The Last Frontier of the Undecideds

I spent all of yesterday traveling from polling place to polling place with election observers from a nonprofit, nonpartisan group called Colorado Common Cause. Its volunteers don’t care whom people vote for, they just want all voters to be able to vote. The Republican secretary of state, Scott Gessler, had made some efforts to keep mostly Democratic groups away from the polls. He sent out letters asking many Hispanic voters to provide proof of citizenship—which they’re not required to do—and his office did not send mail-in ballots automatically to any voter who missed the 2010 midterms. The Latino vote, in turn, devastated the GOP here. In Colorado, they went for Obama 75 percent to 23 percent and made up 14 percent of the electorate, a one-point increase over their share in 2008.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t problems. At times, voters were told they were at the wrong polling place without being offered a provisional ballot or told a utility bill was unacceptable identification even though it is on the state list of approved identification. Common Cause’s volunteers contacted attorneys and election officials and got the problems fixed. When lines were long, they called advocates.

Voting can be confusing in Colorado: Early voters can go everywhere, but, in some counties, voters have to cast their ballots at their precincts on Election Day. Common Cause told voters whom to call and where to go and made sure voters knew their rights. For the most part, their jobs in the Denver suburbs yesterday were blessedly boring. There were a few isolated incidents, but groups—which also included the nonprofit advocacy group Vote Mob and Video the Vote—reported that problems were solved quickly. It was citizen action in action.

One problem no one could solve, though: helping Rob Johnson, a 29-year-old landscaper, decide whether he should vote. Johnson showed up at a polling place in Aurora, a large city east of Denver that bridges two big counties, Adams and Arapahoe, that would decide whether Obama carried the state by the size of his victory margin. Johnson picked the Centre Point Plaza, a government building that normally houses the Department of Human Services and other social-service agencies and sits across a broad boulevard from where the movie theater shooting occurred during a premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in July. A lot of voters went there yesterday because it was a well-known polling place, and by the time Johnson arrived at 4:30 p.m. there was a long line. His friends had urged him to vote, and after his arrival they insisted he follow them to a middle school where lines were shorter and votes were quicker. Johnson couldn’t decide whether he’d follow them to vote and figured he’d choose when he finally pulled out of the crowded lot. He did know he wasn’t going to wait more than an hour, which was the wait time at Centre Point Plaza.

Johnson is African American. He had friends on parole who wanted to vote but were prohibited by state law. He felt obligated to take advantage of his access to the voting booth, but he wasn’t sure.

“Obama really hasn’t did shit,” he said, but he also didn’t believe Mitt Romney was going to follow up on his campaign promises. He believed women had the right to choose their reproductive destinies, but he was also worried about the deficit. Johnson could vote, but he didn’t feel … enfranchised. He was sick of ads, and he hadn’t heard a single politician of either party reach out to the community of men who’d spent time in jail and struggled to make it once they were out. “If I don’t vote, I understand I can’t say nothing,” he said.

Johnson didn’t spout talking points and wasn’t misinformed. There was no reason he could point to as to why he should or shouldn’t vote. He’d gotten the message that his vote in Colorado would count. He just wasn’t sure he wanted to be part of the process. That’s a problem no ad or volunteer could solve.

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