beverly.

At the registrar's office in City Hall, it is easy to see why callers can't get through. Paper signs declare the office closed, but every desk is occupied by clerks methodically punching in numbers, verifying registrations one at a time.

A burly man with short gray hair and a slight island accent comes to the counter but refuses to identify himself. "All of the lists were sent to everyone at the same time," he says, reaching for a photocopied list of state and local election offices. "You have a problem, call one of these numbers."

Is he the guy in charge? "Yes, I am the man in charge," he says.

Wouldn't those numbers be busy, like the number at the registrar's office? "That's okay," says the man, turning his back and walking away.

THE SCENE ON THE 18th floor of the building at 210 Baronne St. resembles nothing so much as an all-night cram session. At one end of the conference room, urns of coffee and cases of bottled water flank trays of brownies and muffins. Around the conference table, half a dozen Election Protection lawyers hover over laptops. A 14-page memo outlining problems at Orleans polling places lies sprawled on the table. It was faxed to the clerk of court's office at 10:15 a.m.

It is nearly noon when state Rep. Cheryl Gray returns. Gray had taken a call at 7:15 a.m. about malfunctioning voting machines at 440 Jefferson Davis Pkwy. and had gone to the site. After about 15 minutes, Gray decided to take the problem directly to Clerk of Criminal Court Kimberly Williamson Butler -- in person. Butler sent technicians to fix the problem, but Gray stayed around the clerk's office to troubleshoot.

"The phones are ringing and they're answering, but it's quite a few calls and I think the system is being overloaded," says Gray. From her vantage, the biggest problem is that people are being disenfranchised because election commissioners don't know how to use the federal provisional ballot. "Since the machines are down, people are using the federal provisional ballots as a backup ballot. That's a problem because you're not voting on local issues."

Gray also says that voters listed as first-time federal voters on the precinct registers are being offered provisional ballots. Instead, Gray says, those voters should be allowed to vote by machine -- and vote on local issues.

Provisional ballot problems dog volunteers all day long. Stephen Bradberry, head organizer for New Orleans ACORN, watched as a voter at Crocker Elementary School in Central City presented his photo ID and registration card. The commissioner found his name on the regular precinct register, Bradberry says -- and still insisted that the voter use a provisional ballot. The voter refused and left.

Back at 210 Baronne St., attorney Bill Quigley identifies another twist. "Election commissioners are still not allowing voters to cast federal provisional ballots unless they get permission from the registrar of voters," Quigley says. Provisional ballots, after all, are only to be used if all else fails. But, given the registrar's jammed phone lines, commissioners can't find out whether a provisional ballot is really a voter's only choice.

IIT'S 3 P.M. THE SKY IS GRAY,, and the intersection at St. Bernard Avenue and Gentilly Boulevard is filled with people waving campaign signs over their heads. But potential voters are thwarted once they set foot in the polls.

"Many of the commissioners are just turning people away -- they're saying, 'Baby, your name's not on that list,'" says Deborah Chapman, who is checking polling places on behalf of the group Vote Of The Ex-offender (VOTE).

Most problems with the machines have been ironed out by about 1 p.m., fixed by technicians dispatched from the voting-machine warehouse in eastern New Orleans. By early afternoon, says Election Protection lawyer Bill Quigley, "people-related" complaints are beginning to replace those about machines.

Norris Henderson, president of VOTE, repeats the now-familiar complaints about provisional ballots. He has been driving around to a half-dozen Seventh Ward polls at four-hour intervals to retrieve turnout figures for Joe Leonard at Unity 04.

Henderson parks his car in front of the Seventh Ward's Precinct 27B, a two-machine polling place abutting the St. Bernard housing project, and walks in. Things have been going smoothly there, commissioner Gilda Burbank reports. But the federal provisional ballots have not been a big hit. "A lot of our voters are afraid of that provisional voting," she explains, "because it's been all on the news that those ballots may or may not be counted." Like most commissioners, she's been phoning the clerk or the registrar, without success.

In general, however, Burbank is delighted. "I'm seeing a lot of first-time voters," she says. "Young guys, hitting each other, not wanting people to know that they're excited about voting. It does my commissioner heart good."

"It's that hip-hop vote, that's what it is," says Henderson, crediting hip-hop giants Russell Simmons and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs for getting out the young vote. Combs' influence, in particular, is obvious in this part of the Seventh Ward, where dozens of guys wear Diddy's oversize white T-shirts screaming the motto "Vote or Die."

At Engine House No. 21 on Paris Avenue, which houses the Seventh Ward's Precinct 26A, a long line stretches out the big double doors. In front, two sets of baggy pants stand behind the curtains in the voting booths. Chapman laughs out loud and points at two more young men walking into the booths.

"Look," she says. "They're holding up their pants with one hand and pushing the vote button with the other."

Out in front, a group of guys wearing thigh-length Vote or Die shirts stand next to a fire truck. It's Derrick Francis, DJ J. Smooth, and DJ Grand Hustle from Hot 104.5 FM. Voters are being patient, but some have left, says Francis, "because some people, if they work at Wendy's, they got to sell those chicken sandwiches and can't get much time off to wait this long." The DJs are going from precinct to precinct, they say, and are proud of the big turnout they're seeing from young black men and women.

Inside the firehouse, Fharen Richardson, who just turned 18, is standing in line with several of her girlfriends. "I just want to play a part in it this time," says Richardson. "Because my vote counts."

THE LAWUIT'S PAPER is still warm from the copy machine as Bill Quigley and a few other Election Protection attorneys hustle out the door of 210 Baronne St. at 6 p.m. They're headed to Orleans Parish Civil District Court to file the lawsuit they've been discussing all day.

The five-page filing alleges that state and city election officials "have prevented and continued to prevent thousands of eligible Orleans Parish residents from effectively exercising their right to vote in violation of state and federal law." In a hearing conducted with Judge Sidney Cates via telephone, coalition lawyers ask that 37 precincts affected by malfunctioning machines be allowed to stay open an additional two hours, until 10 p.m. They also request that any legally registered first-time voters who were forced, incorrectly, to vote provisionally be allowed to return to polling places and vote on machines. Arguing against the suit are six attorneys from the Bush-Cheney campaign and counsel for the secretary of state and clerk's office.

Secretary of State Fox McKeithen mocks both the lawsuit and the group that filed it. "I'm going to go on the record and call them tee-total idiots," he says. "They've been complaining all day about this, that and the other." His office, he says, has investigated every single complaint. "We haven't found one accusation they've made to be true. It went as smoothly as anybody could hope for -- it was smooth as silk."

Nonsense, says local Election Protection organizer Ron Wilson. "The problems were out there; they're well-documented. I think he's in denial because he said he was going to run an irregularity-free election, and it's been everything but that."

McKeithen concedes that he -- like others -- had problems reaching the registrar all day long. "I think that obviously we have to update that telephone system," he says. But he predicts that the lawsuit will fail.

In the conference room at 210 Baronne St., laptop clocks tick to 7:50 p.m. If the judge doesn't rule soon, polls will close, making the coalition's demands impossible.

The offices, which have been bustling all day, are now still -- many of the lawyers and volunteers left a few minutes ago for Xavier University, responding to calls from several of the 1,200 students standing in line there to vote. Apparently, precinct commissioners are threatening to shut the doors at 8 p.m., a move that would violate Louisiana law, which specifically says that anyone in line at poll closing can vote.

As a janitor rolls her cleaning cart around the office, clocks unceremoniously click to 8 p.m. In the next room, attorney Wilson receives a call from Quigley, confirming what he already suspects. Cates denied the order.

BETH BUTLER'S FAVORITE SCENE from Election Day 2004 will always be the polling place at Frederick Douglass High School in the lower Bywater. Butler arrived there in the midst of the deluge that swept the city around 4 p.m. and knocked out the school's power. Instead of being deterred, however, voters continued to file into Douglass, trudging through the rain with their umbrellas. Inside, they used cigarette lighters to find their names on precinct books and flashlights to find their way into the voting booths.

On the day after the election, Nov. 3, both Butler and Bradberry seem exhausted as they retrace Tuesday's misadventures. They tick off the names of troubled polling places. "Crocker Elementary, Osborne School, Emory in New Orleans East, Abramson -- what was that school Uptown?" Butler begins.

Bradberry frowns. 'Oh, lord, Laurel School," he says, and laughs. He can't even start to explain what happened at Laurel. Like other sites, he says, it conjures a whole bundle of mess-ups and incidents.

To Butler and Bradberry, the election was inspiring because it showed how determined New Orleanians were to cast their votes -- and to protect the votes of others. Butler smiles as she recounts how volunteers returned to the ACORN office at the end of a 14-hour day, still pumped, and asked when they could work another election. "What a great citizen participation we had," she says.

The two are less sanguine, though, when they talk about Tuesday's problems. Butler sees them as part of a systemic disenfranchisement of Louisiana voters, in which garbled rules and regulations act like the literacy tests of old to keep voters out. Bradberry believes that many election commissioners half understand the laws but are afraid of going to jail if they don't enforce them rigidly, creating a fatal mix of "misinformation and authority."

The best election reform would start with a clear rendering of the rules, they say. "We'd like training -- for election commissioners, for everyone -- that lay people can understand," says Butler.

On Election Day, groundwork for that reform was laid out at every turn.

Late in the afternoon, Vincent Sylvain, Unity 04's state director, stands near the front door talking numbers with Joe Leonard and Norris Henderson. A young man walks up, voter-registration card in hand. He explains his difficulty, how he had tried to vote at the polling site listed on the card but was sent somewhere else. The three men give him directions to the new poll and the young man walks out the door.

"Wait," says Leonard, jogging after him with a Louisiana Bill of Voting Rights. "You'll need this." "The problem," Sylvain explains, "is that people don't always know their rights."


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