November 2, 2004

Challenging America

It is the first election in which I find myself a father.

I brought my boy, together with my wife, to our local polling place at the Tuttle School in Minneapolis. It was probably the first public, civic moment of his young life. He was his usual impressive self—charming all the election officials in sight—but he seemed generally unimpressed by the significance of the event. I’ll cut him some slack. He’s only four months.

We arrived at 8:30 AM and were greeted immediately by a poised poll volunteer who directed us to the registration table. It was there that I saw The Challenger: a woman in a black business suit, perched on the edge of her chair next to the registration table. I’ve been attuned to the discussion about challengers at the polls during the past few weeks as accusations of fraud, intimidation, and other improprieties have been bandied about. My mother-in-law, an attorney, is stationed at a polling place today as a voter advocate—The Challenger’s challenger.

Given what I saw today, we need advocates like my mother-in-law around. An Asian American woman was registering to vote with her white roommate, a registered voter, vouching for her residence in the precinct. I watched The Challenger. She was looking this Asian American woman over very carefully. The Challenger didn’t say a word. The volunteers collected all of the necessary paper work and directed the newly-registered voter towards the ballot room.

When the woman was out of earshot, The Challenger spoke, addressing the registration volunteer at her side, “I wasn’t sure about that Asian girl. I wonder if she is a citizen. You know, a lot of University students aren’t citizens.” My body tensed and I felt the blood rise into my face. International students—most of whom are, in fact, non-citizens—comprise a mere five percent of students at the University of Minnesota (approximately 2,500 of 51,000, according to Fall Semester registration statistics). That hardly seems an overwhelming threat to Minnesota or to America. And it hardly seems grounds to raise a question about this voter.

As the registration volunteer explained—plainly and patiently—the process of challenging a voter’s legitimacy, it was evident that The Challenger wasn’t trained. She hadn’t seen the forms for submitting challenges (challenges must be submitted in writing) and she didn’t seem versed in the basic requirements for asserting a challenge (personal knowledge or a reasonable belief that the would-be voter doesn’t qualify). To her credit, The Challenger took no action, she seemed to be thinking out loud, but the arbitrary and prejudicial grounds for her question were unsettling.

I almost addressed The Challenger to remind her that a lot of University students are American born with parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth who were born in exotic, far off places like Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. I refrained from comment. I was impressed at my restraint.

As I was moving toward the ballot room, another Asian American woman approached the registration table. I saw The Challenger, who never relaxed for a moment, peer at her driver’s license, looking her up and down. I wouldn’t say that The Challenger posed a menacing threat, but she was conspicuous. If I noticed her behavior, then certainly other voters would too. While that might deter a few dishonest folks who had intended to register fraudulently, I fear that her presence—and her impertinent remarks—have a much greater chance to do harm, disenfranchising legitimate voters. What would a non-white voter think to hear The Challenger question “that Asian girl”? Who wants to get tangled up in some bureaucratic process to defend themselves against a baseless accusation? Maybe it would just be easier to skip voting this time than to mess with all of that. Is it really worth it?

It struck me once again how vulnerable our American polling place—and American voters—are. They are staffed by very ordinary—but dedicated—citizens who receive no compensation for their time and energy. I voted in an elementary school, for crying out loud. There were no security guards, no police officers, no metal detectors, no military personnel. Americans have voted in the simplest and most ordinary spaces in their neighborhoods and communities for generations. Now during this election, more than any other, these spaces are suddenly inhabited by challengers and lawyers. Threatening confrontation—with unmistakably partisan battle lines—looms large. My voting experience today was different from all of my previous trips to the polls. I’m worried that the practice of voting itself will become a “contest,” in the most aggressive sense of the word.

What first-time voter isn’t a little like my infant son, vulnerable and innocent? Who isn’t a bit intimidated at the regulations, restrictions, and rules and worried that they might embarrass themselves—or worse, undermine the integrity of America’s democracy—by unknowingly violating them? Why are the election volunteers, who have been monitoring and regulating our elections in Minnesota for years, suddenly unreliable and untrustworthy?

As my son grows into an active citizen, he and his generation will face untold challenges to America. I wonder what the role of The Challenger will be.

Posted by ogde0004 at November 2, 2004 11:49 AM