Jonathan Berger
Jonathan Berger

Yes we did

On 4 November 2008, I was one of hundreds of thousands of volunteers across the United States working to ensure Barack Obama’s election. In anticipation of Tuesday’s inauguration, here’s my account of that day.

After an exhilarating 24-hour stretch, I crawled into bed on the following morning with an ache in my left leg and a smile on my face. While 14 hours on my feet had taken their toll on an already injured shin, the rush of the evening’s election results had left me grinning uncontrollably.

First New Hampshire was called, followed shortly thereafter by Pennsylvania. One more “battleground” state — Virginia was top of my list — and it would all be over. The commonwealth was indeed called, but not before Ohio had also been turned a resplendent shade of blue. Over and out — the fat lady was already doing her encore.

Just after 11pm, when the polls closed on the West Coast and in Hawaii, the networks called the election. Within the hour, Senator McCain gave a reputation-saving concession speech, possibly his best address of the campaign, and president-elect Obama was magnanimous in accepting victory.

Some 18 hours earlier, I had arrived at the NoVA Arts Center in Alexandria, Northern Virginia. My task for the day — as a promote the vote volunteer — was to provide information on the Virginia Election Code and intervene, where necessary, to ensure that all eligible voters at my assigned precinct were in fact able to vote.

As one of 4 000 volunteer lawyers and law students, my job was largely preventative in design and practice. At a training session some ten days earlier we were cautioned against getting excited about the potential for conflict. The best one could hope for, we were told, was an uneventful day at the polls. That hope was indeed realised.

When I arrived at the precinct, there were more than 70 people in line. By the time the polls opened a half hour later, it had grown to over 200. At its height, it rose to more than 600, snaking along the sidewalk into a parking lot and around to the back of a nondescript building. At most, however, the wait lasted two hours. The week before, those voting early in other states had taken up to five hours to cast their ballots.

In an otherwise gloriously dull day, a few highlights stand out. Our team, which included a precinct captain, two inside poll watchers, three lawyers and a bunch of Get Out the Vote (GOTV) volunteers — looked for every opportunity to assist prospective voters. Some disabled voters were taken to the front of the line. Others were assisted at the kerbside. Those registered to vote at other precincts were sent off with directions and a restatement of the importance of voting.

In addition, we implemented the Houdini Project. First, the poll watchers took down the names of voters as these were checked against the poll book. These were then compared to a list of targeted voters whose details had been included on the basis largely of an intention to support the Democratic ticket and a chequered — or non-existent — prior voting pattern. The lawyers were then tasked with calling in the codes assigned to each person who had already voted.

Halfway through the call-in, the phone system collapsed under the sheer burden of the load. Plan B was then put into action — the targeted lists were physically collected and taken back to the Alexandria Democratic Committee’s headquarters some ten kilometres away. There, the new data were entered manually. The entire process was repeated a few hours later. Using the newly updated targeted voter lists, additional GOTV volunteers started to place calls and — if necessary — canvass in person.

In contrast, the Republican GOTV operation seemed to be limited to two passive poll watchers and a self-appointed grumpy old man outside. According to our team, the GOP insiders took their jobs literally — they only watched. In contrast, the outsider — it is unclear if he was representing anyone other than himself — was a touch more involved. But other than scare a few voters and rummage through our bags of food, I have no idea what he accomplished, if anything.

The most fascinating exchange of the day saw a lifelong Republican — a corporate lobbyist dressed in five-inch stilettos and a magnificent overcoat — confess to voting for our man. After recognising my fellow lawyer as the person who had knocked on her door the previous weekend as part of a Democratic GOTV canvass, she described how she had worked on previous Bush campaigns and was dreading having to attend a miserable GOP function that evening. Then she disclosed her sin. Delightful!

When the doors finally closed, a couple of last-minute voters were safely inside after having dashed madly from the parkade some 100m away. Two others were not so lucky. The first arrived only two minutes late, but did not seem particularly perturbed. The second, who turned up much later, was visibly upset. A late departure from the office, a broken GPS system and a difficult-to-find location were all blamed. The officials were not even engaged — the polls were closed.

Our jobs were done and it was time to hit the election night “parties”. I chose to join a bunch of policy wonks and lawyers who watched CNN on the big screen, kept up to speed with live blogging, listened to expert input and munched on chewy burgers. Many were concerned about calling results too soon — once bitten, twice shy and all that jazz. The rest of us played by the rules and were not disappointed. With so much blue and only fragments of red, the electoral map was suddenly the sweetest plum.