Virginia has 13 electoral votes at stake. Historically a red state, it hasn’t voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1964 when LBJ won all but six states following Kennedy’s assassination. It’s been a staple of the Republican party. In recent years, the expansion of the DC suburbs in northern Virginia has begun to swing the state. Its last two governors were Democrats, one of whom is about to be elected to the Senate in convincing fashion. Four years ago, John Kerry came within eight points of carrying the state. Currently, Obama is leading by between four and nine points in Virginia. Most pollsters now classify it as a “leaning” blue state. If Obama wins all the states that are trending blue but loses all the toss-ups, he still wins the election by a considerable margin. Therefore, McCain is now in a position where he has to win every undecided state (and he’s down in most of them) and additionally turn some blue to red. That’s where I come in.
If voter turnout is high — especially among young people — Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States. College students in Virginia are a crucial demographic in this election since McCain is in striking distance of reclaiming the state. Often times people register and intend to vote, but become complacent or get turned off by the long lines at the polls on Election Day. Still others can’t vote on Election Day because of school, work, or other business. What many people don’t know is that most states allow some form of early voting. In Virginia, there is something called in-person absentee voting that enables those with a valid excuse to vote prior to the election using the same machines used on Election Day. Being enrolled in college is considered a valid excuse. So, despite the fact that I had just gotten back from Cincinnati and was planning on laying low until the NYC Marathon this weekend, when I received word that help was needed with in-person absentee voting in Virginia, I pledged to be there.
Due to heavy traffic in Delaware, I arrived at Northern Virginia Community College after a five-hour drive. I met with the campus coordinator and members of the Obama campaign who were enthralled to have me there. They had pimped out a booth that resembled a bus stop in the middle of a plaza, complete with Obama signs, posters, and a PA system. Whenever students passed by, someone would ask: “Are you voting this year? Did you know that you could vote early?” and depending on what county they lived in, gave them a flyer with information on where they could go to vote. I mostly stayed close to the base while others ventured out, enabling me to talk with the students who came up and answer their questions.
Some people said that they were not citizens and could not vote, but we encouraged them to get involved with the campaign anyway. There was information available for anyone who wished to help out — whether it be canvassing, making phone calls, or driving people to the polls. One man in particular was overcome with joy at the prospect of getting involved with the democratic process in America since he was from a foreign country and bummed out that he wouldn’t be able to vote. It gave me satisfaction knowing I was helping spread this information. By the end of the day, hundreds of students pledged to vote early or offer their services to the movement — and this went on all week. A girl came up to the booth randomly and asked, “Do you guys want cookies?” Grateful for our efforts, she offered us a plate of homemade cookies. We weren’t going to turn them down.
The vibe was tremendous, and there was a great sense that real change was on the horizon. I may be young, but never before in my life has a political figure brought about this kind of unity. This campaign has been the most compelling story of a generation, and being a part of it in even a small way was electrifying. Everyone who came near the booth felt it. BBC even stopped by and filmed a piece for its news program.
When it was time to pack up, I realized that I too could vote early. I’ve maintained a legal residence in Virginia since last year and am registered to vote there, even though I’ve been spending most of my time in New York again. Though not a college student, I also had a valid excuse for not being available on Election Day: I’d be out of state. The Alexandria City satellite offices closed at 5, so I’d have to hurry to make it on time. I arrived at about 4:30 and was met with a modest line: about a fifteen-minute wait. After processing my application, they told me I was actually registered in Fairfax County and would have to go to a different location. Apparently, there was a mix-up with my address. Luckily, however, satellites in that county closed at 8 so I’d have time. The problem was that this also meant a huge wait: about two hours! I wondered if people would actually have an easier time on Election Day.
Finally, I made it to the front of the waiting line and was filtered into a waiting room which was reminiscent of the DMV. They stamped my application with a number and I had to sit until it was called. When it eventually was, I had to wait on another line to see an old man sitting by a phone, who read off my application to someone on the other end, who in turn verified that I was a resident of that county and eligible to vote. All of this may sound discouraging to some people, but it was more than worth it when I was able to cast my ballot and contribute to stopping the bleeding in Virginia, as I like to call it — making sure that dreary red doesn’t exude within its borders again. It should also be noted that it was rush hour on a Thursday evening; those who went earlier in the day likely saw a shorter wait, and there’s still no telling just how hectic it will be on November 4. My hope is that it will be pure insanity. If it is, please fight the urge to go home and just wait it out. Your vote is very important. Getting there before the polls open will also help.
Also worth noting was a woman who barged into the waiting room at the satellite office demanding to know who was in charge. After a few volunteers couldn’t help her, someone finally came forward and asked what the problem was. She said that the guards were tuned into Fox News in their security booth, which voters were passing on their way in. This could obviously, and perhaps was meant to, sway votes subconsciously. She demanded to speak with an election attorney and have the TVs turned off. The feeling in the room was that her actions were justified. We were sick and tired of the fear mongering and scare tactics of the right wing.
And I have a feeling we’re about to find out that the rest of the country feels the same way.