The woman had already voted, but she came back in the voting place in near-panic. She was off in another part of the room talking in serious hushed tones, first to the election workers, then to the coordinator, who brought her over to me. "Could you talk to this woman and see if you can answer her question?" she asked.
With a look of concern deep and serious, the near-elderly woman looked at me and told me the story: "I just filled out the ballot and voted for all the candidates I wanted," she began. "But I just noticed on the way out that there were these other questions on the ballot. I forgot to vote on them." She was talking about the sick-leave and sales-tax referendums. Then came her question: "Will my vote count?"
Usually, I try to shade my legal advice in "probably" and "in all likelihood", but I was pretty sure about this one and she needed reassurance. "Yes, your vote will count. You don’t have to vote in every issue on the ballot. You could have just voted for one candidate and left the rest blank, and that one vote would still count." Her furrowed brow relaxed and the frown left her face. She left feeling better than when she came in. Her vote would be counted. That was all that mattered to her that day.
And so it went on Election Day in Milwaukee’s Ward 64 polling place, inside Mitchell Court, a high-rise apartment building for the disabled on 26th and National. From 6:30 that morning to 8 that night, I watched the miracle of democracy unfold before me. All day long, the usually powerless streamed through the crowded room and flexed the muscles of their franchise; seriously, proudly and often joyfully voting in an election that meant something to them, to their children, to their community. Kings and Queens for a day, they stood in short lines, patiently filled out forms, firmly cast their ballots and then returned to their lives of hard work and daily struggles.
The complex tapestry of Milwaukee diversity was on full display. Young and old; disabled and fully-functional; black, white, Latino, Asian; families and the lonely – all came in to cast one vote out of a hundred-thousand in Milwaukee; of 3 million in Wisconsin; of 122 million in the nation. Very few of those voting in Ward 64 spend one-tenth of the time I or any of my readers do on considering the deep issues of the day. But there they were, determined to have their say on the one day of the year that anyone has to listen to them.
I was there as part of the Obama Voter Protection team, designed to make sure everyone eligible got a chance to vote. There was little to worry about in this polling place. The election workers were helpful and friendly to each other, to us observers, and to everyone who came in. One of the workers worked in the building and cheerfully greeted and assisted the residents in getting their vote counted. If the machine didn’t take the ballot (usually because of overvotes – voting for more than one candidate in a race), the voter was quickly given another ballot and got it right the second time.
The ward did a brisk walk-up business all day long. It seemed almost half of the voters ended up at the same-day registration table, either because they had recently moved or were voting for the first time. They came in prepared, clutching their utility bills with their new address in one hand and their small children in the other. The election workers were knowledgeable about the law and carefully made sure the eligible were able to receive their precious ballots. Only a couple of disappointed people were turned away because they had no documentation of their new address and no one to vouch for them, but not before every legal possibility was explored to get them a ballot.
I tried to imagine what it would be like without same-day registration – hundreds of eligible voters turned away because of recent moves or because the election commission screwed up their registration somehow. Many people came to the tables with photo ID in hand, but what would happen if photo ID was required and the election workers would have to turn away so many of those who were otherwise perfectly qualified? Photo ID would turn the exercise of democracy into a grim game of gotcha – a presumption of disqualification unless proved otherwise, instead of the other way around. There wasn’t anyone who voted that day who was not eligible, but hundreds who would have been turned away with Photo ID or without same-day registration. The roadblocks that some would put in the way of so many of those who earnestly and honestly showed up to vote in Ward 64 are a violation of the spirit of democracy in Wisconsin.
After a steady flow of voters all day, we braced for an evening rush that never materialized. Perhaps because of early voting, there was a mere trickle in the last hours. On the TV out in the lobby at 7 p.m., NBC was already projecting Pennsylvania for Obama when one excited voter left the polling place chanting "O-bam-a". It was the only outburst of a day when the celebration was more subdued, but deeply felt.
At the end of the night, I called in the final numbers to the campaign: 573 to 106 for Obama in Ward 64. In this small slice of Milwaukee and throughout the country, the people had their say, one vote at a time.