I thought folks were rude until seeing elections

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Commentary by Clif Lusk

Last week, I moaned a little bit about general rudeness. Then there were the elections.

I have witnessed a good number of elections over the course of my life. I’ve been a campaign worker, a campaign manager, a poll worker and a candidate for public office myself. I’ve been a registered lobbyist, which is the equivalent of being on the campaign trail full time and year-around.

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I’ve witnessed elections at both their best and their worst. As a working journalist covering politics and elections, I’ve reported on good campaigns, dirty politics and political shenanigans that would make a blind man blush.

Never, ever, have I been accused of being a racist – covering a campaign or otherwise. Never, that is, until last Tuesday night at the National Guard Armory in Demopolis.

Barred all day long from coming within 30 feet of the poll, the media was excluded from the polls by city officials all over the Black Belt, although the TV news had some very nice shots of people feeding their ballots into the voting machines.

I’ve never been excluded from a poll during the day – not in the three previous elections I’ve covered in Alabama, including one in Marengo County, and countless elections in Mississippi. But there is a law that excludes anyone except a poll watcher, a poll worker and “qualified electors” from breaking the 30-foot rule. One assistant district attorney I talked with said that law technically excludes a voter from entering the poll to cast a ballot, but that’s beside the point.

Generally, however, once the polls were closed, a media representative, upon request, could enter the poll during the vote counting process and photograph the proceedings.

I left Demopolis City Hall around 7:30 p.m. and headed down to the Armory to snap a shot – mainly because I knew they had the largest number of absentee ballots with which to contend and would be a little longer in the vote-counting process than the city’s four other polling places. From a news value perspective, it was the most hotly contested box in the entire city with a three-way race for council member. It was, in my mind, a most legitimate photo subject.

Up to the door I went, finding it locked. I knocked. A poll worker came to the door and I explained who I was and why I was there. I wasn’t allowed in. After a cell phone call – on my cell phone – from Vickie Taylor, I was allowed inside, took my pictures and was headed out when an older man who had been opposed to my entry from the get go – down right rude about it too – tailed me out.

At one point he wanted to know why I wasn’t “at the white poll where I belonged.”

Huh? Only then did it dawn on me that I was the only white person in the building. The man continued until I invited him to my office to discuss it further the next morning, because I really didn’t have time for such a discussion at that moment, with the election and everything going on.

I was steamed. He had essentially said that I was at the Armory just to stir up trouble and that I was being racist in so doing.

Two problems here: I’m not a racist and don’t think much about the color of someone’s skin, and I wasn’t stirring up trouble, I was covering the news.

More importantly, there are other questions we as members of this community should be asking. Why, for example, is the public excluded from witnessing the vote counting process? This is a fundamental basis of our entire way of governance. Why is Alabama excluding its citizens from watching votes being counted? It seems to me that’s one way to keep elections honest.

This nation is built around free and open elections, and with all the problems we’ve seen in the past two elections – especially in Hale County – we ought to take steps to ensure they are free and fair. Closed doors and government don’t mix and that rule especially applies to elections.

Until we begin following that rule, the Black Belt simply won’t get started along the path to growth. After all, what company would want to come to a region known for underhanded elections?

What child, given a chance to leave this region, would want to stay?

Developing a positive future for our area demands leaving behind the tools of oppression, so to speak. Open, fair elections is the starting point. Elections that are free from fraudulent voting, unencumbered by strong-arming citizens into voting for one candidate in particular and in the full public view are the key to building a better tomorrow for the Black Belt.

Clif Lusk is editor of The Times. Reach him via e-mail at clif.lusk@demopolistimes.com, or call him at 334.289.4017.