THE BLOG
11/13/2012 05:59 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Why I Drove Two Ex-Cons to the Polls on Election Day

While most might remember November 6, 2012 as the day Barack Obama won his reelection, I will always think of it as the day I drove two ex-convicts to the polls.

Prior to Election Day, my participation in the the Obama campaign was nearly non-existent. Aside from a FORWARD magnet on the fridge and a couple clicks of the Quick Donate button in those emails from Sarah Jessica Parker and Beyonce, my contribution was minimal at best. As November drew close, it was guilt that incited me to take the 6th off of work and volunteer to Get Out the Vote. After all, as an original Oregonian now living in Cincinnati, Ohio, this was my first election experience in which my voted counted for more than predestined points in a Democrat's pocket.

At 8am I arrived at rugged recreation center in Hamilton County. Organizers ushered me into "the bullpen" -- a repurposed pre-school classroom with a color wheel and cursive letters plastered on the well-worn walls--where we recited the day's script:

"Hello, is __________ home? My name is __________, and I'm a volunteer with Organize for America, President' Obama's re-election campaign. Can the President count on your vote today?"

Armed with a clipboard and turf packet -- which listed the individuals and addresses I was entrusted with persuading to participate in the democratic process -- I plunged into nearby neighborhoods. If a sampling of the local litter paints a portrait of these neighborhoods, then infer what you will from the discarded condom wrappers and crushed cans of Natty Ice abandoned on the asphalt. But the number of people who had already voted, or who were grateful to be pointed to a polling place, made the ding of every doorbell worthwhile.

About an hour from poll closing, a friend and I approached the end of our last turf packet. With the sun now set, we huddled under a street lamp to look over the last 10 names. Because they all shared the same address, we assumed we were looking for an apartment complex, yet no individual unit numbers were provided. All became clear as we turned the corner and found ourselves in front of one of a halfway house -- a facility designed to integrate ex-offenders back into the community. Intent on attaching as many names as possible to the Obama ticket, we entered.

At the front desk, after browsing our list of names, an orderly informed us that a confidentiality agreement prevented the center from disclosing the whereabouts of any specific individual. However, they were willing to hold a campus-wide announcement: "For those registered to vote, two gentlemen have arrived to escort you to the polls." As the voice of the orderly blared over the sound system, we were shown into a large conference room with the word FORGIVENESS printed on the wall whiteboard. Soon residents started to file in, one with gold incisors, another with a Tyson-esque tattoo circumventing his eye socket. My friend frantically used his phone to confirm their registration on the Hamilton County Board of Elections website, while I asked each tenant for a driver's license, paycheck or utility bill showing their name and address.

Unfortunately, many of the men were on "transitional control," a program instated by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in which an inmate is released to a community supervised location for the final 180 days of their prison sentence. According to the orderly, this meant they were still considered inmates and thus couldn't vote. Disappointed, many of the men retreated back into the common room to play ping-pong and watch CNN.

Frankly, their sadness was a surprise. As men who colored outside the lines of the law, I unfairly assumed that they lacked any passion for presidential politics. As a Get Out the Vote volunteer, I'd simply seen them as two more ticks under the President's name. I had expected to walk a herd of apathetic offenders to the polls, persuading them to vote Obama on the way. But these guys really, sincerely cared. They wanted to vote. To them, part of rejoining society meant participating in society. And here I had been, falsely inflating their hopes for my own purposes without fully understanding the Ohio legal system. My ignorance made for a shameful epiphany.

Out of the entire crowd of cons, only two qualified: the burly Forte, who wore a plaid shirt and had to first confirm permission with his parole officer, and the equally hulking Hopper, with a tightly trimmed goatee and his name inked onto his knuckles. After they signed out, Hopper and Forte piled into the back of my battered Buick and we drove them to their polling place -- the dim recreation room of a United Church of Christ about a mile away, where we waited outside the door as they entered the voting booth.

After casting their ballots, each man offered a firm handshake and a sincere statement of gratitude. For a moment it seemed as if we'd caught democracy in a bottle.

Later that night, at a tavern packed to capacity with young progressives, the crowd convulsed with joy as NBC called Ohio for Barack Obama, thus winning him a second term. Hamilton County had gone blue for only the third time in history, with 405,000 total votes cast. Each one representing an individual, important, equal voice.