Election Diary: My Time With the Obama Campaign

Jordan Fraade


Not all swing states swing in the same way. In some—Florida or Northern Virginia, for example—there’s a swath of voters up for grabs, and a campaign’s job is to pull those voters over to their side. In other states, loyalties have hardened and it’s just a question of who comes out to vote. This is why nine other people came to Philadelphia to spend the two weeks before the election looking at maps of the state with the Pittsburgh and Philly areas filled in with black marker. Our team’s job was simple enough: find the millions of people inside those black bubbles who supported President Obama. If we got enough of them to come out and vote, he would win the state. If we didn’t, he wouldn’t. There is no early voting in Pennsylvania—the country’s sixth-largest state had 13 hours to vote.


Because I speak Spanish, on Election Day I was assigned to work in Feltonville, a heavily Latino neighborhood in North Philadelphia. I was dropped off at the Association of Dominican Business Owners of Pennsylvania, which was being used as a local campaign office throughout the day and where a volunteer had already brought in several cups of café con leche. I gulped mine down and hoped it marked the beginning of the most boring day of my life.


The first sign that things were going wrong was the stream of locals coming into the office and asking if this was where they were supposed to vote. Scores of people didn’t know their polling places, either because they had forgotten or no one had told them in the first place, so they just found the nearest building with an Obama sign and assumed they had found it. Feeling remarkably less bilingual than I’d hoped, I explained to all of them that we were a campaign office and immediately got to work looking up each one’s polling place. I thought of the thousands of door-hangers we had put up that weekend, each one with the proper polling place clearly marked on the front, and could only manage a “¡Coño!” of defeat.


The good news was that Democrats in Pennsylvania had gotten the word out about the state’s voter ID law. The law, passed by the Republican state legislature that took power in the 2010 elections, would have disenfranchised thousands of voters—with a disproportionate impact on blacks, Latinos, and urban residents, as was the intent—but it was blocked by a judge in early October. The injunction meant that election officials in each precinct had to follow bizarre instructions: They were required to ask each voter for ID, but had to let everyone vote whether or not they had one. We were terrified that someone would misunderstand the rules—either local election officials would never explain that ID wasn’t really required, or voters who’d been told they wouldn’t need ID would get angry and go home—but the campaign had done its job. No one was being turned away for lack of ID.


Around mid-morning, we checked in at the Esperanza Health Clinic whose gym was being used as a polling place. It was here where we realized what the real problem was: According to poll watchers, three-quarters of the voters in that precinct were waiting in line to vote, only to find that their names were not on the roll of voters. Pennsylvania issues Voter Registration Cards that state each voter’s name, party, precinct, and polling place. The state also has an online database of all registered voters and their precincts. But on the only day that actually counts, election judges have a large book in front of them, and that’s the only thing they’re allowed to consult. It was at this point that we finally came face to face with just how dysfunctional a system we were dealing with. A single depleted ink cartridge or printing error could have been enough to purge tens of thousands of voters in a city of 1.5 million.


Anyone who claimed to be registered but wasn’t on the voting rolls had the right to request a paper provisional ballot. But how many of the voters knew this? For that matter, how many of the election judges knew this? Calls were coming in from staffers around the city reporting the same problems—names not on the books; voting machines staying empty for hours, but stacks of paper ballots piling up on the side; disgusted voters turning away because they had to get back to the office or didn’t want to put in the extra time, or because election officials didn’t understand the rules and told them that they simply couldn’t vote that year.


And as for those who did file their provisional ballots? They were told that the ballot would be checked against the state’s voter database and counted if all the information was consistent. Voting-rights groups asked a judge in the state’s Common Pleas Court to order the printing of more provisional ballots, but despite reports that several polling places were running out of them, the judge refused. With all the caveats and opportunities for misinformation included in this process, one hesitates to even call a provisional ballot a consolation prize, especially because these ballots have a high rejection rate and are not slated to be fully counted until November 27. It wasn’t even lunchtime, and already we were hemorrhaging votes.


By this point we were all on our cell phones, making as many calls as we could—to campaign headquarters, asking them to send lawyers; to local journalists, asking them to spread the word; to the Committee of 70, a nonpartisan group that monitors elections in Philadelphia. Other campaign volunteers who had been managing Spanish-English translation and I put a call back into the Dominican Business Association, asking for more translators. And it was at that point that another volunteer ran in to tell us that the McClure School, which had been a local polling place for years, had been shut down and its voters redirected to two other locations. Each of those two polling places, already overcrowded, would receive about 50 percent more voters. The Board of Elections had made this decision a month or two before, but no one had bothered to tell the voters in the neighborhood.



The McClure school is still a working school, and according to local residents it had been a polling place for as long as anyone could remember. A sign had been duct-taped to the door: “This polling location has been closed. Voters in Ward 43, Divisions 5 and 6 report to the Esperanza Health Clinic, 6th and Cayuga Streets. Voters in Ward 43, Divisions 4 and 7 report to the Hunting Park Rec Center.” By the time we reached the school at around 1 p.m., a fierce wind was blowing the sign off the door and voters kept coming up to the school, reading the sign in a just-barely-audible voice, and asking, “How am I supposed to know what goddamn division I’m in?” A few voters had their Voter Registration cards with them and found their division quickly enough. But either way, we had lost six hours’ worth of votes.


It was then that I thought back to all the times over the last two weeks that we’d practiced what field staff called “The Big Ask”—asking someone to volunteer in a way that made them believe the entire fate of the country hinged on their answer. Election Day was here, we found ourselves with no way of knowing how many votes we had lost that morning, and didn’t know how much of a margin we’d need to win the state. So after two weeks of telling myself every day that “The Big Ask” was a silly phrase, I swallowed my pride and decided to see which of our volunteers wanted to stand outside the school, direct foot traffic in 40-degree weather, and win the election for President Obama.


Until the polls closed, we had a succession of volunteers standing outside the school. Most voters had no clue what precinct or division they lived in and couldn’t do anything useful with the sign on the door. Luckily, Google had developed an Election Day search engine that allowed anyone to enter their address and find their polling place. Smartphones in hand, we got to work and soon found out that of the two polling places former McClure voters were being redirected to, one was a rec center in one of Philadelphia’s most dangerous parks. The number of people willing to walk through that park to vote dropped to zero soon after nightfall, but even so, we estimated when the polls closed that we had saved several hundred votes in total.


Ninety minutes after the polls closed in Pennsylvania, the networks called the state for President Obama. But as great a sense of relief as we felt, the fact remains that votes in Philadelphia are still being counted. The city ended up with 27,100 provisional ballots, twice as many as were filed four years ago. Voter turnout nationwide was slightly below 2008 levels, but in Philadelphia it dropped by about 70,000 votes, or 10 percent. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver, Tampa, Miami, Milwaukee, Northern Virginia—in all of these swing-state metro areas, turnout this year equaled or even exceeded 2008 totals. Philadelphians voted in enough numbers to ensure their state would contribute to President Obama’s clear win in the Electoral College, along with his popular vote margin that surprised almost everyone with its decisiveness. But it wasn’t until 11:15p.m., hours after our last chance to bump up voter turnout in the city, that we realized this was the case.


The day after the election, the chair of the Philadelphia City Commission, which runs elections in the city, was stripped of her post when her fellow commissioners voted her out and established themselves as co-chairs. Stephanie Singer had been elected to the commission as a reformer in 2011 after the three-decade reign of a member of the city’s Democratic machine. The new, self-installed chairs seem to be driven mostly by a dislike of Singer (it’s telling that neither of them pointed to this year’s Election Day fiasco as the reason to dump Singer). But of course, that is the Hobson’s choice that the city faces: A “reformer” whose commission completely bungled a presidential election in the country’s fifth-largest city, or a duo of old-school politicians who acted out of what seems to be nothing more than personal pique.


Meanwhile, after everything that had happened, I listened to President Obama’s victory speech and couldn’t help but notice that he extolled the virtues of “noisy and messy and complicated” democracy in a country of 300 million people. In a sense, I was relieved to hear him say it. Living in Washington D.C. and being subjected to the Beltway media’s constant clucking about civility and bipartisanship is frustrating for anyone who realizes that political decisions actually affect people’s day-to-day lives, and are not just fodder for horse-race narratives. Plenty of people thought this was an awful election season, but I didn’t. There was nothing small or petty about the stakes this year, and to that end I’m glad the whole process was drawn out, contentious and fiercely fought. But my aversion to robotic, boring elections only goes so far; to be precise, it goes as far as the door of the nearest polling place.


Author Bio:

Jordan Fraade, a Highbrow Magazine contributor, is a Washington D.C.-based writer.

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