Some political friends of mine say there's no practical difference between the two major parties. But there is at least one clear defining distinction. The Democrats want to maximize voter participation, and the Republicans want to suppress it. This year, the Obama campaign and its allies are doing more than ever to turn out traditionally disenfranchised or apathetic voters, especially African Americans and students. And the GOP is busy purging voter rolls and hampering registration drives, in the guise of being vigilant against fraud.
Ohio is the perfect case in point. Now, as in 2004, the state and its 20 electoral points look to be the tipping point in a close election. Last time, Ohio's Republican Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, used all kinds of shady maneuvers to tip the scales in W's favor. But now his Democratic successor, Jennifer Brunner, is doing all she can to make voting easy for everyone.
That includes using a new law that provides for a month of early voting before Election Day. As it happens, the start of early voting overlapped the deadline for voter registration by a week, giving citizens the chance to register and vote on the same day. True to form, Obama and Co. jumped at the opportunity of "Golden Week," while the GOP filed court challenges to try and stop it.
I was born and raised in Ohio, so I went home to the battleground for a week to help out.
Monday: "You folks are working in the top target areas of the top target state in this election," explains organizer Amy Little. Vote Today Ohio is one of several independent action committees taking advantage of the early voting overlap. VTO is targeting seven urban areas in the state, including Dayton, the nearest city to my hometown of Yellow Springs.
Volunteers from all over the country are here in a Columbus union hall for orientation the day before Golden Week begins. Another VTO organizer, Tate Hausman, says the importance of this week-long electoral quirk can't be overemphasized: "It's weird little things like this that change history."
Tuesday: Dayton is a mid-sized city in southwest Ohio, its cluster of downtown office buildings jutting out of a suburban sprawl that dissolves into cornfields. As in most of the industrial Midwest, jobs are leaving the city, and so are a lot of the people. There's a large African American population here and a lot of poverty. The only population sector that seems to be growing is the homeless.
Our team leader is Tony Blankemeyer, a big, clean-cut guy who could be a football player if he weren't a political organizer. The rest of our small team are New Yorkers: Eryka, a feisty young activist from Brooklyn; Judy, a friend from college who alerted me to Vote Today Ohio; and two groups of retired women from upstate.
I'm in charge of a 12-seater van I've dubbed the Obamobile. Festooned with posters urging folks to "Vote Early, Vote Easy," it's a rolling representation of the VTO campaign. Where other groups here and around the state are doing door-to-door registration and other efforts to get the early-voting word out, we're poised to taxi people to and from the polls.
This first day on the ground, we try a number of ad hoc strategies to reach potential voters. We troll the major bus routes, leaflet at Sinclair Community College, a downtown campus with a 45 percent black student body, and approach people on a downtown square, concentrating almost entirely on African Americans to maximize our pro-Obama hits.
On this first day of Golden Week, most people haven't even heard about early voting yet. Today turns out to be an educational effort, for us as well as potential voters. We're getting a feel for the city and its neighborhoods. We've contacted a number of social service agencies who will help us help their clients to vote. And we've taken a grand total of one voter to the polls.
Wednesday: The Other Place is a day shelter serving about 200 homeless people, most of them black. They hang out, stay warm, and receive services such as job training. There's also a free health clinic. The center's director quiets the crowd in the day room and I make our vote-today pitch. There are lots of questions and doubts.
"I don't have a photo ID." If you vote early, all you need is the last four digits of your Social Security number.
"I'm a convicted felon." As long as you're not currently in state prison, you're entitled to vote. In fact, the only crime that permanently disenfranchises you is election fraud. (I wonder where Kenneth Blackwell is now?)
"This early voting is a scam. They'll just throw it away." This is the most persistent objection, born of generations of being shut out of the electoral process and doubly confirmed by 2004's campaign to shut out black voters.
But a half-dozen people climb into the Obamobile for the trip downtown. None of them has ever voted before. They range from 51-year-old Wesley to 18-year-old Nicole, who is shivering with the flu but can't wait to vote.
Things are beginning to move. And a federal appeals court has turned down the Republican challenge to Golden Week.
Thursday: I'm driving another group from the Other Place to vote, and eavesdropping on a conversation in the back of the van.
"I hope that guy Obama gets in. This country's really in trouble."
"You're right there. This country has been assassinated."
"Yeah, we need to turn it around."
Two folding chairs flank the entrance to the Montgomery County administration building, set carefully just shy of the 100-foot no-electioneering limit. On one side, a young man hands out Democratic sample ballots to people entering to vote. The other chair, marked with a McCain/Palin bumper sticker, is empty.
Like Secretary Brunner, this Board of Elections is doing everything it can to facilitate early voting. A dozen poll workers seated behind laptops confirm registrations and guide first-time voters through the process. A bubble of excitement floats over the room as people claim their place in the democratic process. One man, placing his ballot in the lock-box where it will be kept till Election Day, breaks into a wide grin. "I feel half my age!" he says.
Friday: We're making slow but steady progress. One vanload of first-timers comes from a job center where high school dropouts study for equivalency degrees and train for service-sector jobs. Bill, a white man waiting with his wife and two young children in the Other Place health center, wants to vote but is reluctant to leave his family there. "Go ahead and vote," his wife urges. "Go down there. It's important."
And then there's Joe, our only passenger on the next trip. He's a middle-aged white guy who tells us, on the way back, that he voted for McCain. "They attacked us on 9/11," he insists, "and we have to kick their asses." We've been instructed not to engage people in political argument, so we bite our tongues. Oh, well—that's democracy.
Saturday: Today we're helping a local get-out-the-vote organization with door-to-door canvassing in black neighborhoods on the city's rundown West Side, where most people aren't registered and many who are didn't vote in the last election. The Obamobile is cruising the neighborhoods, ready to pick up people who want to vote today. My first call takes me to a trashed apartment building with broken windows and tiles falling off the roof. My passengers are a shy young black couple, Robert and Kwashe, carrying their one-year-old, Tristan.
At the polling place I wait outside and chat with the energetic black woman staffing the Democratic chair at the entrance (still no Republican counterpart). She's from the West Side, too, and feels frustrated at the community's political apathy.
"When people complain to me about how the city just ignores us, I say, 'Do you vote?' If they don't, I say, 'Then don't whine to me. You don't want to vote, you've got nothing to complain about!'"
When Kwashe and Robert come out, she congratulates them, and they say to me, "Thank you."
Sunday: Homeward. At the airport newsstand, a headline in the Columbus Dispatch: "Obama opens lead on McCain. Early voting makes pre-Nov. 4 standings more important."
I'm feeling good that I came here to do this work. Happy that we helped give voice to so many disenfranchised citizens. Angry that there are so many homeless and poor people in this rich country. Proud and humbled that so many of them still care about the lousy state of our democracy."
During "Golden Week," September 30 to October 6, 159 Vote Today Ohio volunteers took 3,300 voters to the polls.