Beating Republican Fraud in 1992
All the talk of the impending electoral manipulation reminded me of a story from my 1992 campaign experience.
File it under, "Warm & Fuzzy Ways to Beat Republican Electoral Fraud."
Five a.m. Election day, November 3, 1992. The AFSCME guys roared into the parking lot like a cavalry in a motorcade of cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks, piercing the pre dawn calm. Hearty union handshakes lit the fuse, we got some boxes out of the trunk, smiles all around, more nervous energy, the rattle of keys. G‘morning gentlemen, we brought coffee and donuts! You can always count on union guys for coffee and donuts at five in the morning on election day…very grassroots.
We charged toward the front door, as more cars started pulling into the parking lot. A guy turned the key with a military precision and we marched in, fanning out into the building with purpose, flipping on the lights, dropping our jackets on chairs. Grabbed a hot cup of coffee. Took the first sip on the move, all of us darting straight for a windowless conference room, painted the typical union-hall light lime green gloss with a dingy old grey carpet. Someone snapped on the lights.
Tables were arranged in a rectangle, chairs set behind them facing into the rectangle, and twenty phones placed on them and wired to twenty individual jacks in the walls behind the chairs. A flip chart was in the corner, and a big board with a giant chart hung on the wall listing all 88 counties and 20 congressional districts in the state of Ohio.
A staffer brought in a fax machine and fired it up. Another staffer brought in a computer and printer and had it up and running in seconds. Someone plugged in a few extra mobile phone batteries to charge them for use during the day, a coffee machine was quickly stoked up. Top campaign staff took up space in another office with election lawyers and shut the door behind them. Staff and volunteers soon filled the election day headquarters to capacity as all the phones began ringing well before sunrise, a sunrise no one inside even noticed.
The boiler room was up and running. A location kept secret from everyone except for a few key staff until last night, this temporary nerve center would serve as the campaign headquarters for the day. Anything that happened in the state on election day – a problem, a crisis, good news or bad, rumor or fact - would pass up a chain of command and bubble up through the phones in this room, and instructions for dealing with it would pass down out of it. In the other direction, if Governor Clinton or Senator Gore wanted to talk to the campaign in Ohio, they would call this room.
History had taught the old timers at the head of this operation that things tend to go curiously wrong on election day at the usual headquarters…oddly timed electricity outages, or floods, or jammed phone lines. To avoid this sort of chicanery, it had become tradition to move the entire operation of the statewide campaign, for one day, to a secret location. Many weeks and thousands of dollars had gone into planning the boiler room; it would be empty in 15 hours.
The phones around the room were scheduled to ring periodically throughout the day with reports from the field, which would then be analyzed to guide quick decisions on redeployment of resources like volunteers and phone banks, the ground troops that were the final opportunity to make a difference. Is turnout high? Low? Average? Where? Where can we put more last minute canvassing resources? Is there a group of volunteers who can be redeployed to make a difference somewhere else? Numbers would be reported and plugged into the computer which would churn out projections for the result. Other phones were dedicated to gathering exit polling information from around the country. Was this state becoming more critical? Less? Were we winning? Losing? By how much?
The early adrenalin rush quickly settled into grim determination, the day passing long and slow. Volunteers were scheduled in and out in shifts all day, creating constant traffic. Staff were too busy to leave the room very much. Handling calls, averting crises, collecting information, a break to get outside was rare. So rare that sunlight was novel.
“Hey, sunlight….,” I remarked upon walking out the front door for a stretch, at a time of day only identifiable as not night. “…turned out to be a nice day.” Numb observation was the limit of my capacity to respond to my surroundings in the moments between crises that day; a punch drunk fighter in a daze from which I would jump into action at the sound of a telephone ringing.
It started to get hot in the room after a while, and a fan was brought in to cool the place down, some of us stripped down to our t-shirts, the bitter faint aroma of perspiration constant. Volunteers ferried supplies and food and refreshments in and out. Empty coffee cups and pizza boxes piled up. Papers and notes and office supplies scattered all over. People on phones, talking in a low voice, partly to stay calm, partly out of courtesy, partly out of fatigue. The pain in my left wrist grew from holding the phone to my ear, my right hand propping up my weary head, alternately rubbing my temples or wiping the sweat from my brow, then writing down precinct numbers, turnout figures, phone numbers, the static of the ongoing operation blinking across my fingers like blips on a radar screen, the prospect of a knife edge victory or defeat crackling through every moment.
The sun went down (no one noticed that, either). Reports kept coming in that confirmed it was close…real close. The thick tension was often shattered by the profanity laced tirade of a frustrated staffer, or a stir-crazy period of jokes and laughter. Things were getting thrown against the walls, tempers were flaring. The polls were due to close in less than two hours, and still, no one really knew what the outcome would be in Ohio, or nationally.
When a landslide is underway, campaign staff start winding down early, relaxing, taking off for a shower and change of clothes for the election night party; when it’s a nail biter, campaign staff wind up, the phones never stop ringing, the staff trying to find just one more thing to do, one more angle of activity that might get one or two more voters in line at the end of the day. That evening in 1992 a heavy weight of responsibility kept the boiler room just below boiling point, the presidency of the United States of America most probably in the balance.
Just before the polls closed, I heard someone speaking urgently into his phone across from me.
“Do NOT leave that polling place. You stay there until we can figure out a way to get you some help,” he insisted. “We’ve got over an hour until the polls close so keep those voters there.”
I tried to listen to him while simultaneously taking turnout numbers on another call, when suddenly, he stopped. “What?” The dire tone of the call caught the state field director’s attention as he sat in his chair, looking at turnout figures, and he turned his head to listen.
“You’re fucking joking…...” he lowered his voice to a whisper. “I can’t believe this……did you call the emergency attorney?”
“Let me call you right back,” I said to the guy on the other end of my phone, and hung up. The field director dispatched a volunteer to the room where the attorneys were posted.
Soon all the staffers were listening to the urgent conversation. “What did he say? O.K., stay there. DO NOT LEAVE. Just keep them in line.”
Another staffer on another phone seemed to be having a similar problem. “Calm down, calm down. O.K., now tell me again what happened?” He paused and looked over at the field director. Covering the phone’s mouthpiece with his hand, the staffer said to the field director in a whisper, so the room full of volunteers couldn’t hear.
“You’re not gonna believe this…they’re trying to close a few precincts early. I’ve got a volunteer on the line now at a precinct with dozens of people in line to vote, and the chair is trying to shut it down with more than an hour left.”
“This guy is tellin’ me the same thing.” Adrenalin began pumping again. “This is probably happening all over the state.”
“O.K.,” the field director muttered. “O.K…” A brief pause. “Did they call their election day attorneys?”
“Yeah, but we gotta do something…we gotta do something,” the staffer blurted out. “They can call their attorneys, but that’s not going to keep those people in line.”
The din of 20 people on phones was drowning out the frantic whispers. We all sat there for about 15 seconds, looking at the floor in deep thought and concern. All the staffers were getting more and more nervous waiting for the field director’s instructions, starting to panic.
“Those people aren’t going to last long. It’s cold, it’s windy…..they’re just gonna head home.”
We soon pieced together what was going on. Republican-controlled polling places in every corner of the state, possibly organized statewide, were trying to keep people in line from voting by locking up early. Democrats vote late; especially black Democrats. Every one of the voters in line were likely Clinton/Gore voters. Republican-controlled precincts in black areas attempting to close early would keep out hundreds, maybe thousands of Democrat votes statewide.
It was another confirmation that the result was agonizingly close. They wouldn’t pull this kind of crap if it wasn’t. It also indicated that they were desperate. Which meant that while it was probably close, we were probably winning.
The realization that we might be winning didn’t take long to make it around the boiler room. We’re gonna win. If we keep these people in line, we’re gonna win. We’re gonna fucking win. The field director kept looking at the ground, seated at the head of the rectangular table, not making a move. The staffers around him were all nerves, some pacing, some rubbing their foreheads, some looking at the ground themselves. All we need is one, last, little push…but how? The second hand of the analog clock on the wall ticked off the seconds one by one, audible for the first time. Ok…Ok…..how do we keep a bunch of people in line, standing outside in the cold waiting to vote, how do we keep them there until they actually get in and vote?
With a snap, someone lifted his gaze from the floor, and looked at the field director with a mischievous smile.
“Donuts?” replied the field director. “….donuts….” He began to sit up in his chair.
“Donuts. Donuts and coffee,” I said to myself with a cheesy grin.
“I NEED A VOLUNTEER WITH A CAR RIGHT NOW!” shouted the field director. He waved two volunteers over. The whole staff started smiling uncontrollably, perking up in their chairs while reaching for their phones, half softly singing the word “donuts” to themselves, half singing “we’re gonna win”, as they hurried to relay the instructions to the rest of the state.
The field director stood up, took my hand and slapped a wad of cash into it, got up close to my face, looked me in the eye with a steely determination, and said, “get ‘em out there,” then headed to the room with the attorneys in it. I took the two volunteers aside.
“Take this money,” I said, handing them the cash, “go and buy a bunch of donuts, maybe six dozen or something, and buy coffee too.”
The volunteers looked confused. “Six dozen??” they asked.
“Maybe more. No less. Which precinct are they going to?” I shouted to the staffer in charge of the local organizing, who handed me a slip of paper with addresses on it. “First go to this precinct, then go to this one.” The volunteers took the money and the info in silent puzzlement.
I got right up in their faces, as if instructing them to go over the top of a trench with bayonets fixed. “O.k….There are dozens of people in line at each of these precincts. Your job is to distribute donuts and coffee to the voters in line, and make sure NOT A SINGLE VOTER LEAVES until they vote. It may take a while, you might be there for a couple of hours, but you have to stay there until they vote. Got it?”
The light bulb went on. “Oh, we got it allright,” they confirmed, aggressively turning to get their jackets.
“Dress warm, bundle up, take some stickers, some buttons, wear a bumper sticker on your back, make sure they know who’s bringing the coffee.”
“You got it,” they called back on their way out the door.
The entire room, volunteers and staff, was now barking into the phones, calling coordinators throughout the state with the same instructions. Donuts. Donuts and coffee. NOW. Fast. Don’t leave until they all vote. Every last fucking vote.
In a flurry spanning about ten minutes, hundreds, perhaps thousands of donuts and cups of coffee began heading to hundreds, perhaps thousands of voters standing in lines outside of cold and crowded polling places all over the state of Ohio, as attorneys filed injunctions to keep the polling places open until all those standing in line could vote.
The action was now in the streets; nothing more could be done from the boiler room. Donuts and coffee started to appear in the lobby of the AFSCME office, and as they arrived a team of volunteers would be sent out into the night to a polling place. In no time, the boiler room was empty, papers strewn all over the place, phones unmanned, having stopped ringing because the people who might be calling were all at polling places handing out donuts, too.