When 50-year-old Leon Batts walks up to his Harlem polling place on November 2, 2004, he is brimming with excitement at the prospect of casting his first vote ever. Leon, a character in Election Day, the latest documentary from Big Mouth Films and Arts Engine, dreams aloud that his will be a deciding vote. For Leon, however, his is a dream deferred. He has never voted because he believed that his prior felony conviction prohibited him from doing so. In the summer of 2004 he learned that New York State automatically restores the voting rights of ex-felons who have completed parole. With this newfound knowledge he registers to vote a week before the deadline and walks up the elementary school on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.
When Leon gets to the table, he discovers that his name is not on the voter list and he must vote on an affidavit ballot (known in other states as a provisional ballot). He wonders how he will know if his vote counted or not. "So, do I get a receipt or what?" he asks. "Yes, you get a receipt," jokes the good-natured pollworker. "That's my handshake." Months later, Leon receives a letter from the Board of Elections telling him that his registration was never processed; therefore his vote didn't count.
Leon's story offers a window onto two major kinds of flaws in the American electoral system.
1. Bad Laws
Laws governing the enfranchisement of felons and ex-felons vary from one state to the next. Kentucky and Virginia effectively prohibit ex-felons from voting for the rest of their lives, while in Maine and Vermont inmates can vote from their cells. Voting is defined in the Constitution as a federal civil right, but is parceled out on a state-by-state basis when it comes to citizens who've served time.
2. Bad practice
Even in cases in which the system allegedly works, the devil is in the details. The influx in new voter registrations in 2004 overwhelmed many local boards of election, with no backup system in place to protect the individual's right to register and vote.
The theme of bad laws and bad practice came up numerous times throughout the process of making Election Day. When we dispatched 14 camera crews across the country on November 2, 2004, we didn't know what we would find. We simply wanted to get at some of the stories of the electorate that didn't make it onto the evening news.
What we found was a collection of highly energized voters, passionate about making the most of their most fundamental democratic right. Anything but apathetic, our subjects were driven by a desire to make a difference. They are a truly inspirational bunch. However, the mixed results of their efforts illustrate the human face of American both electoral vitality and dysfunction.
While there were differences in ideology between the Republicans and Democrats we followed, neither red nor blue voter encountered a fully functional electoral system. An underdog Republican pollwatcher in Chicago found a ballot machine that was recording votes incorrectly. An international election observer from Australia looked on as poor, largely Democratic voters in St. Louis waited in line for two hours. She then traveled to a wealthier suburban neighborhood where the voters managed to get in and out in 20 minutes.
The obstacles faced by the characters in Election Day illustrate the problems that exist on a macro level with our election system. Our film turns its lens away from the heat of the horserace between the candidates to focus on the individual voter, whose story can tell us much more about the health of our democracy than we learn from the pundit analysis of the latest campaign ad on YouTube. Until the electorate demands that our party leaders make true electoral reform central to each of their platforms, we will continue to see elections bedeviled by bad laws and bad practice.
Election Day is the closing night film of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. June 27th at 1:30pm and 6:30pm; June 28th at 9:00pm. Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, 165 W. 65th Street, New York. Buy tickets online here.