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Wednesday, October 26, 2016
This year's election had some of the hottest races, with campaigns spending money in record amounts and state wide campaigns to mobilize constituents to the polls. Voters and the general public alike fail to see the smaller incidents on Election Day. CAIR-Chicago, in conjunction with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) ran an intense political mobilization campaign, where volunteers and staff members were able to get an 'insider's perspective' and offer their reflections.
Before I could urge Muslims to go to the polls on Election Day, I needed to vote, myself. Having gotten up early that morning, I went downstairs to my polling place, which happened to be in the same building I live in. As a voter, I know that the Voting Rights Act entitles me to certain things, among which is the right to present my Voter Registration Card as my identification (or have the option to show a non-picture ID), a place to vote without excessive distractions, and election judges that treat me with respect. When I walked downstairs to fulfill my civic duty, I did not get some of those rights.
There is still as much discrimination at the polls now, as there was when voter discrimination was first outlawed. Even with all the protections we have, a few minutes in some of Cook County's neighborhoods will make one think that we are back in the era of poll taxes. I went to the polling location and not only was it noisy and unprofessional, but people were being asked for multiple forms of identification, even after they presented their Voter Registration Card. In my mind, as the minds of many others, that is blatant discrimination and is a serious offense, but sadly, such is the case for many polling locations. While there were not many cases of major discrimination on Election Day that were reported, there were little problems, like being asked for identification when normally voters should not be asked. A little known fact is that certain election judges were intimidating voters of certain ethnicities and turning them away from the polls.
Though such was not the case in Bridgeview or most of the suburbs, it was a problem in the Chicago precincts. Perhaps city residents, especially in the lower income neighborhoods or with certain ethnic backgrounds are given a harder time because the chances of them not fighting back are higher. Perhaps it is that voters from the suburbs tend to vote a certain way so they cannot be bothered as it is 'the right way'. Regardless of the cause, it is important to note that the electoral process needs a desperate makeover and it needs to start with enforcing the Voting Rights Act.
I spent Election Day as a poll watcher at a local public school, in the small town of Libertyville, Illinois. After signing in at 5:45 am (as a poll watcher you must be credentialed, sign in when you enter the polling place and out when you leave), the first step was to ask the election judges to clarify the "100-foot line." By law, all electioneering (candidate signs, campaign propaganda, etc.) is not allowed within 100 feet of the entrance to the polling place. Once the distance is measured, a cone or marker is put up so that candidates and voters know where the limit is.
Around 6:30 am, I started to notice the signs for the Democratic candidate disappearing from the area, and realized that one of the security guards was pulling them out of the ground. He explained that three women came by and told him he had to remove the signs—that they were there illegally. These three women were not election judges or officials of any kind; they were members of the opposing party who did not want the signs in view and saw an opportunity to remove them. Following procedure, I first reported the problem to the election judges, who granted me permission to put them back, verifying that they were in fact 100 feet from the entrance.
Unfortunately, this was not the only problem I observed during my 13 hours in Libertyville. At around 8:15 am, the polling place was visited by officials from the State's Attorney's office. They had received complaints from voters that the Democrats had placed their signs too close to the door, and came to investigate. After measuring twice, the signs were approved, and the voting continued. Around 3:30 pm, I again witnessed someone pulling the signs out of the lawn. However, this time it was one of the election judges. I was told that the Superintendent had decided not to allow any campaign propaganda on school property. However, because it was a public school, he did not have the authority to make that decision. In the State of Illinois, the only way a polling place can ban all campaign propaganda from its property, is if the building is a church/religious institution or a private school. Knowing this, I reported the problem to the State's Attorney, who again ruled in my favor. This same situation happened to two colleagues of mine, at two nearby public schools.
Why argue over petty lawn signs? Isn't a sign that is 99 feet from the entrance just as effective as one that is 101 feet away? Is it worth the time and energy spent to investigate something so trivial? The reason such small infractions must be reported is that they are a tiny part of a much larger goal: ensuring a free and fair election. If something minor is ignored, what happens when it is something major? Poll watchers are there to be sure that those chosen to monitor our elections are following the law and treating each voter and candidate equally, so every citizen can exercise our most important civic duty—voting.
On Election Day I was scheduled to assist with mobilization efforts in the Bridgeview area, but had agreed with organizer Haady Taslim that I would come only after voting myself when the polls opened at 6 a.m.
My poll location was only a block from my house, inside a private condominium complex that took me a few moments to locate. Once inside, I showed my voter registration card, and was promptly given my ballot and an area to make my voting selections.
My voting experience was nothing if not pleasant, the enthusiasm from poll watchers and early morning voters created an almost festive atmosphere. After voting, my ballot was entered into a reader, which signaled that my vote had been successfully processed.
I arrived at the Mosque Foundation soon after, where I met with Haady Taslim and Ahlam Jbara, who assigned me four Universal high school students to drive to local precincts. We were given street maps, walk sheets with names and addresses, door hang tags, voter guides, and polling place information for each precinct to help mobilize voters. At every house on our list we either met with voters or left door hang tags with polling information, while documenting results on our walk sheets.
My group had several successful meetings where we informed Muslim voters that we were counting on them to vote and make our collective voice heard, but we also met some obstacles. Many voters weren't home during the day, or had incorrectly listed addresses, and at least one registered voter felt too disenfranchised to vote this year.
My high school group responded with some pessimism, voicing that they weren't sure their efforts were very effective or useful, and canvassing the large area was tedious work.
But as we spoke, we realized that our efforts, replicated by the 200 other volunteers who came to the Mosque Foundation, must be reaching not only a large number of people, but also generating a "buzz" amongst Muslim voters due to our combined efforts. We reasoned that if our single team of 4 could reach even 25-30 Muslim households, then the entire group of door to door teams and phone bankers could easily be reaching thousands of Muslim voters that day.
Overall, I was very encouraged by the efforts and organization of the voter drive. I was impressed with the Muslim community of Bridgeview for generating such a large number of volunteers and helping with multiple accommodations, facilitating a great community effort to generate a Muslim voice this election.
I also felt that the drive was well planned by the community organizers, whose stated goal to get every registered Muslim to vote this year was supported by a multi-tiered approach of reaching out, educating, and assisting voters to reach that end.
Their efforts created a model for future voter drives, which I hope to see replicated next election in Bridgeview and in the many other districts of Illinois.
My poll watching experience was very positive unlike other volunteers. While I was in Bridgeview, Illinois, I spent the day traveling from polling place to another and monitoring the activities of election judges as well as registered voters who came to the polls. I first began my day at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview. Many volunteers arrived at the Mosque early in the morning. Everybody was very energetic and ready to help ensure that voters turned out in high numbers.
My duties included documenting the voter turnout of Muslim and Arab constituents in the southwest suburban area, along with Bridgeview. I enjoyed seeing the large number of voters that came up to support their candidates. Overall, I was happy to report that no disruptions occurred and the election judges were very respectful.
However I did learn of some problems occurred throughout the city. I feel that more emphasis should be put on protecting inner-city constituents in the future as a result of those complications. We should all embrace our right to vote and mutually honor that right irrespective of political ideology.
As a first time Election Day poll watcher, I was surprised at how smoothly the election judges managed the precincts and election process. When I arrived at the Mosque Foundation at 7:00 a.m., I saw 20 gallons of Dunkin Donuts coffee lined against the wall, suggesting we pool-watchers had a long day ahead of us. Twelve hours of open polls hardly seems like enough time for a group of volunteers to monitor each precinct. But the superb individual efforts from each volunteer proved successful.
Of the five locations I monitored in Bridgeview, I did not witness one major problem. When voters made mistakes on their ballots, the election-officials eagerly helped them correct the errors, or offered them a new ballot altogether. For over eight hours, I did not see one voter turned down at the polls. In fact, the longest one single voter had to wait in line to cast his or her vote was only 10 minutes. Martha, one election judge, even took the time thoroughly explain how the voting machine worked to one voter who seemed perplexed about the 240 year old process. While I can’t speak for the entire state, it was clear that some of the polls in Bridgeview were run successfully, and the people were able to exercise their right to vote without any difficulty. Thanks Uncle Sam.
The entire night before Election Day, I was up trying to tame the monster. The monster was the Get-Out-the-Muslim-vote machine we had created: it sprawled four townships, twelve different towns, 42 precincts, and would target over 1300 households and almost 2,000 Muslim voters. The monster was manned by over 200 volunteers, who would drive to 35 different precincts, knock on 1300 doors and call 2,000 Muslim voters on our 15 phone lines. The monster was fed on 12 dozen donuts, 10 gallons of coffee, 12 cases of water, 8 cases of soda, 30 pounds of pasta, 70 bag lunches and 22 thin-crust pizzas.
The sheer size and complexity of this operation frightened me – how could it possibly be tamed?
After a frantic evening puzzling over precinct maps and trying to schedule the day, I waited for the first wave of volunteers to show up. A mass of high school students casually walked into the basement of the Bridgeview mosque, laughing, socializing, eyeing the donuts, but looking around skeptically. I waited impatiently for the adult chaperones to show up so they could drive these students to their neighborhoods and put them to work.
We waited restlessly for the chaperones to show up as the minutes ticked by. Finally, at 9:30 the adults started trickling in. We grabbed up the adults as soon as they walked through the door and divided them up with teams of students. By 10 am, we had almost 15 teams out in the field knocking on doors. As the last team of students embarked on the field, an ominous hush came over the basement of the Bridgeview mosque.
Back at headquarters, 15 students were hunched before extensive phone lists calling all of the Muslim voters we could identify in our district. I caught my breath and witnessed our monster at work.
- Haady Taslim
New Americans Democracy Project Fellow and
former Governmental Relations Intern