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.
(Saturday's three two-hour orientation trainings are at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. at National City Christian Church in Northwest Washington. For more info, log on to electionprotection.org).
Election Protection hopes to monitor "every precinct where there's a danger of voter suppression or where it's already happened," says Bond, 34, places where voters "have been asked for unnecessary ID or to sign affidavits, or where they've needed language assistance and couldn't get it." She cites the Latino mother with four children in Florida who was told by a poll worker, "You can't bring those kids in here."
"In fact," Bond says, "she could."
Volunteers choose among 38 sites where monitors have been deemed necessary. They receive initial training either in person or by conference call from representatives of civil rights organizations and learn about their duties as poll monitors and the voting laws in various jurisdictions. On election eve, they'll receive more detailed information and copies of their designated state's Voters' Bill of Rights so "if there's a dispute, they can go in and say, 'I've got the Voters' Bill of Rights right here,' which can quickly resolve the problem," Bond says.
They'll also have cell phones to connect them to a lawyer hotline for instant advice or, if necessary, "to tell a lawyer to 'Get over here right now,' " Bond says.
"In the past . . . so many problems at the poll were documented after an election -- when it's too late. If people don't have their vote counted again . . ."
Bond's voice trails off at the prospect. Finally, she continues. "There's so much at stake. People's faith in elections is on the line."
Former middle school teacher Noel Tieszen says that when the last presidential election "made it clear that the electoral system doesn't work for everyone," she decided that such a "debacle" shouldn't be repeated. She and her boyfriend, a lawyer, will monitor polls in Allentown, Pa.
"More important than who we vote for is that we have a right to be involved in the process," says Tieszen, 29, of the District. When that right is denied "through incompetence or discrimination in a government that's supposedly of the people, by the people and for the people, it's the responsibility of the people to do something.
"I'd rather the wrong guy win than the right guy win through an unfair electoral process," she says.
Denyse Brown of Richmond is a self-employed nurse-practitioner who insists that it's worth "giving up five days of pay" to travel to Raleigh, N.C., to monitor polls there. Election Protection's mission reminded her of Jewish women in Israel who daily monitored and documented the abuse of Palestinian women by Israeli border guards. Because the women were watching, abuses were reduced.
"I've never been involved in politics in a big way," Brown, 58, says. "But it's my philosophy that everything happens for a reason. . . . Thanks to the 2000 election, lots of people who'd never been involved are jumping up saying, 'Enough is enough.' "
In her high-backed chair, Biren is stroking her Maltese and explaining something she has learned in her 61 years: In tumultuous times, "you have to do some kind of action to keep from falling into despair," she says. Taking action "helps more than sitting around and worrying, even if what you're doing is a small thing."
"Making every vote count is not a small thing."