On the Road with Obama and Romney: Ugliness in Ohio

By James Pogue

Oh god, Ohio. It feels like life has stopped in anticipation. My sister in Portland wrote me an email yesterday that, I think, perfectly captures the awful situation this country is in, waiting for this ridiculous state to tell us what our future will be. 

“I can’t decide how I feel about Cincinnati playing such a critical role in the future of our entire WORLD. It's kind of unsettling to think about, having grown up with those people.”

I’m back among those people. I was in New Orleans, I was trying to get an apartment and maybe even a job. I spent Halloween week as drunk as a human costumed as a cowboy and living off borrowed money can be. It was New Orleans. But it’s really insane not to be in Ohio right now—by rights everyone in the country ought to have some way to be here, just to see the place where this thing’s going to be decided and hear the ridiculous babble and the murmurs of machinations on both sides and to understand firsthand just how small and frantic the final portion of this process has really turned out to be. Everyone watching is tired and confused and has lost all perspective from looking too long. I remember during the last World Cup, an announcer in one of the late games calling a string of passes and then remarking, with no context and without any apparent prompting, “You know, we’re all going slowly mad here.” This is the feeling in Ohio the day before a presidential election. 

Obama spoke last night at an arena on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. I called Jason, his beleaguered press guy in Southwest Ohio, who said I could get in if I made it by seven, when they’d shut down the press entrance. I left New Orleans at eight in the morning and between Slidell and Birmingham I averaged 105 on the speedometer. I lost an hour crossing into Eastern time in Kentucky, and I made it to Cincinnati at 6:48 P.M. I parked and ran at 6:55. I found a cop who said I was too late but that I could try the Secret Service, and I found a Secret Service agent who at 6:59 said that I was too late and that he’d shut everything down five minutes ago. I protested. “Seven o’clock,” he said. “It’s seven now!” I said. “So you’re late,” he said. “But we’ve been talking for thirty seconds. Probably forty-five.” I said. “Do you have your credentials?” I said I’d left them in New Orleans. He said that he would take me to Jason, but that if Jason didn’t immediately recognize me “I’ll take you by the arm and escort you off this campus.” 

We went in. Jason gave me a look that said he had more important things to be dealing with right then. “James, man,” he said. “You really...Man, James. I can’t keep doing this for you.” The agent left me. It turned out that Jason had for a while thought that I wrote for Vibe magazine. 

Stevie Wonder was playing. Jason told me that the fire department count was 13,500 people in the arena and another 2,000 watching a video stream in an overflow tent. Mark Mallory, Cincinnati’s mayor, spoke and spoke shockingly well for a mayor speaking to 13,500 people. “We all know this election comes down to Ohio.” Cheers. “And within Ohio this election comes down to Hamilton County.” Cheers. “And within Hamilton County this election comes down to Cincinnati.” Louder cheers. And within Cincinnati this election comes down to this room.” The arena exploded. The atmosphere was exactly that of a home crowd of a favored team, game seven of the World Series. I was leaning on a railing separating the crowd from the press corral, and behind me I heard a girl, obviously a U.C. student, ask “wait, who is this talking anyway?”

The black minister who gave the invocation called out "God! You who have ordained this man's steps," and thanked him for peace and prosperity. Obama came on. A bald white man immediately began shouting from the balcony of the arena. It's hard to articulate the hurt and the rage in the crowd. People shouted grotesquely. It was about half college students. Almost all the adults were black. Obama smiled and waved. He spoke again. The man started yelling again. Sherriff's deputies came to remove him. He hung onto the guardrail of the balcony, he kicked at them, and screamed and twisted his face. The crowd cheered while this was going on. It was ugly. I was worried he'd jump. It took three deputies to get him off the rail. Obama started again. Then a thick white guy in a baseball cap yelled from another balcony. It looked like the thing was going to go off the rails. The crowd began shouting some things that a talk radio host might consider racially inflammatory. He was taken out by one deputy. The crowd thundered... Obama spoke. 

There's no time to write or think about all this—I woke up at seven this morning, started writing about last night's event, ran out of time, and had to drive all the way to Columbus to see Obama appear again, this time with Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen. 

But the other reporters are already past the campaigning. Everyone is. 

It's easy to explain. A majority of the legally registered voters who have already voted or are going to go to the polls tomorrow are going to have done so with the intention of voting for Barack Obama. Anyone who tells you this isn't true is either an idiot or a liar. But no one in Ohio or in either campaign believes that this fact alone is going to prove sufficient to win Obama the state. Voters will be disqualified. Poll watchers are going to intimidate people. A very large proportion of the people in this state believes that as long as there isn't an overwhelming Obama turnout on election day the electronically-counted vote totals will simply be manipulated. 

In white, rural, Butler County yesterday the sheriff had his deputies out lining people up to vote. "They came after church," he said on our local talk radio station 700 WLW, "and I'm going to have the deputies out again today." At the Hamilton County board of elections the early-voting line closed today at 2 PM. Salon is reporting that Jon Husted, Ohio's Secretary of State, has, on his own initiative, had absentee ballot applications sent to nearly 7 million registered voters in Ohio, and, as a result, more than 800,000 people have so far requested absentee ballots but not completed and returned them. According to state law, if any of those 800,000 people who have requested absentee ballots show up to the voting booth, they will be required to cast a provisional ballot so that officials can make sure they are not voting twice. But provisional ballots aren't to be counted until November 17. And so god knows what will happen if whoever's leading after the initial count is ahead by a margin less than those provisional ballots.

But then! We're not out of the insanity yet. Because, again, as reported by Craig Unger on Salon, a Congressional report on the 2004 election subsequently found that "failure to articulate clear and consistent standards for the counting of provisional ballots likely resulted in the loss of several thousand votes in Cuyahoga County alone, and untold more statewide." 

My grandmother's ballot was disqualified for the same reason. A campaign worker for Sen. Sherrod Brown took her down to the Board of Elections to fix the problem. She's 92 years old. It took hours. I have to make it down to the Board of Elections to fix my problem. But I'm working, and, as mentioned, the Board of Elections closed at 2 PM, on the day before Election Day. 

It's hard to talk about this stuff without sounding crazy because the simple truth is that there is a conspiracy to disenfranchise voters in this state. There was in 2008, too, it just wasn't enough to stop that wave. There was in 2004, when under the watch of Ken Blackwell—my dad's old classmate at Xavier University and a former aspiring Black Panther turned Republican Secretary of State—students at Kenyon College got so few voting machines that they waited for seven hours to vote while students at Bible colleges across the state voted easily. 

These things get into everyone's head. The Obama people have to sort of talk around the issue, but everyone here knows that the numbers aren't just the numbers. Obama may have a better turnout operation. The Romney people dispute that. But the Romney people know they'll deny some Obama voters. But the Obama people know that they have an edge in early voting. But the Romney people know they'll have the entire apparatus of the state government helping them to disqualify some of those. Christ. 

Obama spoke. You know by now what he said. Stevie Wonder came back on. He couldn't tell that people were leaving. He played forever. They turned on the PA. A Bruce Springsteen track played over Stevie Wonder. Stevie sat down at the keyboard. He put his hand on the microphone in his ear and the PA went off and Stevie played on. He asked the departing crowd if it was fired up. Repeatedly. The answers came back first as a roar, soon they were down to nothing. Stevie stood up. He began shouting: "It's about unity! It's about unity! It's about unity!" I left. 

On the radio it's all rumors and conspiracies. You heard that black men at suburban Wal-Marts were handing out twenties in exchange for a commitment to vote Obama. On WLW Bill Cunningham announced that he would quit radio if he and his two million listeners couldn't deliver this election for Romney. It's impossible to describe to anyone who isn't from Cincinnati what sort of change this would be to the life of the city. He is Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus put together, but in the kind of place where even a tattooed and unshaven twenty-five-year-old like me will commonly and unthinkingly turn on WLW and listen to rightwing talk. To hear Bill Cunningham talk about retiring if Obama wins this thing is to instantly think that there must be some fix already in. That's just something that people believe. 

He spoke of 2004, when he said he had been talking to Sean Hannity, long after the polls were closed but when the whole state had erupted in confusion and accusation when late into the night we still had no idea who won. "It was tied," Cunningham said, "And there were three counties left to be counted." He was talking to Sean Hannity, who had Karl Rove on the other line. "And I said to Hannity who said to Rove who said to Bush: Those counties are Butler, Warren, and Hamilton. And Rove said to Bush: Mr. President! Four more years!"

I stopped off at the Dairy Mart near my parents' house. It's run by an Arab with a pornish moustache who openly disdains his mostly Ohio-redneck clientele. I bought a pack of cigarettes. It felt especially dark and lonely on Mount Washington last night. He was oddly emotional. "How are you, man? How are you?" I told him I'd just come from seeing Obama. "What's going to happen?" he asked. I told him I didn't know. "Polls still look good," I said. "But what's really going to happen?" I told him I wasn't sure. 

Everyone—the reporters, the campaign workers, the radio hosts, the cabbies—is waiting for what the hell happens next. 

Everyone is, essentially. Everyone in Ohio believes that things are going to blow up once the votes come in. Everyone believes that the disenfranchisement we saw in 2004 is nothing compared to what's going to happen this time around. 

As I write I'm half worrying about my own vote, which was disqualified, unbelievably, because I failed to sign my absentee ballot properly. The website of the Hamilton County board of elections was down. Lines are already hours long. 

A majority of the legally registered voters in this state have either already tried voting early or are going to go to the polls tomorrow with the intention of voting for Barack Obama. Any observer who tells you this isn't true is either an idiot or a liar. The question is what the hell might happen next. 

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