The Ordinariness of Revolution

Nabil Al-Tikriti writes in a guest op-ed for IC:

All day they came. And came. On this overcast Tuesday wave after wave of “real Americans” quietly queued up in determination to rattle the cage of the old order. The first woman in line had proudly planted her folding stadium chair in a light drizzle at 3 AM, waiting for the 6 AM poll opening. By 5 AM there were over fifty voters in line. By the time the polls opened at 6 AM, the line snaked around the community center complex, across the parking lot, and up the neighboring hill.

The morning crowd was overwhelmingly African-American, quietly confident and beaming from ear to ear as they sensed the portent of the dawn then breaking. In the first three hours, roughly four out of every five voters turned up on the Obama campaign’s GOTV [Get Out The Vote] list. As if that were not enough proof of his supporters’ devotion, roughly two out of three came armed with their new voter’s registration card, ready to effect whatever change they could manage through their first vote. While not every person on the Obama campaign list actually voted for Obama, and not every individual missing from this list voted against Obama, the 80% correspondence of voters to GOTV list in the early morning was a true testament to the power of the “community organizers” whom Republicans ridiculed to their peril during their “let them eat tax cuts” convention two months prior.

By 10 AM, that line had been completely processed through the polling station, but the constant trickle of voters through the midday’s slow hours never ceased. As the day went on, the full diversity of Virginia voters emerged as that initial wave of enthusiasts gradually devolved into a public ripple more representative of Washington’s exurbs. What had been an overwhelmingly African-American group at opening was by mid-afternoon a uniquely American mix of Anglo-Americans, Hispanics, and African-Americans interspersed with immigrant Cambodians, Central Asians, South Asians, and several others.

Turnout numbers throughout the day were not only record-breaking, they were record-shattering. Even before opening, some 700 of the precinct’s 3700 registered voters had voted early or absentee. According to the precinct’s chief election officer, the normal number of absentee balloting had historically been somewhere around 20 voters. This immense jump in voter absenteeism reflected a national trend towards early voting, an Obama campaign strategy to emphasize constant mobilization and early turnout, and local fears concerning weather and traffic. Everyone remembered the 2006 election, when an unfortunately timed slush storm left thousands of commuting voters stranded on Interstate 95 and wishing they lived in neighboring Maryland, where the governor was legally able to extend voting an extra hour.

By 4:30 in the afternoon turnout was just shy of 70%, and a light drizzle kicked up in the crisp fall air outside the community center. As turnout then slowed to a trickle, we realized that almost all the voters who were going to show up already had, either through early voting or mass lines in the wee hours of this very dawn. However, even as incoming voters dwindled in the last hour, excitement began to build among the constant rotation of Obama volunteers manning tables in the rain. When all was said and done, the volunteers had reason to be excited – our precinct produced a 1358-937 victory for Barack Obama with 80% voter turnout, where George W. Bush had managed two consecutive 60%-40% victories in 2000 and 2004, with some 55-60% turnout.

As we approached closing time, the last two voters provided their own symbolic irony. First came Mr. Johnson, a classic example of a bearded and beer-gutted “blue collar” American who happened to share the same last name with several African-American Obama supporters of the early morning. I have no idea whom Mr. Johnson voted for, but his very presence and naming commonality with the morning crowd demonstrated old Virginia norms still very much in evidence. Secondly came Ms. Guevara, a working mother who emerged two minutes prior to closure after hustling from her Arlington office job with three toddlers in tow. Completely oblivious to the irony of her name in this context, Ms. Guevara cast the final vote and shuffled through the exit after gaily posing for a picture with her three offspring. Such an anti-climactic conclusion to an otherwise long and exciting day ensured that this particular precinct’s revolution would not be televised.

NABIL AL-TIKRITI, who served as an Obama campaign precinct monitor, is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Mary Washington. He has also served as an international election monitor for seven OSCE-monitored elections since 1997.

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