A number of years ago, a friend of mine invited me to volunteer for a presidential campaign on Election Day. I had nothing better to do than spend time with my buddy, and how hard could it be? I’d probably end up loading a bunch of boxes into a truck as the campaign packed up, then sit around a television as the workers watched patiently to see if their candidate had won.
I was surprised to arrive at a headquarters that was bustling an hour before the polls opened. Over a hundred people were gathered, waiting their assignments to various tasks, such as working the phones or canvassing neighborhoods. One man was the brains behind the effort, and I’ll call him the ‘Director.’ He and two of his assistants studied a map written on a sheet of glass. It was straight out of a war movie. This was war, after all, but I had no idea yet to what lengths they would go to win it.
My friend and I were assigned to watch a polling place and count voters. That was all, just count. We weren’t to campaign or otherwise pester anyone. We didn’t even wear blue or red. To be polite, we arrived early and notified the poll workers who we were and why we were there. We also offered a service – if a voter showed up and was in the wrong location, he or she could come to us, and we would contact headquarters to determine the correct voting location. We were assisting democracy.
Every hour on the hour, we had to report in with the total number of people who had voted there. There was a good early turnout, and over 60% of the district’s registered voters had cast their ballots by the time my stomach started growling at lunch time.
Ten minutes after our 12:00 noon update, the Director called my friend. We were to abandon our post and return to headquarters immediately for reassignment. We walked in the door just after 12:30 p.m., to a room in chaos. About 40 telephone operators were calling voters from a list, and one of the Director’s assistants had just told them to throw away their current list, and to use a different list that he passed around as he spoke. We were given a map, and told to knock on doors and pass out literature in a specific neighborhood. An unmarked van offered people free rides to the polls.
That’s when I finally understood the game. The telephone crew had heavily surveyed each of the districts in the city, and knew accurately which ones were supporting our candidate and which ones weren’t. Each polling district was monitored, as as voters turned out, the statisticians calculated how many votes we had in any given district based on those percentages. Every hour, the phone crew, the guys in the van, and those of us on the ground were focused on getting the maximum voter turnouts in districts that were polling heavily for our candidate. Our unmarked white van wasn’t performing a public service – it was offering free rides in districts that were in our favor. We were legally stuffing the ballot box.
Then it got REALLY weird. We’d barely been at it an hour, and we got another call. Drop what you are doing, we’re packing it up. We’ve won the state. Really? There are still almost four hours before the polls close!
Did I say weird? It got weirder. The Director was whisked away to the airport, where a private jet flew him to Ohio. he was needed to coordinate operations on the ground there in the final hour or two of voting, because the race was all going to come down to who won Ohio.
That’s exactly how it turned out, too. My friend and I grabbed some fast food and killed some time before a big banquet downtown. I was sitting next to the new state Governor at the moment he found out he had won. That part was pretty cool.
Part of me, however, wished I had never seen what I had seen that day. We hadn’t broken a single law, but we’d manipulated the system. The other party was doing the same thing at their headquarters – using every tool at their disposal to steer their voters into clicking the little block beside their man’s name.
It made me wonder what else I hadn’t seen.