In the months leading up to last week's national election, Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell did all he could to suppress the vote and ensure chaos. At one point, he even decreed that registrations must be submitted on 80-pound paper, lest Ohio be accused of having poor taste in pulp products. Blackwell even got a federal judge to ban the media from the polls.
So we decided to do what everyone else had been doing for months: We ignored him. Scene sent four reporters to cover the weirdness in Cleveland and Akron. One wore spandex. They were under strict orders: Don't even think about expensing anything, and for Chrissakes, stay out of the bar till 7:30. Here's what they found, the story Blackwell never wanted you to see.
The polls haven't opened yet, but in Cleveland Heights, the line outside Alta House on Mayfield Road is five deep. Two election officers, wearing glowsticks and ponchos, sip coffee from Styrofoam cups. One pulls a cell phone from his pocket; the other sets up a collapsible chair and sinks into it.
"Now we're ready for the day," grins Collapsible Chair Man.
When the polls open, the line doesn't budge. Four minutes pass. Then five. Then ten. Voters start to fidget.
"What's taking so long?" someone finally asks.
The head poll worker looks up apologetically. "We've only got one pen," she explains.
Even after registering twice in the last year and leaving a message at the Board of Elections, Clevelander Desmond Searcy never got a card telling him where to show up. He stands in line at Marion Sterling Elementary, punching his fist into his hand, which makes his hooded sweatshirt flop on his coat-hanger shoulders.
"If they challenge me, it's gonna be on the ground," says Searcy, 26, who might weigh 150 pounds if he carried an armload of bricks. He squints at the old grandmothers behind the polling table. "It'll be all over. If I can't vote, I'm gonna get crazy."
At Alta House, Catherine Heimburger arrives wearing cotton-ball hair and long, sparkly earrings. She gives her name to an elderly worker, who flips through a book looking for it. After a few minutes, the worker looks up and frowns. "I can't find you in here," she says apologetically. "Are you sure you're at the right spot?"
"Yes," Heimburger says, laying her registration card on the table like a full house.
"Huh," the worker says, flipping through the book. "Well, we can't find your name, but what we can do is give you a provisional ballot."
"No," Heimburger says, her voice fierce. "No! I stopped voting 20 years ago, when I was living in California and the media called the election before they counted our vote. I am not going to go through that again. I want my vote to count tonight, not sometime five months from now!"
They go back and forth. From the sound of it, Heimburger has conceded.
Outside the precinct, her body shakes with rage. "I'm going straight to Channel 5," she says, her voice rattling like an old heater. "This is a huge miscarriage of justice."
Cindy Jansen, whose pale pink face is the color of a conch shell, emerges from the polls and taps a reporter on the shoulder.
"You know," she says quietly, "I was at the same sign-in table as her. After all that, the election workers did give her a regular ballot. She got to vote on her own terms by intimidating every single worker in the room. The ladies were totally overwhelmed by her."
Jansen pauses and pulls her jacket closer around her slim waist. "Where's a Republican challenger when you need one?"
In Akron, John Daggett shakes his head at the long list of names precariously taped to the Buchtel High School gym wall.
"It's not here, so where the hell is it?" he murmurs.
For a moment, Daggett is so consumed with finding his name that he forgets the chaos behind him. The lines for four different precincts snake together into a sea of mostly black voters. In the center stand four sore thumbs -- pink men in starched button-downs and Cosby sweaters, quickly identified by everyone who enters as the G.O.P. challengers. When they aren't breathing down the neck of an elderly poll worker, they stand quietly in the center of the basketball court, clutching bottled water and their lists of questionable voters.
There are plenty of hawks here: The poll workers are watched by the Republican challengers, who are watched by the Democratic challengers, who are watched by the voters, all of whom are being watched by the activists outside.
"I've been in all four lines, and I can't figure out where I'm supposed to be," Daggett says.
He's voted at the same Akron precinct for 40 years, but because of precinct rezoning, he's been sent to Buchtel, where lines ringed the school and stretched into the street as early as 6 a.m. The polls opened 20 minutes late, with only four stations open. People say they've waited two hours. Some left because they couldn't be late for work.
Frustrated, Daggett leaves as well, running head-on into a mob of eager activists.
"Did you vote, sir?" asks a voter-protection worker. Daggett says no. He's led to a table where a woman points to the proper line. Daggett heads back inside with a dip in his stride. He is not amused.
Mayor Jane Campbell leans back in the passenger seat of her black Lincoln Town Car, reading e-mail on her Blackberry. Her blond hair, normally a controlled helmet, is curling from the rain. The radio is tuned softly to 93.1, and her driver is speeding down Carnegie Avenue on the way to the next polling location. The mayor gets a call.
"Uh-huh," she murmurs, her voice gradually growing louder. "Uh-huh!"
She hangs up. "We need to get to Chambers Elementary School," she orders. "We just got a call from the Kerry campaign. They're worried people will leave. The wait there is over two hours long!"
She pauses, thinking aloud. "We need a pastor there every hour. Who can we get?" She snaps her fingers. "Bishop Prince. I want Bishop Prince's number. Someone find Bishop Prince's number."
"Doesn't anyone have Bishop Prince's number?"
"Okay, then just send me the phone number of any minister. I'm not picky."
"Did someone tell Jesse what we were doing?" she asks.
In the back seat, her press secretary nods. He's on the phone with channels 5 and 8, providing the mayor's revised itinerary. Campbell switches into media mode. "I guess I should fix my eyes now," she says, dabbing on concealer.
Five minutes later, four limos pull up to Chambers. Mayor Campbell emerges, one high-heeled leg at a time, like a senior arriving at prom. The crowd applauds. "Oh, thank goodness it's you," someone says.
The mayor beams. "Don't worry," she says. "We have everything under control. Jesse's here. Mayor Goggins is on her way --"
"No, no," the voter interjects. "The lines are moving now. I was just worried with all the limos that it might be a Republican."
Her friend nods. "When I saw Jesse Jackson, I thought it was Ken Blackwell," she says with a shudder.
Reverend Jackson, clad in pressed trousers and a navy blue blazer, stands near the Chambers Elementary track, doing a radio interview by phone. He assures voters that he is here in Cleveland, overseeing the election process, and he has never -- never! -- seen a turnout like this.
Hanging up the phone, he walks toward a crowd of voters, who reach toward him with outstretched arms and voting cards.
"My hero!" one cries.
"Will you sign an autograph?" shouts another.
But a Jackson assistant in a bushy mustache materializes to intercept him, pushing another phone in his face. "Gospel station," he mouths.
Jackson wanders back to the track to take the call.
Limo driver Marty Smith, who's escorted such luminaries as Peter Jennings and Jerry Springer, watches over Jackson with fatherly pride. He's asked what kind of passenger Jackson is. "Intense!" Smith replies, but then concedes, "I didn't really get to talk to him much, though. He was always on the phone."
Back near the track, Jackson is talking to yet another station. "Let me tell you why we're going to win this election," he says. "The pollsters have completely underestimated the Cell Phone Generation factor."
Jackson hangs up. A voter calls out: "Reverend, you look great. What's your secret?"
"I'm on a low-carb diet," Jackson explains. "No Cheney, no Ashcroft, no Rumsfeld, no Bush, and very little Rice."
Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Shaw chats up his b-ball skills and hip-hop technique in the parking lot of Buchtel, where the lines have calmed down, but the anxiety has not.
"Thomas, come on, man!" shouts his grandfather, also named Thomas Shaw, from inside the school.
"Wait, this is a reporter," the grandson hollers back as he prepares to launch a list of adjectives that describe his music.
"She'll be here when you get done. You got to vote first."
Like many who came to Buchtel, the younger man stepped into the wrong line and waited for two hours, only to be told he'd need a provisional ballot. That wasn't good enough for Grandpa. The two generations get back in line.
Thirty minutes later, they reemerge. The elder Thomas beams with pride, happy that his grandson's vote will count. But the younger man has other things on his mind. "So, like I was saying, about my music . . ."
David Shiffman, a graying Jerry Garcia acolyte who works as a consultant, offering lessons in what he calls "relaxed productivity," stands outside the Lonnie Burton Recreation Center on East 46th Street in Cleveland, working the polls for Election Protection. He's there to prevent shenanigans by Republican challengers, but so far the biggest problem has been voters showing up at the wrong precinct or bailing after waiting in long lines.
"Never assume malice, where stupidity will do," he sighs.
Mary Jo Bedell's perky ponytail bobs up and down as she arrives at Buchtel to see her dad, a Republican challenger. She's a 20-year-old sorority-type in a beige cardigan; he's a suburban soccer dad straight out of Lands' End. In this room of brown faces, they're the minority, and they know it.
After a few minutes of chatting, Mary Jo says her goodbyes and pecks Dad on the cheek. As she turns to leave, she begins to affix a Bush-Cheney button to her sweater. She pauses, looks around nervously, and then quickly stuffs the pin back into her pocket.
In Cleveland, Adrienne Boddy has an abscessed tooth, asthma, and the flu. She woke up this morning with a 101-degree fever. But still she got out of bed to make oatmeal for her mother and granddaughter.
Then she drew the hood of her black leather jacket tight over her head and walked five long blocks through the rain to an apartment tower at East 105th Street and Superior Avenue, so she could tell George Bush how she feels.
"I guess Bush hate us, huh?" says Boddy, 46. "He's not even thinking about the blacks or the poor. He only care about the rich. Well, I'm gonna show him that I don't like it. Not one little bit."
She pushes against the glass door of the building, but it's too heavy. She takes a step back, lowers her good shoulder, and presses harder. Once inside, she stops and wobbles, taking in the long line with heavy-lidded eyes. "Oooohhh, no," she says.
She thinks about walking home and returning later, when the line might be shorter. "Ain't no way I can walk all the way back up here. But I can't stand in this line all day long."
A Democratic challenger walks around with a clipboard in one hand and a cell phone in the other. She sees the fear and exhaustion on Boddy's face. "Why don't we get you a place in line?" asks the woman, who refuses to give her name. "Then we'll hold it for you, so you can take a seat until your turn comes."
Boddy nods and follows the woman down the hallway. She sits on a folding chair and holds the right side of her face. Her pain medication is wearing off. "I had to borrow $34 from my mother to buy this prescription," she says. It's hot from the mass of bodies clogging the hallway, but she keeps her coat buttoned. Forty-five minutes later, it's her turn. Boddy reaches for the wall to steady herself, then slouches at the voting booth for 15 minutes. When she's done, she flips the ballot over and over in her hands, rubbing both sides for hanging chads.
She reaches the lobby and smiles for the first time. "I did what I came to do," she says. Boddy pulls her hood back over her head and reaches with her good arm for the front door.
All the talk of Republican challengers summoned images of fire hoses and snarling dogs. But the challenger at Moses Cleaveland School on East 146th Street is a shy, buttoned-down white kid who quietly sips Coke. As each voter comes forward, he stands, looks over the election worker's shoulder, then sits back down and carefully marks off the name on a clipboard. After six hours, he has yet to challenge a single person.
"There hasn't been anything questionable," he shrugs. "What are you going to do?"
The first phone call came as Sanford Hockey cooked grilled cheese in his Cleveland Heights home. It was John Kerry, reminding him that this was a very important election and asking him to please vote. "The automated ones are the ones that get me, because you can't even tell them to go fuck themselves," says Hockey, a lawyer.
He takes his sandwich into the living room to watch some TV election chatter. The phone rings again. A man urges Hockey to vote for Bush. "I told him, 'Congratulations. You just convinced me to vote for Kerry.'"
Twenty minutes later, a Kerry volunteer calls. "That time I said, 'Congratulations. You just convinced me to vote for Bush.'"
Hockey sits in his chair and stews. Next election, he vows to sue both presidential campaigns in small claims court for $1,000 per call. "The telephone belongs to me," he says. "And they're using it to invade my home without a warrant."
He'll also create a website called DontCallMeAsshole.com, where he'll keep a running tally of calls from both campaigns. Whichever side calls him the least wins his vote. "I'm an intelligent person," he says. "I know there's an election coming. I know who the candidates are. I don't need these people hounding me into voting."
He rises from his chair to see a young man coming up his sidewalk. "If the words Kerry or Bush come out of your mouth, one of my pumpkins will be on your head!" Hockey yells out the front door.
The man looks frightened. "I understand," he says.
At the Addison branch of the Cleveland Public Library, the lines are so long that they loop through the building like skeins of tangled spaghetti. Of the 17 voting machines here, half don't work. Councilwoman Fannie Lewis sits on a folding chair, her swollen feet tucked into ballet-like slippers and her glasses dangling from the bridge of her nose. She's been here for seven hours, and she's not leaving until the machines are fixed.
At 1:40 p.m., New York lawyer Cody McCone walks into the precinct. "What's going on?" he asks the election patrol, who inform him of the troubles. McCone whips out his cell phone and dials the Board of Elections. Busy. He dials another number. Busy. "Now I'm going to call the Kerry headquarters," he announces to no one in particular.
Five minutes later, a TV reporter arrives. McCone wanders over to explain the situation. The reporter shoves a microphone in his face. McCone's already red cheeks flush brighter. He gesticulates wildly, explaining how he's been on the phone with Kerry lawyers and they are very upset about this catastrophe. Fortunately, Cody McCone, New York lawyer, is doing absolutely everything he can to get the problem fixed. And just to assure everyone, Cody McCone will not leave the premises until new machines arrive.
Back inside, Fannie Lewis waits patiently.
In the rain-slicked parking lot of Woodbury Elementary School in Shaker Heights, the Armies of the Righteous loiter in wet ponchos, wielding fliers reduced to wet toilet paper. They came as warriors, spoiling for trench warfare, expecting a close-quarters knife fight against a horde of Republican challengers. Instead, they fight Mother Nature.
A cheer rings out when the cavalry arrives, by tour bus. A roiling mass of boom mics, cameras, and floodlights emerges and lurches toward the school. At the center is filmmaker Michael Moore, a slouching mound of indignation in New Balance sneakers. The General Patton of the Left has come to rouse the troops.
Moore asks for a field report. Grim expressions tell the story. The problem is long lines, one man says. "There's people I personally spoke to who waited three hours to vote."
Moore nods attentively. "Where's our camera?" he barks. "Make sure we get this on camera, 'cause we're not just looking for fraud. We're also looking for ineptitude."
"Are you making a movie about the election?" someone asks.
"The videotape exists as evidence," he says. "It's not to appear in your cineplex. It's to appear in a court of law!"
Moore leads a stumbling charge into the school to capture the long lines, but blocking his path is Michael Vu, Cuyahoga County's election director. He looks like a little boy in a grown-up suit, plucked from a college civics course and thrust into the role of Evil Bureaucrat in Mr. Moore Goes to Cleveland.
I'm sorry, no cameras, Vu says.
But Moore is armed with a recent court ruling. "We're not letting anyone tell us that our camera can't go somewhere," he says.
Vu blinks in the spotlight. He'll have to call somebody. He scurries down the hall. A short time later, he returns with the verdict: Welcome to Cleveland, Mike.
Moore's circus breaks the monotony as he enters the gym. "I would like to applaud Michael Moore for all his hard work!" a woman announces. The crowd dutifully claps.
"That's the guy from Super Size Me," a man in the doorway tells a friend.
After a few autographs, Moore announces his departure. Republicans are pretending to be lawyers at a precinct in East Cleveland. He must capture it on tape.
As he storms out of the school, voters stare in disbelief.
"Ain't that somethin'!", a man says.
"Michael Moore in da house!", says a woman.
"All that money," says another man, "and he dresses like that?"
State Representative Shirley Smith twirls around in the street, her eyes bright as lanterns. It's raining so hard that the water seems to fall diagonally, but Smith doesn't notice.
"This is where it's at," she sings. "Right here in Cuyahoga! I've never seen anything like this. The turnout is huge! Better than I ever imagined! It feels like Christmas morning to me! We're going to rock tonight. I'm feeling it! I'm feeling it!"
"That's great," a reporter says, smiling sweetly. "I'm glad there was such a high turnout. And in the rain too! But while you were out, did you notice," she asks, eyes narrowing to pinpoints, "any . . .," she pauses dramatically, ". . . troubles at the polling places?"
Smith nods seriously.
"Really!" The reporter stands, notebook poised, ready to record the revelations.
"At the last place, there were not enough of those 'I voted today' stickers to go around," Smith says. "People were really, really upset about that."
Gail McWilliams, the presiding judge at precinct 4-B in Akron, gets up from her table for a smoke break. She waddles into the rain and lights her cigarette, exhaling with relief. "I've been doing this for over a decade, and I've never seen anything like it," she says.
McWilliams rattles off a list of complaints: all the provisional ballots filed, voters not knowing which precinct they're in, long lines, and the overbearing protection activists.
"That knucklehead challenger? He was the least of my problems," she says. "He didn't say shit."
She heads back inside and takes her seat. Just a few feet behind her sits the G.O.P. challenger -- a kid half her age, with forever flushed cheeks and a potbelly that protrudes from his periwinkle dress shirt. As voters spell out their last names, he leans a red folder against his gut, quickly shuffling through his list of questionable voters, double-checking McWilliams's work.
Myron Lewis, a big guy with a pancake hat and thick-framed glasses, glares at the challenger from a corner of the gym. "It is completely disrespectful for a man to sit behind a woman like that," says Lewis in disgust. "See how he's sitting there? That's intimidation enough. All this stuff is gonna be damaging, because it isn't just gonna be Republicans against Democrats; it's gonna be whites versus blacks."
In Akron, Alan Perella, owner of Larry's Main Entrance, pulls up a seat at the bar, where his regulars wait for televised results. "You think there's still hope?" he asks.
A balding drunk in a Hawaiian shirt places an elbow on the bar as if he's about to answer, but instead, he lifts his beer to his lips, takes a sip, and sighs. He looks dejected. Next to him, Dawn Williams, a bulky woman in a cardigan, appears apologetic.
"I feel really guilty for voting for Bush," she confesses.
People raise their heads from their drinks and exchange puzzled looks.
"Wait. Wha--? Why did you vote for him then?" asks a bulb-nosed customer with a southern Ohio accent.
"Well, I only voted for Bush because I don't like Kerry's wife," Williams answers.
The geezer in the Hawaiian shirt tries to steady himself in the face of his own drunkenness and Williams's stupidity. He grips his pint as he stares blankly at the glowing red map of Florida on TV.
"We're fucked," he slurs.