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Ensuring That Voting's Sanctity Wins Out

By Donna Britt
Friday, October 1, 2004; Page B01

Cuddling her fluffy white Maltese dog in her Silver Spring living room, Joan Biren explains why on Election Day, she and five friends will be in Philadelphia doing something that most Americans believe happens only in corrupt foreign governments:

Watching a polling place to ensure that registered voters are allowed to cast their ballots for the candidates of their choice.

It isn't just that Biren sees the bitterly contested presidential election of 2000 as an event "as threatening to our democracy as anything that has happened in my lifetime," or even that "suppression and intimidation of voters, particularly minorities, has a very long history in this country," she says.

As with others who've volunteered to be poll-watchers through the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition -- which tomorrow will sponsor volunteer orientation-trainings in the District -- Biren knows of several recent disturbing incidents:

Last year in Philadelphia, voters in black neighborhoods were challenged by unauthorized men carrying clipboards and driving sedans with magnetic signs designed to look like law enforcement insignia, according to a recent report by the NAACP and People for the American Way, "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America."

In South Dakota's primary in June, some Native American voters complained that they were prevented from casting ballots when they couldn't provide photo IDs and weren't informed that they could have signed personal affidavits instead.

In Michigan, state Rep. John Pappageorge (R) actually was quoted in July in the Detroit Free Press as saying, "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election."

More than 80 percent of Detroit's population is black.

It's no wonder that on Nov. 2, hundreds of volunteers, "including many people like me -- white, middle-class," Biren says, "are feeling moved to go into areas that are principally black and Latino to ensure that . . . people who are registered to vote and who want to vote are not disenfranchised.

"It's not about Bush or Kerry or about Democrats or Republicans," Biren insists. "I'm working for democracy."

Working for democracy -- for the grand, noble notion of free and fair elections -- is just one reason why Americans from every political party are casting their votes by absentee ballots and traveling to sometimes-distant locations to act as poll monitors. Another pressing reason is expressed by Washington attorney J.E. McNeil:

"Every time I hear either [presidential] candidate's voice on the radio, I turn it off, count to 20, then turn it back on -- I'm stressed," says McNeil, 53, who will monitor polls in Philadelphia. Sitting in front of a TV, following election returns, would make her "flip out," she says. " . . . I'd rather be doing something helpful and concrete.

"Something that keeps me from having to watch it."

Of course, watching it, in the most up-close-and-personal way, is exactly what 10,735 volunteers -- one-quarter of whom already have trained and received their Election Day assignments -- plan to do. Volunteers include "people who are not activists in daily life . . . who really want to make sure this is a fair election," says Becky Bond of Working Assets, the long-distance provider that's helping the Election Protection coalition of civil rights groups organize the effort.

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