Hope, Fear and Loathing: Election Protection in Las Vegas

By Randy Stevens of Portland, Oregon. Randy has been a North Portland neighborhood lawyer for the past 17 years.

Alaska 622 touched down at 3:45. I found the stand for the "All Car Rental" shuttle.

It had been almost 30 years since I actually got off my ass and put in time on a campaign. Early on my anxiety was high enough that I knew I had to set a goal – and a limit on how much time I would give. I wanted to dampen the feeling that I had to do everything and also something to motivate me. 20 hours was the first goal and limit I gave myself.

My new assistant had prepared an excellent travel notebook. I pulled out of the Thrifty lot, glanced at her first map and turned the air conditioning on high. Moving from upper 50s into upper 80s was a bit of a jolt.

The campaign had sent out a call for lawyers six weeks ago. Yet another indication that this campaign was the most well-organized I had ever seen, let alone participate in. On the Monday before my departure, the New York Times reported there were over 10,000 lawyers who had responded to the call. I was asked to choose two states. Montana and Nevada. Why those? They had the best Alaska Airlines connections. Three weeks ago I received my assignment. Clark County, Nevada. My training was scheduled at 5:30, giving me about an hour and a half to find the site and then get a bite to eat.

Once I got my assignment, I made my arrangements. I used some airline miles and received a guest pass from a friend of mine who worked for Alaska. The campaign had suggested finding housing from a variety of sources, including CouchSurfing.com. Having discovered that site many months ago, I checked it out and found Mike, a 29 year old day trader and Obama supporter. Air and housing were covered, a rental car and food were my only out-of-pocket costs.

Training completed, I checked the second map for directions to Mike's house. We talked a bit, he provided me with a plastic lawn chair for my job: poll watching at Boulevard Mall. Nevada has early voting and I was one of the observers for the last two days. If you live in Clark County, you can vote at any of the voting locations. Tuesday you can only vote at your neighborhood precinct.

Wednesday was mainly an off day except for a couple more hours of training at the Obama headquarters. That evening I met Mike at Mix, a club on the 64th floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. It had an outside deck which provided a beautiful view of Las Vegas.

"Why," I asked, "do I see almost a dozen cranes building additions and expansions when the tourism economy crash has hit Las Vegas so hard?"

"Most of the construction money is already escrowed and locked. A lot of Dubai money is involved. And that has probably cushioned the blow, because at least the construction trades are working."

It was a theme I was to hear repeatedly.

Thursday morning I arrived early as suggested, so I could watch the set-up. Our instructions were to watch, ask questions, and if issues appeared, to call the Legal Boiler Room. The second observer to arrive was Hank, a retired career military man representing the Republican party. He had been there every day since early voting had begun and had stayed the entire time approximately 12 hours at duty. In our training we had been told to not talk to the Republican observers. A few minutes of conversation with Hank convinced me that that instruction didn't apply here. He was extremely friendly, helpful and even at times a partner in chasing down and speaking with voters who were turned away or refused a ballot. Next to arrive was Isabella, a local retired attorney. Paul, a former Microsoft attorney on an extended sabbatical was next and he was in his second day at this site. Cindy, an aggressive business litigator from Long Beach, was the fourth and final Obama lawyer to appear.

In Nevada early voting a voter goes to the first station where they present identification and sign the log by their name. The poll worker would check the computer and if all was good, give an activation card to the voter who proceeded to a voting machine, insert the card and vote. If something was not good, the voter was directed to the second station where the team leader (Julie, a very experienced election worker who had done foreign elections design and monitoring) or assistant team leader (Jurgen, a very friendly and professional worker who received more hugs from troubled voters than anyone else there) would research via a second computer database and by telephone to the elections office. Approximately 50% of the problems were straightened out and the voter received an activation card and proceeded to vote a regular ballot. Approximately 40% of troubled voters were turned away because there was no evidence of their registration (but Julie and Jurgen always took the time to collect a new registration). The other 10% were given provisional ballots (which in Nevada are limited to federal offices).

Our job as observers was to approach voters who were turned away or voted provisional and ask why. In those rare instances when a second station person wouldn't talk to us, Julie and Jurgen were always helpful in explaining the circumstances.

When voting began, there were four Obama volunteer lawyers who collectively probably billed at $1000.00 an hour or more and Hank – who, it turns out, was being paid $15.00 an hour. We new lawyers quickly got into the process and initially spent a lot of time just talking. Because of our numbers, the Obama volunteers would take breaks and sometimes it was down to just Hank and I, but throughout the day, we did get information on just about every turned-away voter. Hank was pretty open about sharing information and about his thoughts about the election. After sitting there for 12 days of 12-hour shifts, he decided that it was time for him to go vote. Just before he got in line, he leaned over to Isabella and said, "I'm Republican, but I'm leaning Obama". I was amazed. The paid Republican poll watcher was probably voting Obama.

In the early evening, the lines had slowed enough that I decided to leave early. During my first shift I had found Julie and Jurgen and their team performed as a smooth-oiled machine. Interactions with them were entirely at their discretion. When lines looked long (25 minutes plus), she would shift her workers to where the bottlenecks appeared. Friday would be their last day and heavy voting was expected. On my way back to Mike's I stopped at Albertsons and ordered a couple of quarter-sheet carrot cakes inscribed: "Clark County Elections Boulevard Team – Great Job!!". As I was walking back to my car, Mike called. The two additional Obama campaign workers had arrived a day early. That meant I needed to move from the futon in the loft to the inflatable Insta-bed on the first floor since the women would get the futon. He said they were having drinks at a bar and invited me join them. I declined, went home, moved my bedding and belongings downstairs and collapsed.

Upon my Friday arrival, I presented the cakes to Jurgen, explaining one was for the first shift and the second was for the second shift. I returned to the car to get my chair, water and notebook. Hank was already set up in the same location which had suddenly been marked off by red tape. He explained what had happened Thursday night. After the close, Cindy, the lone remaining Obama volunteer had demanded the right to examine the tapes and to record the vote count on each machine. Our instructions had been to request an opportunity to examine the machines, noting that it is entirely up to the election worker's discretion as to whether we got to see them or not. Apparently the night ended with Cindy swearing that the election worker was acting illegally. The new "coach's box" was Julie's push-back. Hank gave me a complete enough picture that I called the Boiler Room and explained the fight from Thursday night. Michael, my Boiler Room contact took the information and called a fifth Obama volunteer (Tom) and quizzed him about Cindy's demeanor once she had arrived. They made a decision to pull Cindy off the Boulevard Mall and re-assign her; however when they called her with that information, she began to fight with them. The upshot was Cindy left in a huff. The combination of the congratulatory cakes and Cindy's re-assignment was to make relations with Julie once again smooth.

The balance of the day went smoothly, even though the number of voters eventually reached 2500 for the day, twice the number for Thursday. I again left early, drove by the headquarters and turned in my provisional voter information.

Over the course of two days we picked up information on perhaps a dozen provisional ballots which might be valid (and perhaps twice that amount for which no legal action would ever be successful). I don't know the total for all of Clark County over the entire early vote, but I know that all of the possible valid provisionals have been identified and loaded into their database.

I titled this "Hope, Fear and Loathing" because those were my predominant feelings about the experience.

Hope because Mike and many other "couchsurfers" were hosting hundreds (if not thousands) of Obama volunteers (the Voter Protection Program was just one of several efforts Obama has set up in Nevada – they have a Voter Hot-Line, GOTV and canvassers). Hope because Hank voted for Obama. And hope because despite the hundreds of "non-registered" voters turned away, turnout was the highest it has ever been.

Fear because time after time when I interviewed people who could not even do a provisional ballot I heard a similar story – the essence of which was verified by Julie. Because of the huge interest in voter registration, pro-McCain people would come into her office and grab a stack of voter registration forms and then go out and, apparently, seek out people to register and then throw away the registration forms of anyone who didn't look like a McCain supporter. How many new voters who wanted to vote were lulled into thinking that the person who took their registration would turn it in?

And loathing because I talked with one woman who had received a phone call from Senator Obama, but had not written the telephone number down and wondered if I could give her the phone number. Apparently voters with Hispanic names were being called and told they could vote-by-phone. She came to the site looking for the "telephone" number, so I could explain to her that she should vote here and that the telephone number was not true.

I had an opportunity to go to the Henderson rally Saturday, but decided I couldn't make it and then make my plane. Instead, I logged on to the Alaska site and found an 11 a.m. Flight. Because of the type of pass my Alaska employee friend had given me, I even got upgraded into the last available first class seat where I had a front row seat to watch them remove an extremely hung-over passenger, promising her a seat on the next flight.

Las Vegas. A long way from North Portland.

  • David Wright (unverified)
    Las Vegas. A long way from North Portland.

    As an Oregonian now living in Vegas, amen to that. ;-)

    Glad to hear that the early voting here went mostly pretty smoothly. I've been curious about how it works, but decided I rather like going to my polling place on election day.

    Given that your story is from just one out of dozens of early-voting stations in Clark County, do you know if your experience was typical?

    The stories I've heard from early voters here have been pretty consistent -- everybody I know had a smooth time of it, with very few problems or delays. Several people reported not having to show any ID, however, which I found curious. I'd expect to see some challenges on that score.

    And hope because ... turnout was the highest it has ever been.

    Not to put a damper on your enthusiasm... but based strictly on anecdotal evidence, I suspect that with all the hype over this election, most people are trying to vote early for fear of long lines on election day. (Plus, a healthy number of people just want this whole thing to be over already!)

    Which I believe will result in relatively light turnout on election day itself, since people will already have voted. I expect the overall turnout will be as good if not a little better than usual, but I think a whole lot of turnout has just been shifted earlier in the process. I am literally the only person I know who has not yet voted (who actually does intend to vote, anyhow).

    In any event, Nevada is one of those "leans Obama" states but it's still pretty close. It's going to be very interesting indeed to see the outcome here -- though I intend to vote against him, I suspect Obama's going to prevail.

  • steve S. (unverified)

    Randy, Very enjoyable read. HST would be proud.

  • Jill Thorn (unverified)


    Welcome back to the election process!

    Thank you for sharing!

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    I've spent, purely by chance, election days in a couple of foreign countries, one of them a Latin American country that had seen its share of polarization as well as a coup d'etat and dictatorship. In both of these countries, elections were run as routine affairs, without confusing ballots, crowds of lawyers and hacks challenging voters' eligibility, etc. What's wrong with us? Suggestion: there's a non-trivial movement in this country to make elections intentionally confusing and contentious. And the GOP is responsible for that movement.

  • (Show?)

    Kudos to the legal observers! Portlandia is doing the same thing in New Mexico, and is reporting back at Loaded Orygun. Go OOSAs! (If you don't know the term, click the link...)

  • Sinfonian (unverified)

    Excellent memoir of your time. I'll be a poll watcher (here in Florida, the Democratic Party styles us "Voting Rights Attorneys"), and I hope my experience is as comparatively pleasant as yours.

    I'll post my own recollections here after the election -- hopefully Wednesday, if I'm recovered by then.

  • Randy2 (unverified)

    David Wright:

    Given that your story is from just one out of dozens of early-voting stations in Clark County, do you know if your experience was typical?

    *** Aside from the fact that my site was one of the sites with the most voters, my conversations with Julie confirmed the wide-spread use of the "throw away Obama-looking voters' registrations" (except it was my observations that most of them were non-white).


    In both of these countries, elections were run as routine affairs, without confusing ballots, crowds of lawyers and hacks challenging voters' eligibility, etc.

    *** There were no challenges at my site and our instructions were to not make challenges. I think challenges will occur over provisional ballots and those come after the election.

    *** To all. Look. I had read about various dirty tricks going on and had that locked away in my brain. Hving an opportunity to talk to people who had been victimized by it made it real and personal. There is no reason to think that such a scam would not go on here. I registered voters as part of my Oregon Obama work. Since voter-registration people are actually working as agents of the Elections Division, perhaps that process should be looked at. As for the "vote-by-phone" deal -- there is little way to know how many people might have been led to do that, leaving their votes uncounted.


  • Lou (unverified)

    I am glad you are volunteering. I just hope the operation is more organized in Clark County than it was in 2004 when the Republican ops starting sending Spanish speakers into Latino neigbhorhoods on the last two days of the campaign telling voters that their polling places had closed. There was not enough cohesion between the volunteer attorneys, party leaders, and the unions to get boots on the ground to combat the lies. We can't afford oversights like that this time around.

  • (Show?)
    <h2>It was great to hear your experience about observing at the polls. I hope the smooth trend continues in Nevada.</h2>
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