As a bright-eyed idealist overflowing with the democratic
spirit, I was outraged when Michigan Rep. John Poppageorge (R-Troy)
proclaimed the need to “suppress the Detroit vote” in
order to hand Michigan to President Bush. I told my professors that
I’d be absent on Tuesday, deciding that my time would be
better spent ensuring Detroiters have the right to vote than
struggling to stay awake in my political sci ence lecture. When one
tried to assign extra work, I told him I’d be too busy
defending democracy, an excuse to which there is no adequate
response. I rose at four in the morning, donned a black shirt
claiming that You Have the Right to Vote, grabbed some flyers
outlining the rights every voter has in Michigan, and struck out
for Detroit with 200 other university students.

Elliott Mallen

I reached my polling location – Cooley High School – about
an hour and half after the polls opened. The lines were already
stretching out the doors, the workers had already run out of
“I voted” stickers and the challengers were already
there. There was a challenger from the Republican Party and (to my
surprise) one from the Democratic Party as well. My partner and I
quickly made friends with both of them. Or, more accurately, they
acted excruciatingly cordial to both of us, giving us no option but
to befriend them. I was half expecting to have rocks (or at least
some sharp invective) hurled at me from these people, so I
didn’t know how to react to their hearty handshakes and
painfully chipper voices. This was going to be more awkward than
I’d planned.

The Republican challenger spent most of his time stalking around
in an imposing manner, looming over voters and scrawling cryptic
notes on a legal pad. I’d often see him tuck the tag
identifying him as a Republican challenger into his shirt, but he
always made sure to pull it back out when he saw me. He clearly
felt extremely out of place as the only balding, middle-aged white
man in the predominantly black Detroit high school. Once or twice
I’d catch him speaking with a voter (which is illegal, by the
way), and when I tried to get close enough to decipher what he was
saying, he’d revert back to ultra-friendly mode. It felt
strange making small talk about the weather and Michigan’s
latest victory over State with the man I was told was a dire threat
to American democracy.

The two of us often discussed the length of the lines. As the
wait stretched from an hour and a half to two hours to three hours,
I noticed with horror as several potential voters starting throwing
up their hands in disgust and walking out the door. My Republican
friend adoringly mused, “God bless the system, this is
democracy at its best.” I couldn’t tell if he honestly
believed what he was saying or if he was trying to rile me up.
Seeing as my shirt had the letters NAACP printed prominently above
“You have the right to vote,” he had no doubts as to
which side I was rooting for.

My new friend and his associates in the Republican Party
didn’t want me there. After all, it was my job to make sure
he showed his credentials as a challenger so that voters
didn’t mistake him for a genuine election worker. I was there
to makes sure he didn’t talk to voters, preventing him from
potentially spreading lies about their rights. The Detroit Free
Press reported after the election that the GOP “complained
that voter protection groups, sponsored by the NAACP and others,
were helping to make sure voters were able to cast ballots.”
This is a scathing accusation if I’ve ever heard one —
only the most treasonous among us would dare ensure that voters are
able to cast ballots.

The vibe at the polling place made it easy to see just why the
Republicans were so bent on disenfranchising Detroiters. Upon
asking people leaving the building if they were able to vote, they
often answered along the lines of “of course I did, we need
to get that man out of office!” Several asked where they
could get a shirt like mine. While people intent on swaying voters
to their varying causes were required to stand at least 100 feet
from the door, the students in the high school had no such
limitations. I heard constant calls to “vote no on
Bush!” (which I’ll have to assume means voting for
Kerry) from high school kids scurrying among the long lines of
voters, and even the occasional demand to queued voters to
“go back home if you’re gonna vote for Bush.”
Sure enough, only 30 percent of the voters in Wayne County voted
for Bush.

Despite the Republican Party’s best efforts, voter turnout
for Detroit increased from 51 percent in the 2000 presidential
election to more than 75 percent this year. Seeing as a 3-percent
increase is considered impressive, this is nothing short of
astounding. With a little luck this trend will continue, making the
job of challengers more challenging in the elections to come.

Mallen can be reached at
“mailto:emmallen@umich.edu”>emmallen@umich.edu.

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