Left off the list 

My wife has never missed an opportunity to vote in any election ever since she turned 18 a little over three decades ago (I could get into trouble if I get any more specific than that). My wife was born and raised right here in Detroit and has lived most of her life here in the city.

“I don’t care if it’s for dogcatcher, I vote,” she said to a poll worker last week on election day.

“I always vote,” she said emphatically, “and my name has always been on the books. I just can’t believe this.”

What neither one of us could believe, and neither could the poll worker who was diligently trying to unravel what the hell was going on, was that after an uninterrupted voting record that extends back more than 30 years, most of it right here in the city of Detroit, my wife suddenly found herself in an episode from “The Twilight Zone” where nobody could seem to figure out where she was supposed to go and do her civic duty as a citizen.

“I could understand it if I only voted sporadically, but I always vote!”

By now you probably have figured out that voting is pretty important to my wife — and to me too. But the reason this whole episode started to wear on my nerves after about 40 minutes was that I couldn’t help wondering if what we were going through was a preview of what was to come in November.

Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I figure if our experience was being replicated across a city where more than 80 percent of the population is African-American, then what might have been going on elsewhere in the state in predominantly black areas? And what will it be like during the presidential election? After what happened in Florida during Campaign 2000, when thousands of black voters were systematically disenfranchised to clear the way for Bush, I think there is sufficient reason to be at least somewhat spooked.

Then again, if Detroit voter turnout in November is as pathetic as it was at our precinct location last Tuesday (not even 100 people had come to vote by the time we left not an hour before closing time), then there isn’t enough of a threat pulsing in this city to cause the Bush forces even the slightest twinge of alarm.

Anyway, when we first showed up at the polls around 5 p.m., there was hardly anybody there except for the poll workers and those passing out campaign literature. There was no problem finding my name on the list, but my wife’s name was nowhere to be seen. They looked under her maiden name without any luck. While I went ahead and voted, they sent my wife over to a very pleasant woman seated in the middle of the room with a laptop computer who apparently was equipped to track down these kinds of errors.

No luck.

Once I had finished voting, another very nice, rather stout middle-aged woman wearing glasses was assigned to straighten things out for us. We followed her to a telephone in the hallway where she spent nearly 30 exasperating minutes on the phone trying to figure out how it was that the voter registration office had no record of my wife having voted since more than eight years — and three residences — ago when she lived at Riverfront Towers and was still single. She tried to figure out how they had my wife listed as still living at that residence in January of this year even though she has voted since being at our current address for the past two years, and at the address before that and the address before that.

But here’s the clincher: The office of voter registration had already sent my wife a brand-new voter registration card to our current address. Go figure. She had forgotten to take it off the refrigerator door before leaving to pick me up from work, but we didn’t think it would matter much since we both had forgotten our cards in previous elections — the ones we never missed — and hadn’t had a problem.

Eventually another poll worker, a tall young guy, came over and asked for the name of the person our helper was speaking to. He then pulled out a cell phone and tried calling this person’s supervisor, but only managed to get the supervisor’s voice mail. Later the person from the voter registration office on the other end of the line actually told the woman who was helping us that my wife would have to drive all the way down to Riverfront Towers and vote there.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said our determined advocate as she leaned forward with an incredulous glare. “They’ll just send her right back here!”

In the end, my wife had to fill out three separate forms, including a two-page affidavit stating that she really was registered to vote, another application to re-register, and then an application for the ballot, before she was allowed to vote at our assigned polling station.

A couple weeks ago I was doing a phone interview with Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and I was asking him about how important he thought it was for the Kerry forces to turn out the black vote in November. It was a softball question, I admit, and his response that the black vote was absolutely critical was predictable, but then he went on to talk about how the election was stolen from former Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and that the Democrats have been working furiously since that time to strangle any chance of a repeat performance in the crib.

More specifically, McAuliffe said that within a year after Bush became president, McAuliffe formed an organization designed specifically to train thousands of poll watchers whose sole job on Election Day 2004 will be to stand guard at each and every polling station in each and every so-called battleground state across the country. Their job will be to make sure that no voters are in any way intimidated or given the run-around when trying to cast their vote.

Michigan is one of those battleground states. As a matter of fact, McAuliffe said that it will be extremely difficult for Kerry to win the presidency without Michigan. Considering the fact that Detroit is a Democratic stronghold in the state, this means that if black folks in Detroit don’t turn out in large numbers for Kerry, then it’s possible that Kerry could actually lose the election. And if enough potential Kerry voters in Detroit find their names mysteriously missing from “the list” on election day …

As the late Marvin Gaye would say, it makes you wanna holler.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail [email protected]

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