CLEVELAND — It is rare that Cleveland, the brown jewel of the Rust Belt, finds itself at the center of the universe.
But as Election Day 2004 unfolded, Cleveland voters found themselves treading what amounted to holy land for supporters of presidential hopeful John Kerry. Taking Ohio is key to the Kerry strategy, and taking Ohio means exciting blue-collar Dems in Cleveland in numbers large enough to offset more conservative voters in other parts of the state. That's why Paul Newman, Hilary Swank and Matt Dillon came here to work phone banks; John Kerry and Bruce Springsteen rocked a City Hall rally; and tens of thousands of volunteers from all corners of the country attempted to hunt down every last possible apathetic voter. It's also why Cleveland voters — a coveted prize — are feeling a bit fatigued.
"It's been a lot of fun and a little bit chaotic," said Natalie MacLean, a first-year Columbia Law School student monitoring a polling center in Cleveland's 7th Ward for the voter-rights organization Election Protection.
"I think too many volunteers turned out — way more than they expected," said MacLean, who was joined by two busloads of law students from New York City-area colleges. "We're here to help if any complicated legal situations arise," she said, "which hopefully, with my two months of legal education, I'll be able to do."
While voting was reportedly smooth and orderly, turnout was up significantly and lines at the polls long, despite a continuous Election Day downpour.
"They should have had more booths, it would have moved much faster," said 75-year-old Cleveland Heights resident Joyce Strange, who spent more than an hour in line waiting to vote. "I've been voting in this city for 37 years, and this is the longest I've ever had to wait."
Elsewhere, other voters complained they had to wait up to three hours to cast their votes.
Complicating matters was a last-minute court ruling allowing partisan election monitors to challenge Ohio voters who failed to comply with voter-registration laws. Eric Churchill, 30, had to cast a provisional ballot when his name failed to appear on registration rolls at the Cleveland Heights High School polling station.
"I'm not sure if something got lost in the mail or what," said Churchill. "The [poll worker] couldn't find my name and said I'd have to cast a provisional ballot, which is better than not voting at all."
Still, it may be weeks before the provisional ballots are tallied. " I'm not worried about my vote being counted," said Churchill. "I've done nothing wrong, so hopefully it will count."
A decisive factor in Tuesday's election is the sizable amount of young voters and volunteers. "I've never seen so many young kids," said Keith Gardner, 46, a poll worker at Cleveland's East High School. "There are tons of 18- and 19-year-olds all exercising their right to vote. And everyone is talking about Vote or Die. These kids really believe in rap music and they are following it. I have like 30 nephews and nieces who never voted in their lives and this year they're all voting."
Additionally, not-for-profit organizations and political action committees like Americans Coming Together, MoveOn PAC, the NAACP, Election Protection, and both the Republican and Democratic parties are staffed in large measure by young volunteers.
Lindsay Nemastil, a 23-year-old recent graduate of Ohio University, is working as an organizer at MoveOn PAC. She's running 15 groups of canvassers across Cleveland's Cuyahoga County. In the last two days she has had only five hours of sleep. "The biggest challenge," she said, "is waking up our crews up at 4:30 a.m. in the morning and asking them to go out there in the rain."
Meanwhile, 53-year-old Linda Hall, a political activist for the past 37 years, worked at the Ward 7 polls and said she's incredibly proud of all the young people voting in this election. "I work with the youth in my neighborhood, and they were very enthusiastic about getting involved with this race this year" she said. "I've been telling them the only way to be counted is to participate. You have to let them know that you exist and that their vote does count."
Indeed, in swing states like Ohio they are crucial.