CLEVELAND - As at countless election watch parties throughout the country, the huge crowd in the Doubletree ballroom here exploded in pandemonium when Ohio was called for Barack Obama at 11:16 p.m. on Nov. 6 and the president's re-election was secured.
My wife, Ann, and I had only arrived at the event, hosted by the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, a half an hour earlier, as the poll where Ann had been working as a vote tracker was delayed in winding up its work until 9:30 p.m.
We were both exhausteded but buoyed by the growing excitement and the sense evident on everyone's face that the long awaited victory was at hand.
Greg Moore, national executive director of the NAACP Voter Fund, came over to thank us for helping with the Cleveland voter registration drive. In September our neighborhood Obama campaign team had registered over 500 voters canvassing door to door in Ward 14 and in the outpatient lobby of MetroHealth, the county hospital located in the ward. Most of the new voters as well as many others filled out mail ballot applications that we took with the registration forms to the Board of Elections nearly every day.
Stu Garson, the county Democratic chairman, tried valiantly, and with little success, to speak to the crowd screaming, dancing and hugging as the announcement was made.
For me it was the culmination of months of intense work that began when I attended my first state meeting of neighborhood team leaders in Columbus last March. The pace of meetings, phone banks and canvassing kept growing and reached its peak on the last four days before the Tuesday election.
Since Saturday I had virtually lived in our neighborhood Get Out The Vote staging location at the Tropical, a former Latin nightclub, in the southern part of the ward. Another staging location ran operations for the northern part. From the Tropical we dispatched teams of volunteers three times a day. Armed with walk lists, they knocked on doors of likely Obama supporters in every neighborhood reminding them of the importance of their vote and delivering campaign literature for Obama and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and flyers about vans the Service Employees and Amalgamated Transit unions were running from a local McDonald's parking lot to bring early voters to the Board of Elections.
As staging location director I reported to the area field organizer the results of each shift, how many canvassers were out and how many walk lists remained so she could allocate volunteers for the next shift. The staging location operated with practically military precision following a "Master Tick Tock" giving the exact times in each shift for welcoming, training and sending out the canvassers, then debriefing, recording results and providing refreshments when they returned.
Dry runs had been conducted at several hundred of such locations throughout the county for the two previous weekends and on the weekend before the election the goal was to knock on every targeted door. In fact, this goal was reached on Saturday and by Election Day every door had been hit at least twice.
The success was due to the fact that local canvassers were bolstered by out of state volunteers. They included over 100 members of the Columbia University Young Democrats, some of whom had come to Ohio last year to help with the successful effort to repeal SB 5, the law enacted by the Republicans to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees. In addition, once the GOTV effort began in mid-October, phone banking, which neighborhood teams had been conducting every week, was outsourced to safe blue states like New York and California, so that local volunteers could focus on talking to voters face to face.
After the last shift left about 5 p.m. on Election Day I felt drained, turned the staging location over to Melissa Perez, the canvassing captain, and went home for a brief nap, which ended 20 minutes later when she called to say the order had come down for everyone to go out and canvass until the polls closed at 7:30 leaving only one person at the staging location.
I got the last walk packet, picked up Wanda Navarro, who had just come home from work at the Hugo Boss men's suit factory, and we started canvassing. We were welcomed by neighbors we had met over the course of the campaign proud to have already voted or planning to leave momentarily for the poll at Denison Elementary.
Two people on our list lived in a halfway house for mentally challenged individuals a block away from the school. One man had voted. The other, an older white woman, did not know where the poll was and was overjoyed when we offered to drive her there. The problem was her purse had recently been stolen and she had no identification, no utility bills or bank account with her address. Finally she found a letter someone had sent her and we took her to the poll which was crowded with last minute voters.
The poll worker at her precinct accepted the letter and showed me where we could sit and go over the lengthy six-page ballot. The woman knew she wanted to vote for Obama and Sherrod Brown but was unfamiliar with many candidates for judge and other offices and with the state and local issues on the ballot. We got through most of it and brought her home. She stood on the porch waving to us and calling us her "guardian angels."
Melissa called to say that one of the young volunteers had completed his canvass and needed a ride back to the staging location. We brought him to the Tropical and then drove him home. Then we were directed to pick up a woman who had just moved to the area and didn't know where her poll was. We took her and her visiting nephew to the nearest poll at Walton Elementary where I was happy to meet up with my wife Ann. Since the poll opened at 6:30 a.m. she had been phoning in each voter as they cast their ballots in Precinct P, which had been selected by the campaign to monitor the election in Ward 14.
We planned to get together for dinner when the poll closed.
The woman we brought was able to cast a provisional ballot since she was in the right location for her new address but was registered at her previous address. More than 31,000 provisional ballots were cast in the county and most, like hers, are still being counted. Her nephew, however, could not cast a ballot at that poll.
Wanda and I knocked on a few more doors before the polls closed. We found a restaurant, but Ann was delayed so we boxed her dinner and I took Wanda home. When Ann came home we were both ready to collapse but decided to head out to the watch party. That was how we ended a hectic and very happy Nov. 6.
Cuyahoga County provided Obama with 236,478 votes, enough to overcome Romney's 129,219 vote lead in the other 87 counties combined and giving Obama a two-point lead in the state. He won the county with 69%. In the predominantly Black wards on Cleveland's East Side he won with 96%. On the city's West Side he had 76%. In Ward 14, the most diverse of any ward, he won with 84%.
Photo: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP