The Day I Did American Democracy

I’m a fan of Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist candidate for the US presidency in 2020. So, when I got an email from his office asking for volunteers to attend a vote recount in support of Tiffany Cabán, I signed up for a Monday morning session.

 

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Guess which one is the establishment candidate!

 

The race was for the democratic candidate who will eventually vie to become District Attorney of Queens, NY. I don’t know exactly what a district attorney is, but it seems to be a position of some importance. The two leading candidates are Tiffany Cabán and Melinda Katz. Katz is considered the establishment candidate, and Cabán is a socialist. Both women have said they intend to fight against mass incarceration and the war on drugs, and Cabán goes even further in that she intends to decriminalize sex work in the borough. 

Ordinarily, this sort of local election wouldn’t make big news but the fight has taken on wider significance because of this promise (or threat, depending on your point of view) of departure from  ‘business as usual’. As an article in Queens Eagle put it:

 

If Cabán does hold on to win, her victory would mark the stunning culmination of a grassroots movement focused on major reforms in the way prosecutors seek to punish people accused and convicted of crimes. It is also the latest contest between a growing faction of progressive Democrats and the Queens County Democratic Party, a powerful organization that has lost traction in the borough since the defeat of its former boss, ex-U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year. The county party and its leaders, including new chair, U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, endorsed Katz for DA; Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Cabán. 

 

The election was held on June 25 this year and the initial results showed Cabán winning handily with a 1,090 vote lead. Re-canvassing of the vote machines increased Cabán’s lead to 1,199 votes. But after a count of absentee and affidavit ballots, Katz ended up leading by 20 votes, a small enough margin to necessitate a manual recount.

This was what I’d signed up for, so off I went. The thing started at 9.45am. Google maps suggested the journey would take 40 minutes. Factoring in subway repairs and my own difficulty in following simple directions, I decided to allow an hour and a half. Sure enough, I ended up getting on the wrong train twice and ended up arriving about five minutes late at a glass door at the back-end of a mall on Metropolitan Avenue. The corridor was full of other volunteers. I guessed that most of them were socialists because, like me, they were carrying canvas bags and looked bookish and depressed.

 

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A security guard swaggered in and told the people sitting on the floor that they had to get up.

‘Everyone line up against that wall,’ he growled, indicating one side of the corridor. This seemed a bit fascist but everyone wordlessly obeyed. I turned to the woman next to me, who looked permanently worried.

‘I missed the training video last night, do you know what we’re supposed to do?’ I asked.

She shrugged apologetically.

‘I’m not sure. We look at the vote and then make notes—that’s it I think.’ She had an Australian accent and I warmed to her as a fellow Australasian inexplicably dabbling in NY local politics.  

Someone came in asking for Katz’s volunteers. They were brought over to a different corner where they were briefed. Then Renee Paradis arrived. She is the lawyer for Cabán’s campaign, and looks a bit like Janis Joplin with her long free-flowing hair and bohemian élan. She sorted us into lawyers and ‘non-legal’ volunteers. She told us ‘non-legals’ that Robert would arrive soon and then she went to brief her lawyers. Robert arrived, a slim bearded youth with a kind face. He handed us papers to sign and told us to present them to the desk manned by security guards inside the door. We all filed in.

The setting was a big empty room that had the desolate institutional feel of a high school corridor or an abandoned hospital. There were eight tables in the center and chairs against the wall looking into the center of the room. Each chair had ‘BOARD OF ELECTIONS’ stamped on the back. Beside each table was a portable shelf containing four plastic boxes full of votes. The man in charge of wheeling the shelves around appeared to have no teeth. Each table had four seats–two for Katz’s people and two for Cabán’s—so the people who had diligently attended online training were sent to the tables. We wallflowers were assigned other tasks—mainly entering data using a laptop or phone. I had neither so it became my job to file the papers away in manila folders. Thusly briefed, we waited for everything to start.

As there was nothing else to do, I gazed around with interest at all the humanity. My first priority was to identify our rivals, the Katzes. From what I could make out, the Katz people were mainly rich old white people and middle-class black people. The Cabán people were generally young and slobby from a range of ethnic backgrounds. Katz’s men were clean-shaven, Cabán’s hirsute. As for lawyers, on our side we had Renee and Robert, both young and hip; Katz had two middle-aged men in suits. One was a very tall big man named Frank and assisting him was a smaller man with horn-rimmed glasses. As my neighbor muttered, with some justice, they looked like caricatures of lawyers.

 

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Floating around between the tables was another lawyer, a glamorous woman with long blonde hair, snake-skin high heels and a tight skirt buttoned at the back, the type of character you might see in a Netflix law drama. She seemed to have high rank but I couldn’t tell what her role was in the whole thing.

The vote counting began. At each table, one of the lawyers produced a vote from the box, read  the name aloud and showed the page  to the three other people at the table, who squinted at it to see if it matched. Then they would each make a mark in the appropriate box on a tally sheet. If there was any question or disagreement, one of the lawyers raised his or her hand and call a big lawyer over. Katz’s people called Frank, Cabán’s called Renee. If Frank was called, Renee also hastened over and vice versa. If no one could settle it, the problem was recorded on a separate sheet of paper. We saw this little kerfuffle happen about six times in three hours.

My neighbors chatted away in quiet moments. The guy next to me was born in India but had immigrated to the US when he was young. He taught Creative Writing at a local university and the previous year had established a union for teachers and tutors, successfully negotiating a substantial pay rise. He said the university was now trying to squeeze him out, which suited him pretty well as he was thinking of taking a year off work. He just wanted to stay until he could wangle a big enough severance package. Next to him was a young Hungarian-born physician who’d lived in the Bronx for ten years. She worked in an ER unit and did seven days on, seven days off.  

Well, the morning wore on and I filed papers away as people handed them to me, feeling pleasantly useful, though wondering if this was really the most efficient way of doing a recount. There must have been a hundred people in the room and the whole thing would go on for days. I noticed there were an awful lot of votes for Katz on the tally sheets in these particular area districts and feared for my candidate’s chances.

At the lunch break, some people went home but a few of us opted to stay on just in case there weren’t enough volunteers for the afternoon shift. We followed Renee and Robert along to a corner deli and then to a little patch of grass where we picnicked near the parking lot. There was much talk of behind-the-scenes issues, very little of which I could follow. In fact, I was mainly appreciating the generous helping of mayonnaise on my sandwich and marveling at how dedicated these people were in such an uneven fight. Katz has powerful friends, including two attorneys working pro-bono on her side in the recount because they are intimately connected with the Democratic party; Cabán has to spend tens of thousands of dollars to pay her attorneys just for the recount. After finishing our lunch, it was time to return to the fray.

 

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Another flood of Cabán volunteers arrived and again the security guard barked at us to stand against the wall. On this occasion a man in his sixties with a Roman nose and large bushy white beard laughed heartily and said shaking his head, ‘Civil disobedience. Civil disobedience.’

‘Just following orders sir,’ said the security guard tersely, but the laugh had done the job of deflating some of his pomposity. I felt very warm towards beardy.

Today the manual recount finished with Katz 60 votes ahead of Cabán. Katz has declared victory but Cabán is refusing to concede, insisting that hundreds of ballots were improperly invalidated and should be counted. The next court hearing will be on August 6…

 

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