Massive early voting … the wonder, the worry, the role of race

Politics, Presidential Elections, US culture, US Elections, US Politics

WSB TV down in Georgia reports a story that’s at once heartwarming and horrifying: Clayton County voters on Monday, the first day of advance voting, stood in line for 12 hours to vote. Twelve hours!

While the polls officially closed at 7 p.m. Monday night [..], the line to vote at the Frank Bailey Senior Center in Riverdale didn’t clear up until 1 a.m. Tuesday morning.

Clayton County voter Patricia Lewis finally voted in Riverdale after standing in line to vote for six hours. “I vote in every election and I couldn’t pass this one up. I think about my dad, about the struggles he went through and for me to vote again is just amazing,” Lewis. [..]

For much of the day, Clayton County voters stood in line for eight to nine hours to cast their ballots.

Channel 2 talked to one poll worker who worked an 18 hour shift. She still didn’t complain about the problems. She said she was just glad to see so many people interested in voting. “It makes me feel good,” said election worker Beatrice Lyons. “They can just come and stay all night and I’ll be right here.”

Lyons said she saw some people arrive at 1 p.m. Monday and they didn’t vote until 12:45 a.m. Tuesday.

Voting is fun! (Image used under CC license)

Voting is fun! (Image used under CC license)

Now those are moving stories, but once again I am just the foreigner with his mouth agape: how is this possible? I mean, I’m familiar enough with the election day reports to know that it’s fairly common for people in certain states and regions to have to wait in line for hours to vote – many hours sometimes. What’s the deal here – you’re the wealthiest country in the world, and you can’t set up enough polling stations to avoid making voters stand in line for hours on end to exercise their democratic rights?

The political salience of the story, meanwhile, is of course that this is not election day. Election day isn’t for another day. This is advance voting, and already people are standing in line for hours. What massive turnout is taking shape?

Daniel Nichanian at Campaign Diaries (where I got the above link from too) had some stunning numbers yesterday:

  • In Georgia, more than 1,2 million voters have already voted, accounting for 22% of registered voters and 36% of the 2004 electorate. [..]
  • In North Carolina, more than 200,000 voters cast a ballot yesterday alone, bringing the total above 1,4 million. That accounts for 22% of registered voters and 40% of the 2004 electorate. [..]
  • In Florida, more than 2 million voters have already cast a ballot, accounting for 18% of registered voters and 27% of the 2004 electorate. [..]
  • In Colorado, a 25% of registered voters have already cast their ballot, accounting for 37,9% of the 2004 electorate.

It truly looks like this will be an exceptional election.

(Image used under CC license from Flickr user romanlily)

Or maybe not so much ... (Image used under CC license from Flickr user romanlily)

Nichanian also notes that “turnout among Democratic voters continues to significantly outpace Republican turnout, and that the disparities we started witnessed two weeks ago is holding day after day.” He warns that “this is not to say that the final voter breakdown will be anything like it is now, and polls indicate that far more Republican-leaning voters will vote on November 4th”. But it does mean that the Democratic base is enthusiastic and likely to keep on heavily turning out.

It’s not, however, quite as straightforward as that. Nichanian notes that “it now looks guaranteed that there will be a significant boost in African-American turnout, boosting Democratic prospects.” A PPP poll in North Carolina showed that 49% of African-American likely voters have already cast a ballot versus 29% of white likely voters. It’s not some generic liberal enthusiasm that’s fuelling the record early voting numbers; it’s The Black Turnout Surge, Already In Progress, as Nate Silver headlines his post on fivethirtyeight.com.

There are three states in which early voting has already exceeded its totals from 2004, he notes: “Georgia, where early voting is already at 180 percent of its 2004 total, Louisiana (169 percent), and North Carolina (129 percent).” He has a graph suggesting a direct correlation: “in states where there are a lot of black voters, early voting is way, way up. In states with fewer African-Americans, the rates of early voting are relatively normal”.

This works at the county level too. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio (Cleveland), which about 30 percent black, twice as many people have already voted early as in all of 2004. [..]

[A]ny polling based on 2004 assumptions about what black turnout will look like is probably going to miss the mark significantly.

Or maybe not so much ... (Image used under CC license from Flickr user Wayan Vota)

Yeah, definitely rather you than me. (Image used under CC license from Flickr user Wayan Vota)

So that’s all good, right?

Well, maybe. First off, the notes of pride and justice in stories like Patricia Lewis’s are tinged with a more bitter, justified dose of distrust and suspicion. “It seems like the fear of disenfranchisement among African-Americans is pushing for massive early turnout,” Nichanian writes. And that’s not all. Race is a tricky issue in America (anywhere, really), and maybe in particular in the South. Cue

Having just spent a stretch of time in my home state of Georgia, there are definite signs of a racial backlash developing–against Obama himself, to be sure, but also against the heavy early voting turnout of African-Americans.

Heavy early voting has been a regular local news story in Georgia for several weeks now, and the visuals, along with much of the commentary, has made the disproportionate turnout of African-Americans a centerpiece. And among conservative white folk I’ve talked to, a sense of genuine racial panic seems to be setting in, fed, of course, by the McCain-Palin campaign’s incessant references to Obama’s scary character and ideology. While black turnout in Georgia and across the Deep South is definitely going to be up significantly over 2004, I now think it’s going to be partially offset by higher white turnout.

Sad, yes, that the fact that these elections present a symbolic moment of overcoming history for African-Americans would, by the very function of its symbolic potency, rally the local whites’ group fears and resentments. Like it’s really some kind of zero-sum game. Maybe “overcoming history” isn’t the best word after all.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. FreeDuck  •  Oct 30, 2008 @11:11 am

    As to why we have such difficulty in our country running elections… remember that elections are run locally here. And Clayton county, well, they have trouble holding onto their public school accreditation, so election glitches are not a big surprise. Not that they are an anomaly, of course. Remember, also, that early voting is not available at every polling place that is open on election day (many are schools and senior centers which would not be available for such a long stretch of time). So you will have people coming from many many different precincts to vote at one location, which may not be prepared to handle that volume. This is all just FYI.

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