THE PLANK NOVEMBER 4, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, PA--At 6:30 a.m., the line outside Slater's Auto Repair in Southwest Philadelphia was around the block. For a decade, the garage has doubled as a polling place on Election Day. Garrett Allen, the local Democratic committeeman, says the number of people stepping over grease puddles to vote is about double what it was at this time four years ago. Ordinarily, residents in this mostly blue-collar, mostly African American swatch of the city don't start turning out until late in the day. Not today. At 8:30, there's still a throng of people sporting uniforms--workers at the airport, a driver for Kellogg's--laden with Obama buttons. "They're coming early," says Allen, a subway station cashier who for two decades has served as a committeeman in the 51st ward's first division, the lowest rung of the party machine apparatus. Is it just excitement, or are there actually more voters? Both, Allen says. "And they're bringing their children. They want to show them."
A few blocks away, a vacant storefront serves as the polling place for the ward's 23rd division. The line was just as long here, though it had dwindled by 9 a.m., as people headed to work. The number of registered voters in the division is 504--up from about 200 last year, when the city saw a hotly contested mayoral election. "Happy Election Day," exclaims one voter as she steps inside. "There's a lot of people who go into tears at the excitement of voting," says Tommy Weeks, the local committeeman. "I equate this to the days when MLK went down into Tennessee and got people to vote. You never see lines except then." In fact, one of the duties of the Obama folks at the polls is to serve as line manager, keeping frustrated would-be voters from leaving. "I just keep everyone happy and active and energized," explains one of them, outside the Flavor In Ya Hair barber shop. Like all the Obama volunteers, she's been instructed not to talk to the press. One colleague, though, passes word of alleged opposition shenanigans: names missing from the rolls or rumors spread that voters could be picked up on child-support charges. The stuff is par for the course here. Not that most of the Obama team would know: They're from out of town.
Weeks says that at about 3 p.m., he'll look at the voter rolls and figure out who hasn't voted. Then, he'll dispatch assistants to their houses to encourage them to vote. He also has a bullhorn that he calls "our fog horn." At about five, "before anyone has time to take off their shoes after work," he'll send someone out on the streets to alert anyone who might not have gotten the message about this being a special day. "We're going to get at least 400 votes out of here," he says. "It's amazing." As for what'll happen if all those votes add up to an Obama win, he's more nervous. "I hate to say it, but I think there'll be some gunfire and some fireworks out there."
"It'll be like the Phillies all over again," says Shelsea Looney, a pollworker at a nearby barber shop. Last week's World Series celebration included all sorts of joyous street scenes, but also the looting of a few stores. (Philly fans, like Democrats, aren't very used to winning.) "I've been praying on this all week," says Allen. "Restrain yourself, please. Jubilation is one thing, but think about the future. You need to hold hands and say a prayer because there's going to be a lot of work for this man."