It was, in hindsight, the kind of idea that is just stupid enough to occur to me: visit as many Pulaski County polling places as I could reasonably make lucid comment on in 10 hours. I ended up going to eight.
Though eight isn’t many in the grand scheme of things, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Even though there’s a long list of polling places published every election day —with addresses — in the newspaper, they are inevitably squirreled back, hidden away in school libraries and community center gymnasiums, churches, museums, and even a car dealership. They are never the kind of places you can spot from the road.
To make it even worse, Election Day 2004 dawned as moody as the electorate. A wool sky spit rain. It was a day full of puddles to see yourself in, full of the smell of exhaust downtown, where drivers plowed through intersections with their faces set like they were plowing through snow.
In the Dunbar Community Center gymnasium, people waited three lines deep on the old basketball court, the floor covered in varnish so thick it looked like doughnut glaze. Even at 10 in the morning, there are so many young people here that someone wandering in — someone who has spent the last six months under a rock, who doesn’t know it is Election Day — might mistake this for the vote for class president than the president of the United States. Near the middle of the line, four young black guys, obviously friends, stand together and laugh and talk quietly to pass the hour-long wait as the line creeps toward the table where you get a ballot, which spills into another line that creeps toward the actual voting booths, set up on the other side of the gym. Take away their blue jeans and sneakers, replace them with fatigues and boots, and they look like the kids dying in Iraq. I can’t help but see the face of Navy medic Michael Vann Johnson Jr., the first Arkansan to die in Iraq almost two years ago, who loved Superman comics as a kid, and who now lies under a chalk white tombstone in North Little Rock.
Janet Huckabee is here, still checking IDs religiously. A few days back, after the majority black voters of Dunbar complained about her presence there as a poll worker, the governor got on television and defended her. In particular, he mocked a complaint against her presence that said her body language was meant to intimidate. Standing here, looking at her looking at the mostly black faces that come before her, I can see what they’re talking about. She might not know what she’s doing, but she does strike an intimidating figure: rolling her eyes, talking a little too loudly, at one point yelling like a schoolmarm for them to form a straight line, working her arm at them like she’s doing the tomahawk chop for anyone who needs a visual aide.
The room is tense. The chief of the poll gets into a shouting match with a cameraman from Fox 16. Another man, told he is at the wrong precinct, storms out cursing. A cluster of women stand near the door and talk about how screwed up the process is. Eleanor Coleman, a poll watcher with the Democratic Black Caucus, said the root of all the turmoil could be traced back to their lone diehard Republican poll worker. “Intimidation no longer works for the KKK, and it’s not going to work for Janet Huckabee,” she says. “She needs to take herself out west to where all the Bush signs are.”
Outside, across the intersection from the polling place, Willie Gray stands in a steady drizzle. A black man, he’s only remarkable because he’s holding a sign that reads “Veterans for Bush.” A Vietnam vet, Gray said he supports Bush because he’s the best man to fight off the threat of terror. Asked how his day is going, his response matches the angry timbre of the day: “A lady just throwed a cup of coffee at me. They spit at me,” he said. “That’s the same way it was when I came home from the war.”
Across town, at Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church, the scene is milder: a quiet hall, most of the morning rush cleared out. This is Kerry Country, a sentiment echoed by Barbara Miles. “We’ve got to get George Bush out of office,” she said. “I think this might be the most important election I’ve ever voted in.” Bush’s war in Iraq was needless, she said. As for the rest of his record, she laughs and then says we couldn’t print what she thinks about it, and leaves it at that.
The most surrealistic precinct I visited had to be Parker Cadillac on Shackleford Road. Inside, the salesmen had moved most of the Caddies out in the rain so the poll could be set up, and voters cast their ballots by the light of a chandelier as big as a Volkswagen Beetle. In wood-paneled offices just off the showroom floor, the salesmen looked out at the people casting their ballots like fishermen who hadn’t caught a damned thing in weeks. Ryan and Laura Mascoe, 20-something apartment dwellers from over on Rodney Parham, finish their ballots and come out together. It’s his second time voting in a presidential election, her first. “Starting out,” Ryan said, “I was voting against Bush. I didn’t care if Bozo was the one running. But after I heard some of the things Kerry had to say, I think I’m more voting for him now that against Bush.”
At the train station, the polling place is dead silent, except for the rattle of trains passing in the yard outside — possibly due to the scowling poll watcher who stands off to one side: bald, stocky, in a suit the color of rain. James Cash is chief judge at the Union Station polling place. He said that when he got there at 6:15 a.m., there was already a line that stretched around the building. “You know it’s going to be an election when you come to open the polls and there are already people standing outside shivering like a dog passing a peach seed,” Cash said. “That’s going to be a race.”
After dark, around the times the polls close, the Republicans and the democrats sncamp on opposite sides of downtown, the Republicans at the Holiday Inn on the east side of the city, and the Democrats on Broadway.
In a way, it’s kind of funny that the Republicans would hold their watch party where they did. Even thought he ballroom is windowless, you can still feel the near-radioactive heat of the Clinton Library a quarter mile away, baking through the very walls and chapping the collective ass of everyone assembled.
Too, given that the Holiday Inn has a presidential theme, the eyes of the Republican archnemesis are everywhere. Though the pictures over the buffet style spread along one wall have been swapped exclusively Bush (maybe so as not to contaminate the children present), a big portrait of Bill Clinton hangs just outside the watch-party ball room. “Be careful,” a guy says ominously to me as I stand near it, “You wouldn’t want any of that to rub off on you.”
Inside the ballroom, the mood quickly gets jubilant, peope cheering every time a state goes red for Bush, which is soon most of flyover country.
Across town at the Raddisson, the Democratic watch party never quite reaches such a fever pitch, notwithstanding the live band which belts out “Chain of Fools” with a ferocity that might wake the dead. My photographer and I think it has something to do with the bar. At the Repub side, the Cokes are free. They cost two bucks when bought from the Demos. Though Kerry pulls even for awhile after he took Ohio, the mood never brightens. Heading back to the office, we ride up the parking garge elevator with a black woman with a Kerry for president button on one lapel, and a Vic Snyder button on the other. While she’s happy Vic won, she says, she’s not holding out hmuch hope for Kerry, even though things looked even the last returns we saw inside. “I’ll be very disappointed about it,” she said, and shook her head as the doors rolled open on her floor. “I’ve worked so hard for him to come out. So hard,” then disappeared into the dark.