A Vote to Remember
Kenyon's election fever culminates in epic waits at the polls, inspiring admiration around the country
It was a fierce campaign, an election watched intently all over the world. On Election Day, the key battleground was Ohio, whose twenty electoral votes would decide the outcome.
And in Ohio, the most extraordinary place on Tuesday, November 2, 2004, turned out to be a tiny college town where the students, many of them first-time voters, waited up to eleven hours to cast their ballots--cheerful, patient, determined, and increasingly aware, as night dragged into morning, that they were writing a small chapter in political history.
The place, of course, was Gambier, where the Kenyon student turnout overwhelmed the two available voting machines, so that the polls couldn't close until nearly 4:00 a.m. on Wednesday--the last voting precinct in the Eastern time zone to shut its doors. The national media, meanwhile, which were closely watching the presidential race in Ohio, had picked up the Kenyon story, thanks in part to students with cell phones. Just as Ohio was becoming not only the climactic story of the night but also a metaphor for the intensity of the campaign, so was Kenyon emerging as not only a newsworthy part of the drama but also a symbol of civic commitment.
"I didn't understand the importance of my single vote," Tad Gruman '08 told a reporter on ABC's World News Tonight. "In the future, I will never take it for granted." ABC chose to end its newscast the day after the election with the Kenyon story, which anchor Peter Jennings introduced as a slice of election-night life that offered the country "a little genuine inspiration."
The perseverance of Kenyon students--and the community spirit of their peers and professors, who shuttled voters to the polls and brought snacks and drinks to those waiting in line--would be mentioned in news outlets ranging from the New York Times to the BBC. Kenyon students were quoted in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and many other papers. Others were interviewed on programs such as National Public Radio's All Things Considered, The Today Show, and Good Morning America. An Associated Press story appeared around the country and was picked up as far away as Australia. Alumni, parents, and perfect strangers were sending e-mails to the College expressing their pride and admiration.
"Bravo!" read the messages. "Hats off!" Many echoed the words of Cooper Schenck Munroe '88, who wrote: "I have never been prouder of Kenyon."
It was perhaps inevitable that the campus would become so engaged in the election, given the issues at stake, the polarization of the country, and the pervasiveness of campaign coverage. Nationwide, passions ran high among the supporters of both President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. A steady stream of polls showed the candidates running neck and neck. Moreover, Ohio was continually in the news as a critical swing state, targeted by both parties as essential to success.
A number of students had spent their summers working for one of the campaigns. John Ziegler, for example, a senior political-science major from Oak Park, Illinois, worked at Kerry headquarters in Washington. Philip Cooke, a senior biology major from Crofton, Maryland, helped prepare New York's Madison Square Garden for the Republican National Convention.
First-year students arriving in Gambier in late August found that Orientation included not just the usual rites of passage but also a voter-registration drive. It was organized by Ellery Biddle '05, an English and Spanish major from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who urged fellow students to do more than trade "passive-aggressive" e-mail tirades on the campus computer network.
It was impossible to escape politics as the semester proceeded. Campus speakers included John Agresto, a former Kenyon political-science professor who had served as the chief higher-education advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and Christian Brose '02, a speechwriter for Secretary of State Colin Powell. Faculty members volunteered to speak at panel discussions on the election, which were well attended. Two student publications, theKenyon Observer and the Voice, devoted special issues to the election. In early October, first-year student Mike Frick, a former Oklahoma state debating champion, was asked to critique the performance of Dick Cheney and John Edwards in their vice-presidential debate for the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
Meanwhile, bumper stickers and posters proliferated. E-mail in-boxes filled daily with messages of exhortation. Register to vote. Check out this Web link . . . attached article . . . cartoon . . . editorial . . . speech. Kerry is holding another rally in Ohio; who needs a ride?
Most of those speaking out on campus did in fact favor the Democratic candidate and criticize the president, often scathingly. While President Bush certainly had his supporters, they were far less visible. Indeed, Gambier would eventually give 90 percent of its votes to Kerry.
One of the most vehemently discussed issues at the College involved voting itself. Thanks to Biddle's registration drive, as well as a continual flow of encouragement and information from a number of faculty members and other students, a good many Kenyon students originally from out-of-state homes were declaring residency in Gambier and registering to vote in Ohio.
When one campus speaker and a College official seemed to challenge the Gambier registrations, they were accused of spreading distortions and inaccuracies about Ohio's election law in an effort to intimidate prospective new voters. (The law, while complex, does allow students originally from other states to register in Ohio.) Arguments, accusations, and clarifications flew across cyberspace, until President S. Georgia Nugent finally stepped in with an e-mail message affirming that Kenyon's "only official position" was to encourage students to vote and referring the campus community to two authoritative Web sites on the state's election laws.
The controversy resulted in a redoubling of get-out-the-vote efforts and an even greater saturation of the campus in election news and views. "It was impossible to be a student at Kenyon without reading about the election and talking about it with your friends," Biddle would reflect later. "In the week preceding the election, it seemed like that was the only thing anyone could really focus on."
As Election Day neared, students posted sample ballots in the dining halls, and faculty members sent out copies of the Ohio Voters Bill of Rights as a way of arming students with information in case they were challenged at the polls.
The Collegian predicted that on November 2, Ohio, "this swingingest of swing states," was "sure to be a circus."
Well, it was and it wasn't.
By the time the polls opened at 6:30 a.m., forty to fifty people were already in line at the Gambier Community Center on Meadow Lane, where the Gambier precinct votes. By 10:00 a.m., according to Biddle, "word had gotten out that lines were long, and the campus seemed to have emptied itself" into the community center. President Nugent e-mailed the faculty, alerting them to the delays and asking them to take into consideration the fact that if students missed class, it might be because they were waiting to vote.
In a typical presidential election, only six to seven hundred people vote in Gambier, according to Pamela Hinkens, director of the Knox County Board of Elections. But this time, around 1,100 voters turned out. Of the approximately 1,300 voters who had registered in the precinct, about a third were Kenyon students, by Biddle's estimate.
The county provided only two voting machines for each of its fifty-six precincts. And in Gambier, one of those machines was malfunctioning during the morning. Gambier residents, used to waiting no more than fifteen minutes to vote, were waiting for four, six, nine hours. "I've spent more time voting today than I've spent voting in my whole life," resident (and former Kenyon dean) Susan Givens told the Collegian.
The students generally allowed older village residents to move to the front of the line. But that didn't affect the overall pace. By 7:30 p.m., the official closing time for the polls in Ohio, the line still stretched out into the parking lot. Officials distributed "Authority to Vote" cards to everyone still in line at that time. By then, only 650 people had voted.
The students waiting in line did homework, watched movies on laptop computers, listened to music, and occasionally sang. Pizza, candy, and drinks were brought throughout the afternoon and evening, courtesy of the Knox County Democrats, Student Council, the Middle Ground Café, the American Federation of Government Employees, and others. Volunteer drivers took voters to and from the polls, using vans provided by the College's security office.
"It's ridiculous and fabulous at the same time," Sara Murdock, a senior from Newton, Massachusetts, told the Collegian. Annie Lambla, a sophomore from Charlotte, North Carolina, told the student newspaper: "Of course we were frustrated because it took a long time, but we were all there together and it's a historic day, and we were doing something important."
Students used their cell phones to call their parents as well as the hotlines of various news organizations, and early in the evening reporters and television crews began arriving to report on what was thought to be the longest line at any Ohio polling site. As a result, alumni around the country who were watching election-night coverage found themselves hearing the words "Knox County, Ohio," grinning in recognition, and then cheering when the next phrase mentioned Kenyon.
At 2:00 a.m., there still were more than one hundred voters in line. As they emerged, one by one, from the community center, they were greeted by whoops and applause from fellow students. The last finally left at 3:56 a.m.
The next day, President Nugent sent out an all-campus e-mail message of congratulations and thanks. The Kenyon community "showed the nation how much it means for individual citizens to vote," she wrote. "Last night, Kenyon served as a national model of participation in the electoral process by young people."
A similar message, sent to alumni and parents, elicited dozens of responses, many from people who had heard some of the students in television or radio interviews and were impressed by their eloquence. A few complained about liberal bias at the College or the registration of out-of-state students. Some echoed local critics who blamed election officials for failing to note the high number of registrations and provide more voting machines. Most, however, expressed pride and gratitude, along with enthusiasm about the widespread attention Kenyon was receiving.
In all, the College received more than eighty messages. A number of parents observed that their children would remember this profound civic experience for the rest of their lives.
That experience may be preserved in the College's archives. Visiting Assistant Professor of English Sarah J. Heidt '97 had noticed many students taking pictures of the crowds on Election Day. She issued a call for photos and other memories for an "I Voted Today Project" documenting the event.
Looking back a week after the vote, observers agreed that something important had happened at Kenyon, not only on Election Day but throughout the fall. Pamela Jensen, professor of political science, remarked on the "harmony of interest" on campus--a heightened awareness of issues and an eagerness for information and involvement. She was struck by "the resolve and civic engagement" of the faculty members and students who led the get-out-the-vote effort.
"Kenyon students do not shoot first and ask questions later," she added. "In the end, partisan interests are trumped by the sense that participation in the process is the most important thing."
Even critics had praise. Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann felt that the voter-registration drive on campus was a "political scheme" by Kerry supporters, but he was pleased to see that it "turned fortuitously into a wonderful student celebration of civic participation."
And what about apathy? "That was clearly not the case for this election, nor do I think it's true more generally," wrote Associate Professor of Political Science Stephen Van Holde. "Students may have been apathetic five or ten years ago; they are no longer."
In a message to President Nugent, Molly Farrell '02 noted, "people used to complain that we lived in the Kenyon bubble, that we were too apathetic about the world because we were so removed from it." Farrell, who is now a production assistant for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, went on, "I always knew that wasn't the case. Our small community encourages dialogue . . . and what is the political process--at its best--but dialogue in action?"
"Thanks, Kenyon," she said, "for giving me hope."
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