First came the news report from FOX News’ Palestra.net. Then, the vitriolic attack on a right-wing blog site. Then the news trucks came, and stayed. And then they began hunting us down, from New York, to Columbus, and all the way to Oxford, England. This is what voter intimidation looks like in America today. It’s the Rupert Murdoch version of democracy, and it’s not pretty.
On August 1, 2008, thirteen young activists moved into a home at 2885 Brownlee Avenue in Columbus, OH. We had founded an unaffiliated political action committee called “Vote from Home” and raised hundreds of small donations to support an effort to mobilize citizens to vote early in Columbus, OH.
We came to Columbus because we wanted to make sure that every citizen gets an equal chance to vote in 2008. In 2004, this was not the case. In Columbus’ disenfranchised neighborhoods, particularly in the mostly African American precincts, the lines at the polling places snaked out the door and down the block. In our opinion, this was profoundly un-American. People have jobs, homes, children and disabilities. Waiting for five hours in line for anything is hard for many people, and impossible for some. We came to Columbus to make sure this didn’t happen again.
We came from all over the country. We were eager to come up with a way to make voting easier and reduce the size of the lines on Election Day. We signed a four-month lease, contacted a local summer camp, secured a loan of ten bunk beds, and filled up the four bedrooms in our small house. On day two of our residency in Ohio, we were ready to begin working toward our goal of empowering 10,000 Ohio voters to cast their votes before the 2008 General Election by absentee ballot.
When you work in a community as a volunteer, you develop a close connection to the community in which you work. This quickly happened for our team. Every day, we rose early and went out into the community. For the first two months, we stood in parking lots, visited community health centers, set up tables in opportunity centers and attended festivals with our clipboards in hand. We received a warm welcome, rich with enthusiasm and appreciation for our service.
We spoke to thousands of voters and crisscrossed the neighborhoods of Columbus until we knew Columbus well. We developed a meaningful connection to the city and began to call it home.
As residents, according to the information given to voters on the voter registration form and the Franklin County Board of Elections website, we were entitled to cast our votes in this community we care deeply about. Before any of us registered to vote in Columbus, OH, we closely examined the voter registration form and the Franklin County Board of Elections website to make sure that we fit the requirements. Here were the instructions given to voters on the Franklin County Board of Elections website at the time that we registered to vote (direct quote):
EligibilityThis same information appears on the voter registration form. Having moved in to our home in Columbus on August 1, 2008, and with a lease through November 15, 2008, we more than met the stated 30-day residency requirement. Satisfied that we met the requirements, thirteen of us registered to vote in Franklin County.
You are qualified to register to vote in Ohio if you meet all the following requirements:
• You are a citizen of the United States.
• You will be at least 18 years old on or before the day of the general election.
• You will be a resident of Ohio for at least 30 days immediately before the election in which you want to vote.
• You are not incarcerated (in jail or prison) for a felony conviction.
• You have not been declared incompetent for voting purposes by a probate court.
• You have not been permanently disenfranchised for violations of the election laws.
On October 15, 2008, the harassment began. “Voter fraud alert: Houseful of out-of-state Obama activists registered as Ohio voters, received absentee ballots,” blared the conservative Michelle Malkin blog. “Will out-of-town punks...help turn Ohio blue?” Other conservative news outlets repeated the charges, spotlighting our team members and disparaging our education, judgment, families and intentions.
Soon, four news trucks were parked on the street outside 2885 Brownlee Avenue, cameras trained on our every move. A crowd lingered on the sidewalk. In Oxford, England, Palestra.net camera crews harassed Vote from Home team members. In New York City, where three of the Vote from Home team members have family members, the NY Post ran a front-page story entitled, “Swingers”.
Hundreds of hate-mails filled our inboxes. Day after day we tried to ignore Fox’s nightly “breaking news” clips about Vote from Home.
What was not reported by Fox and the New York Post was this:
1)The average number of Franklin County voters that Vote from Home has registered per month is higher than the Obama and McCain campaigns combined (as reported by the Columbus Dispatch).
2)The Columbus Dispatch has also reported that our success rate for approved registrations (by the BOE) is among the highest of all registration groups in Franklin County.
3)Vote from Home’s fleet of “free vote taxis” brings in people with disabilities or who don’t have their own transportation, and who likely wouldn’t be able to vote otherwise.
On October 23, the investigation was dropped and no charges were filed. As it turns out, deep in Ohio election law 3509.02(c), the rules of residency are defined in greater detail and include intent to make Ohio one’s permanent home. This information, however, was not given on the voter registration form or the Franklin County Board of Elections website at the time that we registered. Subsequent news stories identify many others, on both sides of the aisle, who have done as we did.
To make a long story short; our group is mobilizing a large number of traditionally disenfranchised voters – and some people don’t like it. The personal attacks on us, our families, our education and our intentions stem from a general trend in this country toward voter suppression.
As Donna Brazile recently wrote in a CNN opinion piece, “We must be vigilant in protecting people's right to vote, not vigilant in suppressing it. We must be vigilant that new voters aren't threatened, harassed or turned away.” This is Vote from Home’s role in Columbus, OH, and despite the harassment that we ourselves have received, we have not been – and will not be – deterred from pursuing our mission to serve those who have little means, but who also have the desire, and the right, to vote.
Marc Gustafson, Heather Halstead, Catherine Jampel, Roxanne Genevieve Quist and the Volunteers of Vote from Home.