With the 2008 election fast approaching, debates about who will be our next president are driving the news cycles on all of the major networks. Breathless pundits opine about Barack Obama’s foreign policy bona fides or John McCain’s wartime experience. But far less attention is directed towards the actual voting process itself, as it happens on election day. For this reason, back in 2004 I sought to coordinate voting narratives on my blog (mine turned out to be quite an adventure), but the effort was only half-hearted and once Kerry lost, I immediately became so disillusioned that I found myself retreating away from politics for a while. That being said, I think there is tremendous value in making the process of voting as transparent as possible, especially given the degree to which voting has historically been a contested process. And that’s where Katy Chevigny’s observational documentary, Election Day (IMDB) a mosaic of voters, poll workers, and activists, provides a valuable glimpse of the activity of voting in America.
The film itself, which will appear on P.O.V. in a few weeks, is an incredibly ambitious undertaking: Chevigny coordinated fourteen crews working all across the country as they followed different people over the course of Election Day 2004. We are introduced to Jim Fuchs, a Republican activist and poll monitor who starts the morning at 4 AM with a group of bleary-eyed activists, instructing them on what kinds of irregularities they should be prepared to address. We meet Rashida Tlaib, of Dearborn, Michigan, who works to get other Muslims in her neighborhood to vote. And we see different groups of people in Quincy, Florida, organizing vans to provide people with rides to their voting centers. And we are provided with one outside observer: a monitor from Australia, who is tasked with the process of watching a polling center in Saint Louis.
What we see is a fascinating study in contrasts between different polling precincts. Predominantly black polling centers tend to have much longer lines. A number of voters are given confusing information about the precinct where they ought to be voting. And it’s impossible not to recognize the contrast when a woman in a white suburban district blithely characterizes voting as a “privilege,” while an African-American woman is forced to assert, “my right is to be able to vote,” adding that a number of voters, discouraged by the long lines, had given up, their votes never counted, their voices never heard. Later we see a reformed felon who is, for the first time after serving a prison term, casting a vote for president.
All of these stories raise questions about how elections should be conducted, and while the film offers few direct answers, it’s clear that the voting process could be made easier and more transparent. In Wisconsin, one eighteen year-old woman registers and votes on the same day, raising questions about why same-day registration isn’t a nationwide standard. When we watch an ex-felon vote for the first time, we see the reverence and awe with which he casts his ballot, raising questions about why more ex-felons aren’t given this right when they’ve served their sentence. When I saw a couple juggling alternate shifts at a glass factory, taking care of their children, and talking time out to vote, I couldn’t help but ask why we don’t devote a national holiday to voting, allowing more people to participate. In fact, it’s difficult to watch this film and not think about recent policies that seem designed to restrict access to voting, particularly the photo ID requirements that have prevented a number of people, most often senior citizens and racial minorities, from being able to vote.
Given the expansive focus of the film and the number of film crews who participated, Chevigny’s film holds together remarkably well. Election Day generally eschews talking-heads interviews and is content, instead, to observe the activity of voting as it happens across the country in a variety of locations with a wide range of participants.