The Plank

Where Philadelphia’s Voting From

PHILADELPHIA, PA--The best thing about covering elections in Philadelphia: The polling
places. City policy prioritizes spots within walking distance of people's
houses, which means that the 1,600-odd divisions within a 120 square-mile town
include bowling alleys, garages, bars, a roller rink, a karate studio called
Urban Defense Fitness Center, and numerous private homes. One reform, though,
has prohibited the locating of polling places inside the houses of people who
happen to be on the ballot.

Late this morning, I
watched the festival of democracy inside Saigon Maxim, a Vietnamese restaurant
in a neighborhood that was until recently heavily Italian. The signs on the door
reflect the melting pot: Italian-Americans for McCain, Irish-Americans for
Obama, Asian-Americans for McCain, and vice versa for all. Inside, the poll
workers--all of them Italian--had just gotten a pizza delivered for lunch. The
restaurant, though, had provided tea. Voters trickled into the establishment's
banquet room, where the booths were in front of a stage bedecked with a red
velvet curtain and Chinese calligraphy. At a back table, one of the restaurant
workers quietly sorted a bucket of sugar snap peas. As in many other places, the
vote count was 50 percent higher than in a normal presidential election.

One of the new
voters was Gina Marie Elizabeth Garramone, 22. She said she'd never bothered to
vote before, but was inspired because "I really like Obama. I admire him so
much." The multiple generations of her family in the neighborhood don't agree.
"They're thinking, they want McCain. They don't want a black
president."

So it goes in South
Philly, an aging neighborhood of row-house sentiments and, at times, the bigotry
to match. Voting in a social club decorated with Frank Sinatra memorabilia and
pictures with captions like "Crab Trip 09-20-03 ('I Got a Big One,' Paul
Casiero)," a guy named Georgie claims that an Obama worker called him
"prejudiced" because he wouldn't say how he was voting. In a division in
Southbrook Park, on a mostly white block in what has become a
mostly black part of South Philadelphia, that's
the response I get from a Democratic committeeman when I asked whether his
constituents could vote for an African American candidate. "Why should I tell
you how I voted," he said, declining to leave the Cadillac he had parked in the
alley outside the voting place.

The voting place, it
turns out, is the basement of one Mary Tursi, who decorated the place with old
posters of Frank Rizzo, Sylvester Stallone, the 1980 Phillies, and George W.
Bush. The crew inside is a lot more friendly. The 84-year-old Republican ward
leader, with a feather in his fedora, estimates a 50-50 split at the polling
place. "It's more Democrats," he says, "But ... you know." One of those Democrats
is Amedeo Grassia, 83. "McCain's my buddy," says Grassia, whose jacket
identifies him as a Marine and a two-time Purple Heart. He says he was at
Okinawa. ("He was the cook," jokes Catherine
Imbrenda, one of the poll workers.) "That guy suffered for us. Now it's his
turn," Grassia, a retired City Hall building superintendent, continues. "This is
for my men in Okinawa." But it's not for his
wife, Grace, who announces that she hates McCain. "Oh, and if he dies and that
Miss Showgirl lady gets in, God help us," she says.

This is one stop
where the turnout is no better than 2004. The neighbors have an easy
explanation: "This is an older division," says Imbrenda. "A lot of the people
are deceased." One of them, it seems, is Tursi, who owned the house but died
three months ago. Imbrenda is hoping one of her kids moves in and takes
ownership of the basement reliquary (and the $90 stipend for hosting the
polls).

Meanwhile, at the
Urban
Defense Fitness Center in the heterogenous Northern
Liberties neighborhood, all three voting machines were broken for a time this
morning, generating chaos in the line (though not requiring a black belt's
intervention). By the time I arrive, the anger has died down, and there's no
wait to get into the booth, which sits just in front of a poster illustrating
defensive karate positions. The one remnant of the morning was a handmade sign
out front bearing an Obama sticker beside the words: "With your help we will do
fine. Please, please stay in line." Poll workers said they expected to double
their previous presidential turnout.

--Michael
Schaffer

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