In Staten Island, voter excitement overrides concern in close congressional race

5 Nov

Jackie Bischof

Curtis High School in Staten Island hosts voters from the 18th, 19th and 20th electoral districts. Photo: Jackie Bischof

From THE BALLOT BOX 08 – Gloria Smith is having a long day.

She woke up shortly after 4am to arrive at Curtis High School near the north shore of Staten Island by 5.30am. By 11am, she’s had her eye on the hundreds of voters that have already streamed through the door of the school. She’ll be spending her whole day there, answering questions from nervous first-time voters, directing the queues of impatient people; doing her job as a Democratic Party poll watcher.

She is not looking forward to this evening’s after-work rush, but is buoyed by the early morning voter turnout.

“It was amazing to see how many people came out and voted so early. I feel wonderful,” she said. “People feel like they are taking part in progress and they’re energized.”

A 59-year-old retired employee of the City of New York who has volunteered at polling stations before, Smith is well versed in election law and station rules rules. She was dispatched by NY Democratic Lawyers Council and Dem. City Councilman Mike McMahon’s office to watch over a station in an area that is playing host to what some consider to be New York City’s closest political race.

Jackie Bischof

Sounds of the voting lever, and chatter of excited voters filled the hall of Curtis High School on the morning of the U.S. national elections. Photo: Jackie Bischof

McMahon is campaigning against former assemblyman and Rep. Bob Straniere to represent the 13th Congressional District, an area that covers Staten Island as well as Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. The area is known as one of the few Republican hotspots in New York State, and has been “GOP red for 26 years,” according to New York’s metro newspaper.

However, the seat went up for grabs when incumbent Rep. Representative Vito Fossella agreed not to campaign for re-election after being arrested for drunk driving in Virgina earlier this year. Fossella was returning from visiting a daughter he had fathered while having an affair – a daughter no one knew about.

The close congressional race has made some people concerned about what would happen if there were ballot miscounts or election machine mishaps, issues that are more prominent in swing states then in traditionally Democrat-leaning New York State.

While Smith directed traffic inside and made sure everything was running smoothly, Board of Elections volunteer Robert Kee stood outside, asking people what their addresses were so that he could direct them to their correct district line before they went inside. Most people looked at Kee oddly as he greeted them with “Good morning, can I help you?”, looking a bit suspicious that someone was approaching them outside the polling station.

Jackie Bischof

Volunteer Robert Kee helps a voter find out what electoral district he is in. Photo: Jackie Bischof

“Some people are absolutely insistent that you leave them alone, that they know what they want to do,” he said. “And then they’ll stand in line for half an hour and they’ll get up to the desk and they’ll realize that they were standing in the wrong line.”

“Tonight, I suspect, will just be crazy,” said Kee. “Everyone that’s been working here for years says they’ve never seen voter turnout like this. And tonight, the working class folks will come, middle-class folks will come after jobs … it’ll be crazy.”

Kee says excitement about the election is mixed with a general suspicion about the voting process. He’s particularly worried about how his community will feel if Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain takes areas that have been polled as Democratic Party wins – or if Democratic Party nominee, Sen. Barack Obama takes areas people thought would be taken by McCain.

“There is a lot of skepticism about the last eight years,” said Kee. “There’s always going to be that suspicion [about the election process.] We know that it’s a human process, so by definition it’s imperfect.” That suspicion is especially prevalent amongst marginalized communities, said Kee.

Being a volunteer is “good work to be doing,” according to Kee, despite the suspicious looks he gets from voters every now and again. “To see people engaged in the politics of their country, the politics of their city, the politics of their burrogh, it’s absolutely exciting to me.”

Jackie Bischof

Sharon Valentine, who describes herself as a housing advocate, says people are excited about casting their vote in this historic election. Photo: Jackie Bischof

Sharon Valentine, co-chair of nearby Castleton Park apartment’s Tenants’ Association, also has concerns about mix ups that might affect results. Her niece had to fill out a paper ballot because she hadn’t voted in two years and was removed from the list of voters without realizing that she had to re-register. She says her niece is worried about “exactly where that paper ballot is going to go.”

Despite her concerns, Valentine speaks passionately about the impact of everyone’s vote in a district with such a close race.

“We have first time voters here from the building. It’s so important to me – this process,” said Valentine. “It’s so historical – everybody wants to be counted.”

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