My less than brilliant career as a write-in voter
By Alex Steiner
I have previously commented on the anemic quality of the SEP’s 2008 election campaign. The SEP claimed to be running a write-in campaign, (having waited to launch their campaign until it was too late to get on the ballot anywhere). But it was obvious that even as a write-in campaign, the party was just going through the motions. A small but telling indication of this is that the SEP did nothing to warn its supporters of the problems they might face in actually placing a write-in vote. As I discovered when I went to vote myself, those problems could be formidable.
I arrived at the grammar school gymnasium where the voting takes place in my Brooklyn, New York neighborhood in the latter part of the evening, when I knew the lines would be shorter, but also well ahead of the 9 PM closing time for the polls. I was determined to vote SEP, which I thought would be a relatively straightforward matter. However, once I entered the voting booth, I realized that I did not recall the exact mechanics of submitting a write-in vote and there was nothing in the voting booth in the way of instructions that would assist me. I therefore signaled to one of the poll workers that I wished some assistance.
Once I got the attention of the volunteer I explained to him what I wanted to do and he simply did not understand the concept of a write-in vote at all. I then asked him to consult with his supervisor where I hoped to have better luck. It turned out that the supervisor, a middle-aged woman with a very business-like attitude only had a little bit more knowledge than the volunteer. She understood the concept of a write-in vote but had no idea how to do it with Brooklyn’s antiquated manual voting machines. Finally, she located an instruction booklet that actually had a section explaining how to cast a write-in ballot. It seems there was a button on the upper left that you have to press down and at the same time slide over a metal fastener over a rectangular space to the left of the position for which you want to cast your ballot. The metal fastener is supposed to unlock a paper ballot where you can write in your preference.
This sounded simple enough and armed with a new degree of confidence I thanked the supervisor for showing me the directions and told her that I wanted to complete my vote. However, during the interval while I was attempting to obtain these directions, other people were waved through and allowed to vote. This created a logistical problem for the volunteers as my return to the voting booth required that they fill out a new form for me. They seemed reluctant to do this, claiming that this would “disrupt” their orderly procedures. When I pointed out that it was not my fault that asking for assistance for a simple problem should not have been the cause of any disruption, the supervisor with whom I was speaking asked me why I couldn’t just vote the “normal” way, i.e. for one of the candidates whose names were on the ballot, instead of causing trouble with my unorthodox request. I replied that I had a right to vote in whatever manner was allowed in the State of New York and casting a write-in ballot was one of the options that voters had before them.
As soon as I mentioned my rights, the supervisor’s attitude changed from one of mild annoyance to overt hostility. She then informed me that I could not go back into the voting booth to cast my ballot unless I was accompanied by two election officials. When I asked her why I should have this kind of supervision imposed on me, she claimed that the instruction booklet stated that anyone casting a write-in ballot can only do so if there are two elections officials standing by with that person in the voting booth. I could not believe the instruction booklet said any such thing and I asked her to show me where it said that. She pointed to a line where the instruction booklet stated that “If the voter requests assistance, two elections officials must enter the booth with that voter.” I explained that this sentence in the instruction manual applied to a situation where the voter was requesting assistance and I was not requesting any assistance. Now that I understood the procedure for casting a write-in ballot, I wished to avail myself of this option and cast my ballot in private as is my right.
My insistence upon my right to cast my write-in ballot in private further alienated this woman and she claimed that I could not vote until she obtained “clearance” from higher election authorities. She then got on her cell phone to make some calls. This went on for several minutes. After a while I once again insisted on my right to vote and went up to the police officer guarding the place and complained that I was in effect being denied my right to vote. At that point, the elections supervisor with whom I had been squabbling brought in reinforcements in the form of a higher election official, another middle-aged woman who sported a button on her lapel indicating that she had some kind of authority over the entire voting place. After explaining the problem to this woman she promptly echoed what the supervisor had said, that I can only vote under supervision, even though the booklet was very clear that this was required only in the case where the voter asks for assistance.
I once again insisted on my right to vote in privacy. When confronted by this unexpected rejection of her authority to dictate the terms of my voting, the elections official finally relented and said that I may vote without supervision, but I would only be given three minutes in the booth. She also threatened to find out my name and retaliate against me in some unspoken manner if my insistence on voting for a write-in candidate wound up”destroying” her statistics. Although her conditions were obviously capricious and unfair, I felt that I had at least won a partial victory and it was not fruitful to continue the argument with her. I agreed to her conditions and finally, after receiving a duplicate voting card, went in for the second time to cast my write-in vote. (I exited the first time without actually voting for anyone when I tried to obtain assistance initially.)
It was only then that I discovered that all my efforts and good intentions had been in vain. Although I followed the instructions in the booklet religiously, the slot where the paper ballot is supposed to reveal itself refused to open. I was the victim of a faulty voting machine. I left in disgust, unable to cast my ballot for the SEP.
I can only wonder how many other supporters of the party had similar experiences. Interestingly, there has been no article posted on the WSWS reporting on how many votes the party received, something that was standard practice in other party campaigns.  What is ironic about my little comedy of errors in the voting booth is that I was taking this write-in campaign more seriously than the SEP was.
A last point that’s worth reflecting on: what accounts for this virtual non-campaign on the SEP’s part? If ever there were an election that cried out for a socialist voice to be heard, this was it. And yet none of the movements to the left of the Democratic Party made themselves heard in this campaign, from Ralph Nader and the Greens to the various middle class radical groups. Of course the mass media adulation for Obama did much to drown out such voices, but it is also the case that these tendencies adapted themselves to the Obama campaign, either by toning down their own campaigns or abandoning them altogether.
If we consider the SEP’s behavior in this broader context, then its failure to fight for ballot status or mount a serious write-in campaign was also an adaptation to these bourgeois class pressures. Those pressures express themselves through the political base of the SEP, which is increasingly middle class college and university students, the layer of the population who most fervently supported Obama. A serious election campaign would have forced these students to swim against the stream of Obama’s popularity, and clearly this was something the party leadership wanted to avoid.
 One example can be found in this report written in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 election –
Socialist Equality Party gains significant support in US elections,
by Joseph Kay, 4 November, 2004
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