Tuesday, November 4, 2008

This time, they brought an umbrella

This morning I stopped by the polling place at the Addison Branch Library in Hough. In 2004, local filmmaker Laura Paglin filmed a terrible breakdown in voting there, and the late city councilwoman Fannie Lewis' attempts to get it fixed. It became her film No Umbrella: Election Day in the City, which has been screened at several film festivals.

I figured visiting Addison would give me a quick test of how voting was going today.

There was no line when I arrived at 8:30. The vote was going smoothly, a huge contrast to 2004, when Paglin's film showed a long line of angry people, not moving.

Charisse Eppinger, the polling location coordinator, said the line had been long when the polls opened at 6:30 a.m., with about a half-hour wait, but it had moved along. (A rush at 6:30 is pretty common at voting locations.)

In 2004, the film showed, poll workers at Addison kept calling the board of elections, asking for more voting equipment and more poll workers. They kept getting busy signals.

But when I was talking to Eppinger today, the board of elections called her, on a cell phone it had given her for the day. She told them everything was okay.

I also talked to Alice Jones, presiding judge for the main precinct voting at Addison. She worked there in 2004 as well. Back then, "We couldn't get the board on the phone," she confirms. "Things were more confusing." Today, "they gave us more help. That's the difference."

The board had deployed sharper, younger poll workers, Jones said. "We have newer people today, working." In 2004, "we had a lot of senior seniors, so things were slow."

Jones said many more people had voted early this time. (Early voters are checked off in the poll books so they can't vote again today.) That fits the Plain Dealer report today that 26 percent of Cuyahoga County residents voted early by mail or at the board of elections.

It was a great example of how the board of elections has gotten its act together under director Jane Platten. In my September report on voting in Cleveland, I noted she has 43 workers taking calls from poll workers on election day; her predecessor had as few as four.

Outside, Laura Paglin was filming again. I went up and introduced myself. This was an interesting encounter, since I wrote a very mixed review of her film for the magazine -- though I also used it as an important source in my profile of Michael Vu, the former elections director.

Paglin remembered my review, and said she thought my comments about it were "narrow." But she graciously agreed to talk with me for the blog. In a very meta-moment, we interviewed each other while her camera rolled.

"So far, there's no comparison" to 2004, she said. The only disturbance had come from one person, who wasn't sure where he was supposed to be voting. "In 2004, the line was stuck. It was complete chaos." She wondered whether the calm today was a sign of heavy early voting or light turnout. In the last few days, she says, she attended a press conference at the Board of Elections. "[It seemed like] they tried to anticipate every problem. You could tell a lot of thought had been given to their procedures."

When a county has 1,400 voting precincts, you can't judge based on one location. And I've learned, covering the voting beat, not to declare an election a success until you have a lot of information. But this report from cleveland.com this morning seems to suggest things got off to a much better start than in 2004 and 2006

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