PUSH volunteers keep watchful eyes on polling places and voters on election day

Volunteers staff the phone bank at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition's Election Central.

By Nia Prater and Yu-Ning Aileen Chuang

As C. Betty Magness, Illinois political director for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, worked the election hotline on the third floor of the organization’s headquarters Tuesday, a call came in on her cell phone that took her by surprise.

It was her son, who said he had been turned away from his polling place because officials there claimed he’d already voted.

Magness sprang into action. She spurred her son on with the same words of advice that she gives when appearing on talk radio shows to educate voters about their rights.

“If they tell you you have to vote by provisional ballot, do not accept it,” she told her son. “Insist that they double check their records and make sure that they are correct. Never leave the polling place, and if you have a problem with the ballot, never leave the booth. Call for a judge. Raise your hand. Yell, scream, whatever.”

Magness is part of the corps of people who assembled at PUSH on Tuesday in what they termed “Election Central,” a command center staffed with volunteers available to handle immediate problems voters encountered and answer any of their questions about voting. Rainbow/PUSH, a Chicago-based organization founded by Rev. Jesse Jackson, has been reaching out to the community throughout the election season. They also maintained a hotline that was open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on election day.

As the day progressed, volunteers reached out to some voters – particularly the elderly – and took calls from others. “This is their organization,” said Magness, who has worked with the Rev. Jackson since 1968. “They’re comfortable calling us and asking us. They feel like they can ask us any questions. We’re not too proud to answer them.”

They also provided drivers to take voters who needed assistance to their polling locations. The election-day rides are a long-time PUSH tradition and, in the past, has enlisted a wide range of volunteer drivers. Magness recalled that in the “Obama years” — 2008 and 2012 – a local funeral home donated cars to accommodate the number of people who wanted to vote for the first black president.

“Many older people do not believe in early voting,” she said. “They don’t trust it even though it’s like a tried-and-true kind of thing. They only vote on Election Day. You know, it’s in their heads. That’s the day you vote.”

Rainbow/PUSH also had a group of attorneys on stand-by who volunteered to assist with any calls involving the possible infringement of voting rights. When Magness realized the troubles her son was having, she consulted one of those lawyers: Harriet Parker.

“So, whenever I get a problem like that, I refer to one of the attorneys,” Magness said.

By 9:30 Tuesday morning, Parker had already fielded five calls about issues voters were having at the polls, ranging from problems with ballots to problems with voting machines. The calls made Parker suspicious about what was happening in local polling places.

“There’s a lot of hanky-panky going on,” she said.

Parker personally assessed the case of Magness’ son, who ended up filing a provisional ballot. A provisional ballot is filed when a voter’s eligibility is questioned. The ballots are then studied by a judge to determine whether the individual’s vote was valid.

Not soon after addressing the voting issues of the Magness family, another call came into the office, this one from a woman who said the electronic machine where she voted did not show her the choices for local offices, only for the national races.

Parker quickly wrote down the woman’s information and left for the polling place. She returned a hour later with an update. The woman had been offered a paper ballot, but refused. She did end up logging her vote on the machine and reported the issue after the fact. Parker reached out to election officials to make sure that particular voting machine was pulled.

“She was able to provisionally vote,” Parker said. “That’s what took so long — long paper ballot.”

Even though some issues during the day were resolved over the phone, being able to dispatch volunteers to help on site helps.

“It makes all the differences in the world,” Parker said.

When asked why she is devoting her time to this type of work, Parker answered easily.

“If we don’t protect the vote, who’s gonna protect the vote?”

Photo at top: Volunteers staff the phone bank at the headquarters of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition’s Election Central. (courtesy of PUSH/Rainbow Coalition)