Susan Bergmann recounts a disturbing day of District 2 poll watching and electioneering violations by partisans.

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[Editor’s note: California Elections Code § 18370 forbids certain activities within 100 feet of a polling place, such as electioneering, placing an election sign, or speaking to a voter about whom to vote for.]

Just two days before the election, I decided I wanted to spend Election Day as an observer. So I read some materials about election rules, charged up my digital camera, and found a friend willing to spend part of the day with me. What I found surprised me.

Here in Oakland’s District 2, I did not see any evidence of voters being discouraged from voting or disenfranchised in any way. But what I did see was very disturbing: illegal activities on behalf of political campaigns that ranged from minor (and curtailed by assertive poll workers) to a major disturbance that required police intervention.

At 8 a.m., Karen Newton (National Park Service Ranger) and I met at my house, with the goal of visiting every polling place in Oakland’s District 2. She drove, I navigated, and we set off.

We found problems at the very first stop, Garfield Elementary School, just a few blocks from my home. Loud, aggressive electioneers were advertising for their local candidate very close to the polling entrance. The lead poll worker informed us that they had been right at the front entrance, and had told him, “if there’s no chalk mark, we can go wherever we want.” So he found a piece of chalk and marked off 100 feet in either direction of the entrance. Meanwhile, when he wasn’t looking, someone wrote in chalk, right near the entrance, “VOTE FOR ALLISON.”

Our first few stops were in the Eastlake and San Antonio neighborhoods. At almost every stop, we either personally observed aggressive electioneering or poll workers reported problems with illegal campaign activities. Several polling places also reported problems with machines. Not everyone could figure out how to make the scanning machines work and, often, a minor problem would make the machine stop working. Neither Karen nor I knew how to fix the machines, so we weren’t much help. But in each place, there was an old-fashioned ballot box as well, so no votes were missed.

At Roosevelt Middle School, the poll workers reported that there had been a man who was “snooping.” They said they hadn’t trusted him, and he had tried to look at their materials. But he had gone before we arrived.

At Bella Vista Elementary School, there were electioneers very close to the building entrance. In addition, signs for several local candidates had been placed along the edge of the school property. The head worker was unclear on the rules regarding polling places and uncomfortable confronting the electioneers. Karen was not at all shy. She told the campaigner, “I’m in law enforcement. I know 100 feet when I see it, and that’s not 100 feet from the entrance.” The head poll worker was also unwilling to deal with the campaign signs, and told us it was up to the school principal. A quick visit to the principal’s office was informative. She did not know the signs were there, and wanted them removed from the school property immediately. So Karen and I went out and removed the signs; workers from Abel Guillen’s campaign were there and took care of their signs, as well as signs for Phil Angelides. No one was present from the Allison campaign, so a school district employee took her signs and put them in his truck.

Once we got above Highway 580 (to the more affluent neighborhoods), the problems disappeared. There were no electioneers to be seen, no signs near entrances, and the polling places were all well organized and running smoothly. There were still problems with non-working scanners, but manual ballot boxes were used when the machines were not working.

Karen needed to get back to work around noon, so we decided to visit one last polling place on the way back to my house. When I went inside, the poll workers assumed I was from the Registrar of Voters. They were desperate to see me, and anxious for me to take over! It turned out there were 2 Chinese American workers who spoke little English, and 2 high-school students who didn’t really know what was going on. They were all upset because “Polly,” the head worker, had left two hours before and hadn’t returned. They could not get the scanner to work, and no one from the Registrar’s office had shown up.

I called the Registrar again, and the high-school students struggled to help the voters who came in. Finally, I told the workers I had to leave but promised to return.

I returned about 30 minutes later, and “Polly” had returned. She smiled brightly, with bloodshot eyes, and told me everything was fine now. She did not appear to be sober.

I made another call to the Registrar, letting them know the latest details. This time, their response was immediate. Within ten minutes, a replacement for “Polly” had arrived. I retuned for a final visit around 7:00 p.m. The polling place was bustling with activity, and all six poll workers were present and keeping busy (and Polly no longer looked high). The machine was working smoothly and had logged over 200 voters since it had been fixed.

The most dramatic incident of the day occurred back at Roosevelt Middle School around 3:30 p.m. When I returned for my follow-up visit, I checked in again with the poll workers.