Forget the pie charts, color-coded maps and hyperventilating pundits. What’s the street-level experience of voters in today’s America? In a triumph of documentary storytelling, POV’s Election Day combines 11 stories — shot simultaneously on November 2, 2004, from dawn until long past midnight — into one.
To make Election Day, award-winning director Katy Chevigny fielded 14 film crews to capture the action vérité-style in a diverse range of locations, including Chicago; the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota; Dearborn, Mich.; Cincinnati and Shaker Heights, Ohio; Orlando and Quincy, Fla.; St. Louis; New York; the little town of Sapulpa, Okla.; and the even tinier Stockholm, Wis. Election Day is as fast-paced and suspenseful as a thriller, with vote counts and political activism substituting for shootouts and car chases. The heroes of the day are ordinary Americans determined to vote, to turn out others to vote, and to see that the voting is legally and fairly done.
The good news in Election Day is that more and more Americans are bringing their passion for democracy to the polls, drawing unprecedented numbers of voters eager to make the most of their right to cast a ballot and have it counted. Taking place in the long shadow of 2000’s bitterly contested presidential vote, the 2004 election also brought more scrutiny of polling-place practices from citizens as well as international observers. One beacon of democracy and validation of the electoral system captured by the film came when little Quincy, Fla., a town in the state’s panhandle with a 70 percent black population, finally elected its first black sheriff since the 1800s.
The bad news in Election Day is that close scrutiny of American elections finds a surprisingly antiquated system, which often works as much to frustrate voter participation as to encourage it and which harbors wide disparities in access between rich and poor neighborhoods. The presence of international observers suddenly seems not so out-of-place when one observer finds confusion and two-hour waits in St. Louis’s poor, predominately black precincts while wealthier white neighborhoods have smoothly operating polling places.
Election Day takes viewers around the country to capture the drama unfolding on November. 2, 2004. In Chicago, Republican committeeman Jim Fuchs swims against the city’s legendary political tides to make sure Republican voters aren’t intimidated at prevailingly Democratic polling stations. At Pine Ridge, S.D., Jason Drapeaux leads a volunteer organization working hard to increase voter turnout on the reservation. He and his cohorts succeed in raising turnout to 55 percent in 2004 from a dismal 33 percent in 2000, but it’s not difficult to find the cynicism that keeps many Native Americans from voting. One man explains that he will vote that day in the tribal election only, having been disillusioned by promises from politicians at the federal level over the years.
A pollworker on November 2, 2004 labels a spoiled ballot envelope at the end of the night. Credit: Kirsten Johnson.
Rashida Tlaib devotes her day in Dearborn, Mich., to turning out her family and Muslim friends to vote: some, like her Palestinian immigrant husband, for the first time. Bob and Traci Buzbee in Sapulpa, Okla., work opposite shifts at the same factory to be able to meet the high costs associated with their son’s kidney disease. They watch the elections with some trepidation, wondering what impact, if any, the outcome might have on their needs. Paula Thompson, a first-time volunteer at a crowded and chaotic polling place in Shaker Heights, Ohio, finds herself confronted by frustrated voters who aren’t on her rolls.
Up in remote Stockholm, Wis., the Fisher family, organic farmers who supplement their income by selling homemade pizzas, prepares for a bonanza of orders from neighbors settling in for a long night of results-watching. Their youngest daughter, 18-year-old Franny, goes down to the one-room polling station where her neighbor, who lives just up the road in the little burg (pop. 97 at the time of filming), registers her and lets her vote all at the same time, as allowed by Wisconsin law.
Voting is more of a challenge in St. Louis. Australian observer Shanta Martin of Fair Election International is surprised to witness poor, black precincts mired in confusion and long waits — where people are nonetheless determined and anxious to vote and more vocal than ever about the obstacles they face — whereas in richer neighborhoods the polling stations run smoothly. In New York City, Leon Batts, an ex-felon who just regained his right to vote, is preparing to cast his first ballot; he sees his vote as one representing all ex-convicts denied the right despite having served their time. But Batts finds casting a vote more problematic than he anticipated.
In Florida — a state that until recently effectively banned all ex-felons from voting — former Democratic state legislator Alzo Reddick welcomes Kerry campaign volunteers to his Orlando restaurant while ex-felon “Bossman,” the dishwasher, laments his ineligibility to vote. In Cincinnati, Dan “Buzz” Deters is running a write-in campaign for his Republican brother for county prosecutor. Deters employs an imaginative tactic using imprinted pencils, a tactic with which he runs into conflict with poll station workersover that always-contested line where campaigning should stop and voting begin.
In Quincy, Fla., it looks like the town, with a long-held African-American majority, might elect a black sheriff for the first time in more than 100 years. Brenda Holt, a local activist mindful of Florida’s infamous role in the 2000 elections, is on hand to make sure the people are not robbed of that possibility.
Just as Americans prepare to go to the polls again, Election Day offers a vivid, expansive and sometimes unsettling account of the last presidential election, when America’s voting practices, once taken for granted, came under new and intense observation and challenge.