Who could blame African Americans in St. Louis for wondering whether deliberate malfeasance at the Board of Elections caused the ridiculous waits in line at some of the predominantly black polling places? Sure, waits of an hour or even two were common throughout the metro area in the morning. And granted, most of the polling places in North St. Louis County didn’t have any longer waits than other places in the area.
But the real problem polling places were all in neighborhoods with a high proportion of African-American voters. The voters themselves were dogged and good humored. And the Obama campaign posted people at each poll to do what they could to relieve the stress–including bringing donuts and White Castle burgers to the longsuffering.
Velda City, of course, was the worst of the worst, as this report from a roving poll monitor for the St. Louis Voter Protection Coalition explains.
One young African-American man vented at last Thursday’s Board of Elections open meeting about the long lines being a form of intimidation, a way of keeping blacks from voting. But the chaos at some polls resulted more from carelessness than from deliberate efforts to disenfranchise anyone.
At Velda City, for example, eight machines were delivered, but–for lack of room–only three were set up. This was occurring at the city hall, so why didn’t the mayor scream bloody murder to the Board or just make another room available? Judge Joe Goeke, the director of the Board of Elections, said at Thursday’s meeting that when he found out about the problem at 4:00, he called Velda City and was told that they didn’t have room to set up the other five machines. Goeke informed them that they had damn well better find some more room. Now. And they did.
But considering that the first black man ever to run as a presidential candidate from a major party was on the ballot, Goeke–if he took his job seriously–could have, should have, sent people to take a look at polling places in African-American neighborhoods and moved them to larger quarters if necessary. Blacks turned out to vote at three times the usual rate, so one little room in city hall was obviously going to be inadequate. There was an empty grade school a block away. Aargh!
And who is to blame for the confusion about whether voters could mark paper ballots without waiting for privacy booths–confusion common at polling places across the county. The Board decided the week before the election that voters need not wait for a booth. But the election judges at Velda City, and at many other polling places, believed that voting any old where was not allowed.
The decision to let voters mark ballots on any hard surface was taken at the urging of voting rights groups. Too bad the Board didn’t follow through with letting the election judges know about it–though the board members, Goeke in particular, did crow that the election protection people had been wrong, wrong in criticizing him for not printing more paper ballots than he did.
Another problem that the St. Louis Voter Protection Coalition–as well as the Obama campaign–tried to head off in areas of high black population was the dampening effect on voters of police presence at the polls. The law allows officers to be at a polling place only in response to a specific problem or complaint. One roving poll monitor for the coalition explained what happened when he saw a police officer hanging around Berkeley Middle School:
Well, I went in, I went to talk to the officer. I said, “Hey, your presence here could be intimidating to people coming to vote, so can you please, you know …” She said “Oh, I’m sorry, my sergeant told me to keep an eye on these cars. Some cars got broken into. But I’ll, you know, I’ll take off.” I said, “OK, great.” You know, problem solved.”
Uh, then I went to Dellwood Recreation Center where I heard there was another police presence. And I went up there, and there was a cop, you know, standing in line, you know, in uniform, wearing his gun and talking to voters in line. I said, “Excuse me, sir. Could I have a word with you?” He said, “Yeah, what’s up?” And I said, “You know, you being here is intimidating people from voting. Or it could. Police arent’ supposed to be hanging around polling places unless they’re on official duty.”
He told me that he was talking to his family and that he was done talking to me. Then I called the command center, and he received a call on his radio about ten minutes later. Then he received a call on his cell phone about twenty minutes later. And then he stared me up and down for about twenty more minutes and he left.
There was no conspiracy among police departments to intimidate voters by hanging around polls. It was more just that a stray cop here and there couldn’t resist acting like a tough guy.
The St. Louis Voter Protection Coalition offered several ounces worth of prevention to the Board of Elections–most of which the Board chose not to implement. But there will be other elections, and the Coalition is already working to head off the problems they know will come next time around.