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Gail McGowan Mellor Headshot

Devotion, Suspicion and Excitement in Louisville

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In the heavily African American area of well-kept middle class houses next to Shawnee Park, in Louisville, Kentucky, people across from the polls at Christ Temple Christian were awakened at six .a.m. by the sound of two hundred car doors slamming all at once as the polls opened. Voters--many of them determined to vote before work, others dating from the civil rights era, occasionally with walkers or on crutches--often had tears of hope and pride gleaming in their eyes as they went to cast their votes for Barack Obama.

That Obama vote in the African American community within Louisville is fervent, but far from universal. There is no early voting in Kentucky so today is the only day. Streets were lined with "VOTE TUESDAY" signs, to counteract the dirty tricks flyer circulating with the false statement that voting was Wednesday. The lists of voter suppression tactics though usually do not include the main one apparently operating here. With work scarce in Western County neighborhoods, many blacks have found jobs far across town.

As neighbor Tamera Sanderson explains, "Even if their employers let them off for an hour to vote, they will have to bus back to their poll, vote, and bus back in time not to lose their jobs. Many are waiting until after work, bussing back, and the polls close at six p.m."

Louisvillian Dorothy Ridings, former head of the national League of Women Voters [LWV], said, and the Jefferson County Board of Elections confirmed, that if that is the case, the employers' actions are illegal.

As people scrambled to get to their jobs though, voting at Christ Temple abruptly fell off around 7:30 am. That brought a wave of savvy mothers, getting in to vote "between the old people and people with jobs that would not let them off and the young people who will sleep until afternoon," as Tonya Mitchell put it. She was there with her son Tylor who was voting for the first time.

Tylor said he was "text-messaging everyone to get out here."

Just as black people are not voting for Obama because he's black, being black does not mean that someone necessarily voted Obama--partly because half the neighborhood, more than half the voters, are women and so many have heard the rumors.

Sarah Williams, a McCain supporter standing on her front porch, said. "Women of every color were slaves before black men were, and women in many countries still are. This country is not going to straighten out until we women assume our rightful position as the majority. I got one chance with Hillary,. Sarah Palin is my second."

Like many, Williams subscribes to the rumors making the rounds among both white and black Evangelicals. "That Chicago church Obama belonged to? It's exactly the kind that a Muslim would choose. You know in the Bible, 'Bama' means 'in high position.' And what kind of Christian would reject his church and pastor for political gain? I hear that Obama's a Muslim, refusing to swear on the Bible, and that he's the Anti-Christ, the Master Rapper Seducing America."

In poorer areas, where babies have babies, most of the kids to whom I talked had no intention of voting. (As one totally stoned guy behind the wheel of a Chevy said, "My mama vote. I don't vote. He'll win any way.") On the other hand, as another mother stressed, I was there before noon on a day with no school and most young people were not up yet. She assured me, "Oh absolutely. They'll vote."

Parents from one end of the city to another were not willing to leave that to chance.

In the racially-mixed working class South End, at the poll in Middle Creek Elementary, where the canon on a WWI tank points directly at you as you drive into the school grounds, the early line was fifty percent youth vote and, later, young people who were reluctant were being dragged to the polls by their parents. Robert Peoples said, "I told my 22-year-old daughter, 'You better get your young butt over here!' "

A woman inside the largely white East End polling area where I voted (not allowed to act as a reporter within a polling area, I won't use her name) said, "My mother had a fourth grade education; my father an eighth grade education and they never told us how powerful voting is. My own kids who are in college and when they did not get absentee ballots, I made them come home to vote. One said "What if I don't care who wins?' and I said, 'It's an historic day and you are going to want to tell your grandkids you were there." Not all new voters are young. She added, "My brother is 60 years old, was in Vietnam, and he is voting for the first time," She is for Obama; he is voting McCain.

Glorious autumn weather, hope, pride and fear are bringing hundreds of thousands of people out in Louisville, the anchor city of a region that takes in southern (swing state) Indiana and north central (red state) Kentucky. Kentucky and Indiana will be among the first states to report their totals tonight. In southern Indiana, it's sometimes been a bit nasty during campaigning. (One Obama canvasser reported having a dog set on her and another said that, trying to distribute literature to Obama people, she knocked on the wrong door and a McCain supporter told her to get off the porch or she'd be shot.) None of that is evident this afternoon. People are voting their beliefs, not slugging it out, which arguably is the miracle of democracy.

Kentucky's voting technique is sensible, using paper ballots (which leave a trail) marked by soft pencils (no hanging chads) tabulated instantly as they are fed into a machine. Folks were camped out by 4 am in some places on the Kentucky side, but their lines have been moving quickly and smoothly all day, even in the Zorn area, where voters were reportedly clogging the road and parking in the median Forgetting poll etiquette, friends and strangers are calling back and forth from the lines, hugging, whispering "historic day." As a Shively woman said with a pleased smile, "You'd think they were giving out something free, so many people are here!"