May 2012

The short version is simply that I changed my mind.

I spent the days between my last post and the subsequent meeting of the Board of Elections discussing this with friends and with election colleagues. Everyone’s reaction was the same: don’t quit. Don’t let O’Keefe and his band of idiots beat you, don’t let them control the fate of your precinct, don’t let them have veto power over us, don’t give in, don’t be so damned easy to beat. The last one was one of the main things that swayed me. Quitting immediately on finding out about the heavily manipulated video seemed like the responsible thing to do but it also felt like giving up without a fight and I hate that. I hate that feeling more than any other.

All these conversations also gave me some time to cool off and get some perspective. These jerks did this to me only incidentally. I am collateral damage to them. Their real goal is obviously to build a case in favor of voter ID laws which rig the system against populations comprising persons whose lives don’t allow a lot of time for doing paperwork. They wind up targeting minorities and the poor and especially those individuals who are both, meaning they target Democrats. Voter ID laws are bald attempts at voter disfranchisement. It occurred to me somewhere along the way that one of the better arguments against voter ID is the absence of voter fraud and that means making sure there are attentive, alert people working the polls on election day. I am by no means perfect in the execution of my duties as an election official but I am very attentive and alert when it comes to the goings-on in my precinct.

Those aren’t the only reasons I changed my mind but they were some of them and I had enough, altogether, to decide that I did not want to show up simply to resign. Instead, I went to the meeting, asked to explain my side of the story – as detailed in the previous post – and at the end I said, quite simply, that I understood my job as an election official is to assure the public that their votes are fairly counted and that is also the job of the Board of Elections. As such, if it would increase the public’s trust to have me resign I would be glad to do so but if the Board did not ask me to resign then I would continue in my post. I wanted to give them the option to overrule me or bring to bear some greater experience or expertise.

The Board asked me only one question: could I take the oath of office for my position and mean it? I said that I could, yes, and here’s why: because I don’t have to marry anyone on election day and, more importantly, I don’t have to tell anyone that they can’t get married. The Board was satisfied with that answer and said that they appreciated my offer and my willingness to cooperate but that they saw no reason for me to quit.

So, I’m still an election judge.

It was quite an interesting experience, all told, and I sort of mean “interesting” just as a simple adjective but also sort of in the sense of the old proverb. One member of the Board hadn’t watched the video yet, so we all got to sit there and watch it together. Less than fully fun. However, it provided an opportunity for members of the Board to note that which all my journalist, videographer and editor friends, as well as general tech-heads, noticed: that there are times when the video is not video and the audio doesn’t sync and all the other obvious symptoms of heavily manipulated footage.

The Durham County GOP’s new(?) chair was there to address the Board regarding the 20 or 30 seconds of video that contained me. After hearing me speak and confirm that I could take the oath he said he had no discussion to add or objection to make. It was nice having a Republican in an actively partisan role be pleasant to me for once.

At one point a member of the Board noted that I should take from this the lesson that we – people involved in elections administration – simply don’t get to speak the way others do sometimes. I agreed that it was woefully unwise of me to speak to someone claiming to be a reporter when I was so emotionally raw but I noted that the footage they cut and/or edited was me trying to talk them down from lines of questioning with which they tried to lead me to advocate violence or other forms of extremism. They came at me hoping to get me to say that now was the time to light the bonfires and instead I assured them that time was on our side and the path to progress was one of civility. The things I said to them were not extremist but they were made to appear that way by a couple of lying sacks of shit.

I perhaps unwisely hurried to remind the Board member in question that at 1:00 AM on Wednesday 9 May, when that video was taken, I was on my time. I sat there and did my job from 6:30 AM to 7:30 PM on election day and I never said a word no matter what I heard said about me by voters – and I did hear epithets, at least one of which might have been directed at me by a voter with functioning gaydar though I’ll never know and don’t really want to know – but when I clocked out that night I stepped back inside the protections of the First Amendment and regained the right to make any mistake I felt like making.

That’s how I know I do most definitely still want to be more of an activist.

The question I have been trying to answer since then is that one: what kind of activist do I want to be? The answer I’ve arrived at is this: the kind who gets things done. Standing outside and shouting about an issue can get things done and I love that kind of activism because it’s so kinetic. It involves lots of doing and saying and getting out in the world and it’s a great way to network and meet people and make friends and allies. It’s also a great way to make enemies and nothing makes one feel more alive than having a lively enemy.

The way real change happens in our society, though, is through the legal system. The history of social justice in America is one of people marching in the streets to stay visible while their attorneys work in quiet tones to dismantle the barriers to justice and progress. With that in mind, I’m now seriously considering going to law school. I’m 37, my undergraduate degree was in Performance Studies, my career is in information security and my graduate program is to get a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Information Assurance, Security and Privacy. Not exactly a pre-law degree and a lifespan capable of taking on the student loans, I know. I may have other options for paying for some of it as a job benefit and I may be able to go part-time and I may have other options available that are as yet totally unknown to me. It’s the idea I keep coming back to, though: becoming a lawyer, working in security-related law and doing voting rights advocacy work otherwise. The idea of the LSAT terrifies me and the idea of four to six more years of school after this one terrifies me. The idea of having zero downtime in my life and new debt and not having any clue what my career would look like at the other end all terrify me.

I keep coming back to that anyway, though, so that’s what I’m going to try to do.

The night of the election, May 8th, I went out to a local pub called the bar and met some friends and did some convivial mourning of the outcome of the vote on Amendment One. When we were done I stayed behind to pay the tab while The Boyf went outside to wait for me. I found him having a conversation with two young guys, one of whom had a video camera. They stated that they were with Duke’s student news publication The Chronicle and that they were interviewing gay and gay-friendly voters about Amendment One and our reactions to it. We spent several minutes having a conversation that was very positive and upbeat and during which I first articulated and processed many of the emotional reactions that are reflected in my post from a few days later. They taped me during this interview and asked me to state my name. Then they said they had turned off the camera and transitioned to a jokey, conversational style of chatter with us during which we and they were opining freely and sharing our feelings. The filmmaker (who appears in the video wearing a UNC cap and reflective silver sunglasses, with blond hair and a dark beard) represented himself as a bisexual student activist. They made me think I was getting the opportunity to lift their spirits in a moment of defeat and I believe too much in my community to do otherwise than seek to raise it up when it is brought low. I was completely sober but I had been awake for 21 hours and working on my feet for 19 of them. I was exhausted and I did not ask for ID or other credentials because I prefer to live in a world where it’s possible to have a conversation on the street and express an opinion without fear of abuse.

What they actually did was leave the camera running and, later, pull out select quotes with no context. They dropped all the talk of Amendment One and activism and my feelings as a voter – my observations about how much good has happened in the last twenty years and how much work this gives an activist to be excited about – and used my honesty about hesitating to take the oath of office again to suggest that I was stating I would only enforce portions of the state constitution in my role as an election judge. If one listens to what I say in the video then it’s clear that isn’t what I mean but they do their best to distract from that by failing to caption the words that make it clear and by running out-of-context audio over other footage later. A professional journalist who has reviewed the video said there are obvious signs of manipulative editing that any trained observer would recognize as signs that the video should not be taken at face value and that these will ultimately hurt the video more than help its apparent message.

The kids making the video were, it turns out, part of James O’Keefe’s organization. They used twenty or thirty seconds of me in a ten-minutes-and-change video they say demonstrates how easy it would be to commit voter fraud in North Carolina.

I posted the following comment on the video:

As one of the persons in´╗┐ this video I think it’s important to note that the filmmaker misrepresented himself and the topic to me, performed selective editing and dropped an extended conversation in favor of the juiciest quote with no context. This is an important issue tragically reduced to fumbled anonymous “gotcha” journalism. I decided the next day to resign as an election official because I believe we must mean the words we say, especially oaths. I wish the filmmaker had been that honest.

Overnight it received enough “down” votes to become invisible.

Most of the people with whom they speak are not election officials and are in no way experts on election law. They have nothing to do with enforcing those laws. They are not persons who would be allowed into a voting enclosure on election day for any reason other than to cast their own ballot and leave. They are not people who run elections but they are as welcome as anyone else to have opinions about them. I can only assume that those persons also find themselves misrepresented and their words mischaracterized and taken out of context to put them in the most negative possible light. They also misrepresent the activities at the bar that night to be some sort of official results party but it was just another night at the bar. There was no organization and no party. He line-danced with a bunch of lesbians who were there to line-dance. I am sure there are places where line-dancing is a political act but that night, in that place, it was not a preordained one.

Needless to say, I am saddened and infuriated and disappointed.

One of the things I find most frustrating about this is the ignorance the filmmaker shows regarding the very laws he’s claiming to investigate. When he fraudulently presents himself as another person and then volunteers that he has no ID he is told that they cannot ask for ID. That’s the law; the workers in a polling place are not allowed to ask for ID. If someone wants to show it to us then I suppose they can but we are not allowed to ask and he is taking advantage of that by approaching elections workers rather than legislators as though we should be expected to be more stringent than the law. Precinct officials enforce the laws as they exist; legislators craft them. When he states that he is not comfortable not showing ID and the election official gives him a slightly dismissive, “OK,” that’s something I recognize as the response of a person who has heard a hundred crazier things before lunch every election day for years. One person who thinks it’s weird that he doesn’t have to show ID is way down the list of things to worry about.

Other examples in which he absurdly overstates or misrepresents the circumstances and their risks:

  • He violates the law by filming inside a precinct. This is explicitly forbidden and there is clear signage to this effect in any polling place that has been deployed in accordance with the law. No responsible journalist would violate this. By filming inside the polling place he risked the secrecy of the ballots of anyone else who was in there at the same time. I’ve worked with media on election days in the past and know that a real journalist will show up aware of the law and eager to abide by it. He is none of these things.
  • He breaks the law by misrepresenting himself to election officials who then attempt to enforce the law by asking him to sign his name.
  • He makes a big deal of being told that an “X” will suffice, as though election officials are also tasked with administering literacy examinations. An illiterate person is still a citizen. They may not be able to sign their own name but they may indicate their understanding and an X is a legal mark in that regard. They also most certainly may bring in a family member or a friend and ask that person to assist them in marking their ballot because it is their right to vote regardless of whether they can read. There are machines that have the ability to read a ballot to a person through a set of headphones if they are illiterate and wish to vote; we are required by law to have them available in every precinct. Literacy or illiteracy is no bar to legal voting.
  • The filmmaker interrogates administrators at a university as though they are administrators of elections and characterizes their failure to begin administering elections, on the spot, as a failure of some sort.
  • The filmmaker’s central “gotcha” is his claim that a person who once declined jury duty on the grounds of not being a citizen is now on the voter rolls, a claim which every local news outlet and a number of online sites has pointed out is true and legal because the person in question became a naturalized citizen and is now eligible to vote like any other citizen no matter what he put on a jury duty form in the past.

The central mission of election administration – and therefore of anyone who oversees elections in any official capacity – is one of establishing and maintaining trust in the results that are publicized. Every step of the way, every moment of the training classes we attend before every election, every form and seal and signature, every moment in which a judge or other official is forced to make a judgment call, should have as its foremost aim to maintain or increase the level of trust the public can have in the integrity of their election outcomes. The filmmaker exploited my honesty and my interest in the sincerity of my oath of office in an attempt to damage that trust. I cannot think of anything worse he could have done to me that night. I’ve been mugged, I’ve been assaulted, I’ve had cars and homes vandalized, I’ve been called names and had in fact been called names that very day in the course of doing my sworn duty as an elections official. None of that made me feel more intensely hurt than I do at this moment. I have spent years working to increase the faith other persons have in the mechanisms of local government and their community’s ability to come together and practice democracy. This kid thought that seemed like a fun can to kick and nothing more.

As noted here and elsewhere I have been struggling with the question of whether to continue as an election judge in light of the approval of Amendment One. I was 95% certain that I was going to resign. This has made up my mind for the remaining 5%. If I’m featured in a video that has any chance of calling into question the veracity of elections results in my precinct then I must absolutely step out of the way in favor of maintaining the public trust in elections overall. It stinks to high heaven for me, personally, to have the decision made for me like that by this one random and incredibly dishonest kid with a camera but such is life. My priority really is making sure that elections are fairly administered and the best thing I can do in support of that is to guarantee that elections in my precinct or my county are not somehow tainted by my involvement in them. My service is to the public and to the public trust, not to myself or some personal sense of false ownership over my precinct or any other aspect of the elections process. I would gladly step down if it would prevent one voter from doubting elections for one second.

There are two things I find incredibly ironic about this whole situation. One is that I spoke with him about the importance of being honest when I speak the words of my oath of office and yet he had been dishonest with me in order to get me to discuss those honest concerns. I believe that we must mean the words we say, always, or they lose value; that oaths we take to one another, to an ideal or to a society must be made to the highest standard of honesty possible. I wish this guy could share the same degree of integrity.

The other great irony is that he has pushed me out of the neutral role of election judge and thus freed me to be more of an activist. If his goal was to embarrass me, he has certainly succeeded and I suppose is to be congratulated for having gone to such tremendous lengths to get one moment of tired stupidity. If his goal on the other hand was to diminish my enthusiasm for the outcomes of elections or to make it impossible for me to participate in them in any way possible then he is a miserable failure. Before our conversation I was an election official whose activities were restricted to the voting enclosure and a fifty foot arc emanating from its front door. Now my turf is the rest of the world and I plan to work no less hard on it.

Two stills, pulled from his video, show a better look at the young man who conducted the interview. His cameraman was an overweight guy in his early 20’s with unkempt red hair and a fluffy red beard. He wore overalls and a t-shirt as I recall. I thought they were just absurdly dressed hipsters.

The guy conducting the interview.

The guy conducting the interview.

Another view of the guy conducting the interview.

Another view of the guy conducting the interview.

Having given myself a couple of days to digest Tuesday’s results and my own feelings regarding them, I have a few thoughts on the passage of Amendment One.

First, it was not at all a surprise. I gave money and had conversations with friends and with strangers and went running on the American Tobacco Trail wearing my bright blue “I’m Voting Against / Ask Me Why” t-shirt (and was, once or twice, actually approached by people but always to receive a message of support) and I bought yard signs for myself and for others including some people I didn’t even know. I talked loud and proud about it when walking in my neighborhood with brother and neighbor Pants Wilder in hopes maybe someone would overhear us and be given a reason to reconsider if they were in support of its passage. I knew it would pass, though. I wanted to make sure it would pass by the smallest possible margin and in all honesty I think we got that. Twenty points probably is the smallest possible margin for something like this. I know that sounds implausibly upbeat but I’ve realized this week that I got all my mourning out of the way before the election even happened and I am free of that now.

Second, this is not a loss. Oh, it will harm people and there has been plenty of jowly gloating already and the “Vote FOR” people had the tackiest possible victory party in the universe complete with a seven-tiered wedding cake and a plastic – glossy plastic! – bride and groom figurine on top, but what else do they have now? They beat us on this before the game ever started, way back in ’96 with the state’s Defense of Marriage Act. Tuesday was a victory lap and that stings – bitterly – and it damages real people and I am not immune to anger at that but it isn’t the end. It passed with 60% of the vote but that is significantly less than similar amendments have passed in other Southern states in recent years. Just take a look at the Wikipedia page for marriage amendments and you will see some horrifying percentages: 81% in Tennessee and Alabama, for instance. North Carolina was the last state in the South without an amendment and we passed it by the lowest margin in the South. Just stop and ask yourself what would have happened if this had been up for a vote ten years ago, or fifteen, or twenty; no, twenty years ago it wouldn’t have even been considered an issue because the possibility of gay marriage wasn’t even on the radar for people. Losing 60/40 beats the hell out of losing 80/20 or 90/10 and those are the percentages we easily could have seen in years not so distant from 2012. 60/40 means that four in ten voters on Tuesday knew what they were voting on and why and understood the ways an amendment such as this harms everyone and voted against it. Perhaps it speaks to my high degree of misanthropy to say this but 60% is surprisingly lower than the percentage of people I assumed would vote for it out of simple ignorance or knee jerk hate in the very best scenarios.

I know such talk tastes of ash but those numbers are part of a trend that has taken years to show itself and, projected years into the future, points to a time when days like Tuesday are spoken of as an embarrassing but instructive history.

Third, I have never been this energized for activism in twenty years of being varying degrees of activist. The haters won on Tuesday, sure, but all they’ve got left is to sit back, sip their tea and feel smug. I, on the other hand, have hands to work and energy to invest and a goal to attain. They have yet another notch on the headboard trophy on the mantle notch on the headboard but we have new allies and a broad coalition of groups and interests who a year ago didn’t even know each other existed. They have nothing but time on their hands, time they can only spend watching Tuesday’s victory gather dust. I have friends and family and an army of lovers and we’ve all just been handed a great big kick in the ass to remind us that equality does not come to the complacent and the comfortable.

Progress is not a task that has an endpoint. Changing the world is not a task that will ever be done. If Amendment One had been defeated it would have temptingly easy to hang up my marching shoes, retire to a rocking chair and pretend that life has always been grand. Instead I have been given the sincere gift of remembering what it felt like to be a radical; of feeling a stir of joy on realizing there are still people whom my mere existence pisses off; of waking up on Wednesday to the realization that I have never in my whole life been so happy as I am when I have a bully to fight.

Fourth, I am an election judge. Monday night I had to take and administer my oath of office as chief judge for my precinct, an oath which includes swearing “that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the State of North Carolina, and to the constitutional powers and authorities which are or may be established for the government thereof; that I will endeavor to support, maintain and defend the Constitution of said State not inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States.” Tuesday I had to sit there and help people in my precinct vote in favor of an amendment that turned the state constitution against me. Do I believe the amendment is ultimately unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution? Yes, but I also think it will be a very long time before the courts rule that way, if ever, and in the meantime continued work as an election judge will require me to take that oath and swear to support the state constitution time and again, every election day, when in my heart I will know that I only mostly support that constitution and thus my oath will be a lie.

Is now a good time to point out that I consider myself Lawful Neutral? I’m not sure I can still take that oath. I’m not sure that if I can’t really mean it that I should take that oath. I’m considering resigning as the chief judge of my precinct because that seems in some ways the right thing to do and because a part of me thinks Tuesday after the first Monday in November might be better spent trying to get specific people elected rather than trying to oversee who gets elected overall. My precinct has other good staff who can sit inside and make sure the ballots are cast fairly. I have been reminded that I cannot sit on election day and get what I really want.

I have been given the gift of an agenda and a part of me is unspeakably grateful for that.